Burma’s Long Road

Self-censorship in the mainstream media has become increasingly
commonplace since 9/11. As CBS anchor Dan Rather told a BBC-TV
interviewer in May 2002, the hyperpatriotic mood in the United
States ‘keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough
questions.’

Mainstream American journalists may justify their behavior as a
matter of upholding ‘professional standards’ or not wanting to look
unpatriotic. But as anyone comparing foreign news coverage with the
U.S. media’s kid-glove treatment of the Bush administration can
tell you, on issue after issue, from the Iraq war to Enron to
global climate change, the trend toward self-censorship in this
country is obvious, and troubling.

For a chilling view of where that path can lead a society, look
at Burma, also knows as Myanmar.

Government censors in this Southeast Asian country actually
don’t have much work to do, reports Tony Broadmoor in Third
World Resurgence
(July/Aug. 2003). After years of brutal
repression, Burmese writers and publishers know where the lines are
drawn and how to avoid crossing them. For them, self-censorship is
not just about upholding professional standards; it is often the
only thing protecting them from government harassment or
imprisonment.

‘I’ve never tried to publish political books,’ one Rangoon-based
publishing house owner tells Broadmoor. And if someone wrote
something sensitive, he says, he wouldn’t take it to the Press
Scrutiny Board, Burma’s official censorship body, which must give
its blessing to all books sold in the country. Instead of pushing
the boundaries, publishers focus on books they know the PSB is
likely to approve — mostly translations of English-language
classics like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and
the novels of Ernest Hemingway. Typically it takes six months for
the PSB to approve a book, though it can take years for the agency
to approve more controversial works, and some books never see print
at all.

Anything that smacks even remotely of politics will have a hard
time, writes Broadmoor. ‘The writings of Niccolo Machiavelli did
not make it onto shelves, while Alexis de Tocqueville’s
Democracy in America took six long years to pass the
PSB.’

Still, despite 40 years of repression and official censorship,
Burmese writers continue putting pen to paper, carefully. ‘We try
our best to express in very discreet ways the life of the ordinary
people,’ one prominent Burmese writer tells Broadmoor. It’s hard,
he says, ‘but we continue to write as much as possible.’

Perhaps the most chilling effect of Burma’s culture of
censorship has been its impact on the country’s youth. ‘The
majority of young people feel down and out,’ one prominent
Rangoon-based writer says, lamenting their lack of curiosity about
literature and politics. ‘Their hopes have faded. They don’t care
about democracy.’

Considering the difficulties, it’s understandable that writing
is not a sought-after career path among Burma’s youth. ‘You have to
think about every word you write,’ complains one journalist working
for a weekly business magazine. ‘Young people now don’t want to be
writers. It’s just too dangerous.’

The Burmese military junta’s authoritarian controls on free
expression may sound like a different universe to us. After all,
this is America.

But it is the same America that throughout its history has seen
book burnings, lynchings, and various government-sponsored witch
hunts. And in George Bush’s America, where former White House
spokesman Ari Fleischer can cavalierly state that the press needs
to ‘watch what they say,’ Burma should serve as a stark warning of
what is possible.

Published bimonthly by the Third World Network in Penang,
Malaysia,
Third World Resurgence provides perspectives
from Third World writers and activists on the whole range of issues
facing people in developing countries: the environment, health and
basic needs, international affairs, politics, economics, culture.
Subscriptions: $30/yr. (12 issues) from Third World Network, 121-S
Jalan Utama 10450 Penang, Malaysia;
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