Writer and artist Htoo Lyin Myo gives his personal account of working under government censorship in Burma
I became familiar with censorship as a boy in the 1990s, when certain pages of the monthly magazines I read were covered with black ink, which censorship officials manually brushed over printed words. The paragraphby- paragraph, line-by-line ink-covered pages made me curious, so I would place them on a lit-up surface in order to have a peek. Indeed, the hidden words covered with ink criticised government economic policy or local businessmen.
But when the ink was changed from black to silver, I could hardly see those hidden words: it was a totally hidden, reflective surface, like metallic camouflage.
Burma’s notorious censorship developed alongside the dictatorship, a government that created the 1962 Printers’ and Publishers’ Registration Act. So censorship is ‘the problem child’ of the dictatorship. Currently, Burma has nine laws that provide for censorship both directly and indirectly, including the Electronic Transactions Law (2004). It carries with it a penalty of up to 15 years’ imprisonment for internet users who receive email messages that are deemed to be detrimental to the security of the state.
From about 2005, browsing the internet became part of my daily routine. Low-speed internet connection, which continues today, made it difficult to access information.
In addition, though, a great number of websites were banned, including the BBC, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). At that time, most of my friends who used the internet exchanged proxy website addresses in order to access government-banned websites. Hardly anyone was astonished when, in 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Burma the worst country in the world to be a blogger.
As the decade went on, I internalised the censorship I experienced in my journalistic career.
FROM INDEX ON CENSORSHIP MAGAZINE
Weekly journals were required to submit samples to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) of the Ministry of Information before publication. So a full-page translated article about the Dalai Lama was banned. A so-called PR clerk, a post appointed in every publishing house to deal with the PSRD, sent the article back, telling me to ‘substitute’ it with another ‘lighter’ one. This happened on the day of our deadline and the team, like so many others in the media business, had to pull the front page at the last minute.
I experienced censorship, too, when it came to my work as a performance artist. At one of the international performance festivals held in Rangoon, local and international artists were scrutinised by an army of censorship board officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Homeland Affairs, the Ministry of Information and so on. Artists had to queue to be granted permission to perform and officials checked each participant artist’s materials, making sure their chosen colours and ‘ideas’ complied with guidelines to protect the ‘security of the state’. If officials suspected that an artist’s materials might go against the ‘will’ of the state, these materials were prohibited and the artist banned from using them. In addition to jeopardising the security of the state, artwork and materials could be banned on grounds of religion (offending Buddhism, mainly) or for posing a threat to law and order.
If an artwork was deemed to be critical of the state or going against its ‘will’, an artist could be completely rejected and denied permission to exhibit or perform that particular work. In order to avoid including anti-social materials in their art, artists often had to self-censor, imagining a potential ‘justification’ for banning pieces prior to the ‘permission hearing’. In 2008, I took part in a clandestine international performance festival held in a compound in a countryside township an hour outside of Rangoon. The event was moved there after local authorities denied permission for it to take place in a public park in the city.
Visiting foreign artists also had to practise self-censorship. During a workshop in 2009, a renowned Chinese artist originally suggested participants walk down the streets of Rangoon, pointing to the sun with their index fingers. Later, he rejected this performance art idea because, in Burma, the sun, ne in Burmese, implicitly refers to the late dictator Ne Win. The artist said he ‘understood’ why the activity might be refused and decided to withdraw it from the workshop.
Self-censorship evolved in the print media in a superficially different way: if the PSRD was known to reject a certain kind of front-page headline, journalists and editors made changes before submitting them for approval. However, occasionally a newspaper’s once-rejected headline could, with luck, be approved upon its second submission to the censor board, so journalists often kept this in mind when planning headlines.
After the 2010 elections – perhaps as a reaction to widespread accusations that the election was rigged – some subjects covered in the print media, including sport, health and entertainment, did not require censor officials’ approval prior to publication. News stories and articles about politics and religion, however, were still required to be submitted for approval. Leading print media companies seldom faced week-long publication bans for subversive stories on front pages, but journals could be subject to defamation lawsuits – and this law still exists today.
Since September 2011, formerly banned websites VoA, BBC Burmese and RFA have been accessible, as have the websites of some Burmese exiled media outlets like Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma. The latter are popular among the Burmese middle class because of their critical insight into the military government. With a handful of amnesties for journalists, activists, whistleblowers and bloggers, who had been given sentences of decades-long prison terms, the Burmese media environment has become more relaxed.
Almost overnight it became possible to report on land seizures for state projects like dams or for use by regional military bases, or on workers’ protests against unjust wages and corruption. Yet the silence around taboo subjects has not altogether lifted.
In terms of democracy, Burma is in its infancy. Freedom of speech is not 100 percent guaranteed. And government cronies have their eyes on the print media as a viable market they can control and which will earn them a nice profit. In Burma, the ruling party owns one of the most prominent daily newspapers and crony businessmen own a number of weekly and monthly journals.
The last time I confronted pressure from local authorities was after I joined a temporary art space called 7000 Padauk in March 2013. On the second day of opening, a group of ward-level authorities ordered those wanting to enter the space to formally check in, resulting in a dispute with artists. The ward official insisted it was illegal to use the premises for such events, demanded to know who the owner was, asked for information about planned events, the names of those involved, and so on. I have witnessed firsthand that people on both sides – those who rule and those who are ruled over – still engage in a process of ‘bargaining’. A free space like 7000 Padauk is very much needed at this time of so-called transition for Burma. But when I arrive there, I still look over my shoulder.
©Htoo Lwin Myo
Htoo Lwin Myo is a journalist, translator and artist living and working in Rangoon. His translation of a biography of the Dalai Lama, the first of its kind to be published in Burmese, was published in 2012