Last week a military coup overthrew the government in Myanmar, imprisoning the elected leaders and restricting access to independent information to the public and citizens. Fojo talked to a media professional living in Yangon (the largest city in Myanmar), about how the situation is unfolding.
What is the atmosphere in Yangon like?
”Everywhere you look, Yangon is full of people. There’s a human current flowing from different places to two main central points: one in downtown Yangon and the other in Hledan junction. There are people all day, mostly young people. Every 8 pm we light candles and bang pots from our apartment windows – people believe it drives the evil way. It’s getting louder each night.
Journalist and media used to be targets under the previous military rule. How have they reacted since the coup?
“Everything is confusing at the moment, and it’s hard to predict what will happen next. Plenty of rumours are floating around that they will attack media. Some journalists have gone underground out of fear and because of the uncertain future.”
“The state-owned TV is spreading fake news that everything is normal, for example showing people doing exercises in the park in the mornings, but that’s totally different from the reality, as one can see on photos, videos and lives on social media. Tens of thousands of people are in the streets demonstrating, asking for their rights. Independent and international media are reporting on that.”
Social media have an important place in the Myanmar media landscape. What is happening on social media platforms in reaction to the coup?
“Social media and especially Facebook play a major role for communication between communities. People have started a civil disobedience movement via Facebook which has gone viral. They ask government staff to participate in the movement, and not show up at work. Internet was cut on 6 February when the protests started, but we got it back 26 hours later. People are also moving to Twitter as they believe it’s an effective way to let the world hear the voice of Myanmar. For security purpose, people have started downloading and using chat apps such as Signal and Telegram.“
How do you think the media will be affected by the military coup?
“So far, the new Minister of Information hasn’t announced any regulations in terms of censorship or press freedom.”
How do you feel in the midst of this?
“I’ve had eight nights lacking sleep, being overwhelmed with sadness, anger and worries. And at the same time reminding people to be careful, since we don’t know what will happen next.”
As this article was being edited, the military announced a nationwide curfew from 20pm to 4am with immediate effect. Furthermore, a ban on all gatherings of more than five people in public spaces at any time of the day are now prohibited.
Myanmar: 10 years of progress in media development in danger
Ten years ago, Myanmar had one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes. The only existing free and independent media worked in exile outside the country.
Here’s how the media development has been the last decade:
Myanmar went through historic changes and took important steps in its transition towards democratic governance and positive media development during a short time span.
The government adopts a new constitution in May. Despite the fact that the constitution allocates a quarter of seats in the parliament to the military, it is a landmark step in Myanmar’s democratic transition.
The first general elections are held in November. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claims victory but continues towards a path of democratic reforms.
International Media Support (IMS), with support from the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian governments, is invited by the Myanmar government and Ministry of Information to assist in developing media development reforms.
The censorship board is dissolved and pre-censorship abolished. As a result, Myanmar sees the arrival of more than 400 dailies, weeklies and monthlies in the media market before the end of 2013. Fojo Media Institute starts working in Myanmar, together with IMS.
The News Media Law creates an independent oversight body, the Myanmar Press Council, to regulate the news media. The government generally lightens its control over the media. The Press Council does not immediately meet international standards but nevertheless enables important steps for media development in the country. This is exemplified by developing a code of ethics for journalists, which is promoted across the country. Furthermore, three institutions are open with support from IMS-Fojo: Myanmar Journalism Institute – the first private journalism school in Myanmar – and Myanmar Journalist Network and Myanmar Journalist Association, which both work to defend media rights.
On 8 November, Myanmar holds its first open national election in 25 years. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) win a landslide victory mainly against the ex-military dominated USDP. Yet, with a guarantee of 25 percent of seats in Parliament and a thereby de facto veto over any Constitutional amendments, the military remains in a position of power that makes it difficult for the civilian government to manoeuvre. The perception among many is that the country is ruled by two different, and often rivalling, governments – a civilian and a military.
Where the transition government used media to accelerate democratic reform, the new democratically-elected government slows down on media development initiatives. The old military regime’s political and administrative systems are not easily transformed, and the new bureaucracy has little capacity for working through complex policy problems.
Simultaneously, social media, especially Facebook, are taking Myanmar by storm. The Facebook app comes pre-installed on new phones and many people in Myanmar understand Facebook to be the internet. The new platform provides a space for disseminating news and facilitating public debate, but due to low media and digital literacy levels, people in Myanmar are also vulnerable to widespread mis- and disinformation on the platform. At the same, Myanmar is in the midst of a peace process, and persistent ethnic tensions make the public vulnerable to hate speech.
The escalation of violence in Rakhine in August develops into a major humanitarian crisis on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar in what the UN termed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Later, several reports from the UN and Facebook itself found that widespread disinformation and hate speech on Facebook have been an enabling factor in the genocide. The lack of action and acknowledgement of the graveness of the situation by the NLD government and Aung San Suu Kyi creates an atmosphere of international disappointment.
The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi continue to hold strong positions as democratic icons within Myanmar, especially among the Bamar population, despite international criticism, an economic slowdown and continued ethnic tensions.
The COVID-19 pandemic hits the world and both a first and second wave spread through Myanmar. The pandemic also results in an economic crisis in the country with devastating social consequences. Yet the country has a relatively small death toll of less than 3,000 total deaths by the end of the year. Many attribute the public health success during the pandemic to response measures installed by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, which increases their national popularity.
In October, the Broadcasting Law, which establishes an independent Broadcast Council to regulate broadcasters and sets largely progressive standards for the sector, comes into place. The law is originally from 2015, but the implementing regulations were delayed.
Another democratic general election is held in Myanmar on 8 November. The election is well attended with 70 percent of voters defying the COVID-19 pandemic to go to the voting stations. It is another landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, who win 396 out of 476 seats in the parliament. The military-backed USDP wins only 33 seats.
The military persistently allege voting fraud in the months after the 2020 General Election. On 1 February they overthrow the government in an early morning coup – the same day the new parliament is supposed to meet for the first time. Instead, many politicians face detention, while the military forces itself into public buildings, strengthens control of the media and information infrastructure, and announces a list of new Union Ministers.