Obama is right to visit Myanmar (Burma)
The apparent end of censorship has unleashed a veritable media gold rush in Myanmar (Burma). On his visit there, President Obama should encourage the country's wave of democratic reforms by highlighting the urgent need for free and open media to reach all parts of the country.
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In truth, Myanmar, under President Thein Sein, is embarking on one of the most rapid and radical democratic transformations of any country in modern history. Once skeptical, I returned from Myanmar this week stunned by the breadth of democratic changes happening across the political, media, and economic landscape. President Obama’s advisers have rightly judged that a top-down democratic revolution is underway in a country known for its brutal crackdown on nonviolent protests by its revered Buddhist monks just five years ago.
In February 2008, the ruling junta put forth a new constitution that offered limited civilian rule. Few took it seriously. But there began to be hints that the military junta was prepared to take real steps toward democratic reform. In 2010, the junta freed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, from 15 years of house arrest and released hundreds of other political prisoners.
At the end of March 2011, a former general, Thein Sein, was sworn in as Myanmar’s first non-interim civilian president in almost 50 years. The right to unionize was legalized in principle and opposition political parties were allowed to compete in elections. Currency reform was introduced and the parliament passed a remarkably liberal direct foreign investment law. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi declared that the country was “on the verge of a breakthrough to democracy.”
The question on most Burmese minds now is whether these democratic reforms are real and irreversible. There are encouraging signs as the governing party broke ranks recently and joined with the opposition to impeach the justices of the Constitutional Court, a united front of all the civilian parties. It was a stunning loss for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi secretly rushed to see President Thein to assure him this was not the first step in a revolt whose next act would be to impeach him.
A litmus test of democratic reforms will be the regime’s commitment to a free and open media. For decades, information from inside Myanmar came from journalists operating underground who smuggled their tapes and stories to the international media. Most people inside Myanmar lived in total information darkness. Then in August, the government stunned journalists with an announcement that it was putting an end to press censorship. Cautiously at first, journalists began to test the limits of official tolerance, but are apparently finding no resistance. The information ministry even asked a newly formed independent press council to draft the country’s new media law.
I asked Ahr Mahn, the 30-year-old executive editor of 7 Day News, the largest independent news weekly in the country, what the new limits were. “There are no red lines,” he said.