Myanmar's opening to the outside world and the country's tentative steps from military rule to democracy has captivated many observers of the region. But Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese journalist pushing for democratic change, warns that the image of rapid reform does not necessarily match reality these days.
“What we see now is serious backsliding,” Zaw told a packed house at the Bechtel Conference Center on March 6. “The changes have become more superficial; the changes are not real.”
Zaw, the founding editor of The Irrawaddy newsmagazine, delivered these remarks at Stanford upon receiving the Shorenstein Journalism Award. This annual award is conferred upon a journalist who promotes mutual understanding between the U.S. and Asia, and also honors Asian journalists who have been at the forefront of the effort to create an independent media in the Asia-Pacific.
Zaw joined scholars Donald K. Emmerson and Daniel C. Sneider from the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Yale University’s Nayan Chanda at a lunchtime panel discussion of the question – “Burma's Democracy: How Real?”
Zaw, who was forced into exile after the abortive democratic revolt of 1988, described Myanmar’s dynamic history as “up and down.” During the long period of military rule in the country, “Burma was a pariah,” he observed. The military government repressed all opposition, enriching itself while Burma slide into deep poverty, while the country was largely cut off from the outside world except for a trickle of tourists. But the regime made a clear decision to open the doors to the outside and, in response to international and domestic pressure, take tentative steps toward political change, including releasing political prisoners and allowing the media to operate more freely.
The panelists agreed that the uprisings within Burma, such as the Buddhist monk led revolt in 2007, and the leadership of Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi pushed the regime toward change. In addition, Chanda and Emmerson pointed to the geopolitics of Burma, the desire of the regime to free itself from isolation and dependence only on China and North Korea as backers.
Zaw credited these changes with bringing some semblance of “communal balance” to the society. Emmerson argued, however, that the West has colored their view of Burma with a romantic notion of democratization that tends to overlook the still tentative, and somewhat transient, nature of the changes to date.
“The regime has carefully manipulated… international [public] opinion in trying to open the doors to the international community,” Zaw said. Especially in the past year, there have been efforts by the government to curb public protest and censorship has become pervasive once again. A commentary piece written by Zaw provides an analysis of the contemporary media environment in Myanmar.
The panel members pointed in particular to the rise of tensions between the Buddhist Burmese majority and ethnic and religious minorities in the country. In particular, they expressed concern over the discrimination against and violence suffered by minority Muslims, the ethnic Rohingya who live along the border with Bangladesh, often taking place with the complicity of government officials, or at least with their indifference. They suggested the government played upon anti-Muslim feelings to boost its popularity among the majority Buddhist populace.
With elections looming in 2015, the government may now feel it has been “moving too fast” toward reform and begun to ratchet back, warned Zaw. Conservative factions in Myanmar’s leadership who fear losing power may be gaining influence.
Nayan Chanda, the former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a previous recipient of the Shorenstein Award, pointed to Myanmar’s long tradition of despotism. “Burmese rulers have had a way of governing the country that is still present among the generals we see in Burma today,” he said.
Emmerson focused his remarks on the significance of the changes in Burma to American foreign policy in the region. The Burmese shift away from Chinese domination and its opening to the West has been seen as a key part of the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia and its attempts to balance Chinese influence in East Asia. These changes allowed Myanmar to assume its role as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an annual rotation in leadership. But it is far from clear if the Burmese leadership is prepared to go toward a deeper democratic transformation. The upcoming presidential elections in 2015 remain an uncertainty. Aung San Suu Kyi is still constitutionally barred from running for president but she has been allowed to resume a powerful role in the system itself, no longer simply a “Joan of Arc” symbol of purity sitting on the outside.
In all this, the role of a free press in Burma is even more vital than ever. After his arrest in 1988 for his role in the uprising against General Ne Win’s regime, Zaw had to flee to neighboring Thailand where he has spent 25 years in exile. Zaw created The Irrawaddy, an émigré-based publication that is widely acclaimed for its on-the-ground analysis of Myanmar. In 2012, the publication reopened offices in Burma.
The Irrawaddy’s diverse contributors offer an independent platform to unravel the complex developments within the country. The Shorenstein Award given to Zaw recognizes his history of leadership as a journalist in Burma.
“It is very exciting for us this year to give this award to Aung Zaw,” said Sneider, a member of the jury that selects the awardees. “He has been intimately involved in the process of not only creating independent media for Burma but also in the process of independent change itself, starting with his own activism in the 1980s.”
Zaw received the award at a dinner ceremony later on March 6 attended by students, faculty and prominent members of the Stanford community. “I feel very humbled,” Zaw told the Voice of America in an interview. “It is an acknowledgement to our work, our commitment and our independent journalism as we try to make things different [in Myanmar].”
The video and transcript of the event, and the original press release on Zaw being named the 2013 Award recipient are posted below.
An article was published by The Irrawaddy on Zaw’s acceptance of the award. Interviews conducted with Voice of America's Kyaw Zan Thaw in Burmese and Kaye Lin in English aired internationally on March 13 and are posted below. An interview was also conducted with LinkAsia and is scheduled to air in the upcoming week and will be subsequently posted online.