Francis Wade is a journalist and the author of “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and The Making of a Muslim ‘Other.’ “
For years, Burma’s state-run media viciously denounced Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet this week, the country’s de facto leader endorsed the very organizations that led the charge, declaring that anyone eager to understand the government should “read the newspapers and listen to the news. .. released by the government.” Her statement echoed the commands of the military junta that ruled before her, but it was not altogether out of character. Burma’s civilian government has increasingly cracked down on independent journalists and activists, dispelling hopes that the democratic transition would break the military’s oppressive style of rule.
Since the National League for Democracy (NLD), the erstwhile figurehead of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, took power in April 2016, a puzzling paradox has emerged. At least 80 people have been arrested under the archaic Telecommunications Law that restricts free speech online – a leap from the seven cases filed under the military-backed government. The recent arrest of prominent journalist Swe Win on accusations of defaming a firebrand anti-Muslim monk adds to a growing fear that as the transition advances, media freedom is conversely being tightened.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government faces a daunting task in wresting ownership of the government from a military that retains considerable power. Yet, among those arrested are critics of the NLD itself. This raises serious questions about the country’s democratic transition. Under military rule, the party campaigned relentlessly to limit the military’s role in political life. But now, factions of the party appear to be aligned with the army’s zero-tolerance position on public dissent.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the party’s crackdown on the free press. In late June, three local journalists were arrested and charged under the Unlawful Associations Act — a law that was often used by the military to arbitrarily imprison dissidents and members of ethnic opposition groups — for reporting on a drug-burning ceremony by a rebel army. The NLD could have taken the military to task on this issue, highlighting the fact that similar ceremonies have been attended over the years by generals, U.N. officials and foreign diplomats and that dozens of interlocutors of various stripes have met with armed groups during recent cease-fire talks.
But it didn’t. Under pressure to explain the arrests, Aung San Suu Kyi deflected, arguing that it was a matter for the courts and not the government. Aung San Suu Kyi knows, however, that the court system remains beholden to the military and is unlikely to defend the free press. Then, when the U.N. special rapporteur on Burma, Yanghee Lee, tried to visit the town where the journalists are being held, she was denied access. The government justified the decision on the grounds that it disagreed with Lee’s end-of-mission statement, which was critical of the country’s human rights record. It also threatened to deny visas to a U.N. fact-finding mission charged with looking into military abuses against ethnic minorities — yet another indication of its intolerance of negative press.
The NLD’s actions are particularly disappointing because its ranks are populated by hundreds of luminaries of the pro-democracy movement who spent years behind bars for doing exactly what this new crop of political prisoners is doing: calling out the shortcomings of authority in Burma and illuminating critical issues — military abuse, corruption and so forth — that affect the country’s most vulnerable. The NLD’s inability (or unwillingness) to engage with criticism of its handling of the transition is fundamentally at odds with the promise of pluralistic change that gained the party such overwhelming support just over a year ago.
Analysts have spoken of the trade-offs the government needs to make to persuade the military to open itself to reform. There is some truth in that. And, indeed, there are some in the NLD who oppose the party’s stance on free speech and are seeking ways to revise the law. Yet the refusal to condemn the jailing of its own critics reflects a deeper problem. Authoritarianism, if left to develop long enough, can produce a culture that envelops even those who outwardly resist it.
This paradox has left the country’s political landscape as uncertain as ever. In Burma today, the uncertainty over what lines can and cannot be crossed is breeding a culture of fear that is entirely antithetical to the democratic compact. “Without a revolution of the spirit,” Aung San Suu Kyi once said, “the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.” Today, it seems, the momentum toward that goal is being compromised by the very same party that once championed that revolution.