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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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Two weeks ago Mr. Ahr Mahn asked President Thein the opening question at Myanmar’s first-ever presidential news conference. “Do you plan to tell parliament how much you are spending on the Kachin conflict?” he asked. The question, relating to an ethnic separatist conflict in northern Myanmar, would have been unthinkable in the past. The press conference was broadcast on Up To Date, Myanmar’s first independent television news channel.

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Still, the limits of Myanmar’s new-found media freedoms have yet to be strenuously tested for an extended period. There will be plenty of opportunity in the near future, as the thornier aspects of peacemaking, constitutional changes, and the promise of a new media law take center stage. The media must be allowed to cover these in full and to represent all ethnic voices in the process.

For now, the reforms and the apparent end of censorship have unleashed a veritable media gold rush in Myanmar. In the coming months, the government will license the country’s first daily newspapers. Independent television and radio stations will follow. The government needs to ensure that the regulatory process is simple and transparent so that media ownership does not concentrate in the hands of a few crony businessmen.

The price of a mobile phone SIM card has dropped from $3,000 to $200. In a country with fewer cell phones than North Korea, telecom liberalization will lower the cost even further and bring Internet connectivity to the 98 percent without it. A population that has lived with no independent news media of any kind will now have access to information and will have a voice – the foundations of a civil society.

Mr. Obama should push to continue this wave of democratic reforms by highlighting the urgent need for free and open media to reach all parts of the country, particularly vast swaths where people have no access to newspapers, radio, or television in their own languages.

Many who have suffered under Myanmar’s ugly dictatorship remain skeptical about the ultimate outcome of the reforms, but there is also a growing respect for the new president and the political risk he has taken to come this far. Many people I spoke to from across the political spectrum believe he represents Myanmar’s best hope of lifting the country out of its long nightmare. One prominent critic of the former military regime described what she had seen when she accompanied the families of the first political prisoners to be released. As their loved ones walked free, the families raised their fists in the air and shouted, “Long live the president.”

David Hoffman is the founder and CEO of Internews, which has been training Burmese and ethnic minority journalists in Myanmar and in exile since 2001.


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