In Myanmar, a shocking setback for democracy

opinion November 15, 2016 01:00

By The Nation

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As a news executive is arrested for ‘defaming’ an unnamed minister, the ruling NLD does nothing

Unless freedom of expression and media liberty are guaranteed in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) will never be able to realise the long-held dream of genuine democracy.

Press freedom, a foundation stone of democracy, has yet to be established in the country, a full year after the NLD won national elections, allowing it to form Myanmar’s first civilian government in many decades. Last week’s arrest of the chief executive and the chief editor of the Eleven Media Group on a charge of defamation only undermines democratic principles. It was a shocking turn of events, of the sort that was not supposed to happen under Suu Kyi’s government.

What a news photo of Than Htut Aung at a Yangon police station in fact depicts is a dangerous threat to democracy in Myanmar. The reputation of the ruling party – and especially Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and long-time champion of democracy – is further damaged.

The charge brought by the Yangon Region government stems from a November 6 article carried under Than Htut Aung’s byline, headlined “Myanmar: A year after the Nov 8 polls”, in the newspaper Daily Eleven and on its Facebook page. (Nation Multimedia Group is affiliated with Eleven Media Group, Myanmar’s largest independent publisher.) The article cited “stories” circulating on the social media about “a newly elected minister, making just $2,500 a month, being seen wearing a $100,000 Patek Philippe watch”. 

“For many Myanmar people who make $2.50 a day,” Than Htut Aung’s article said, “this is a source of great disbelief and resentment.” No one was named in the article (though a Chief Minister who felt he might be suspected of involvement publicly “denied” it the next day), the clear implication was that Suu Kyi’s government is failing to tackle state corruption as expected.

This is fair criticism of the state and, since no names were printed, it’s well within the law. And, even if it were somehow deemed defamatory, such an offence is not treated as a crime in properly democratic countries. It only becomes a “crime” in countries ruled by authoritarian and generally corrupt regimes, where state security demands zero tolerance for dissent. While Thailand struggles under the same yoke, hopes were high that Myanmar would do better after emerging from a half century of military rule. Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory in last November’s election and yet here we see democracy faltering badly, perhaps as a direct result of the army clinging to a significant share of constitutional power, both in parliament, in the government and in the civil service.

While Myanmar’s news media continue to labour against legal challenges, travel restrictions and even threats of physical abuse, the NLD has allowed the old power structure to function unreformed. The party’s response to the arrest of Than Htut Aung was pathetic. Win Htein of its central executive committee implied to the BBC that it was Eleven Media’s fault. Such a negative spin on the matter is doubly dismaying coming from a party that had so long called for freedom of expression as a basic human right. To not challenge the arrest of a journalist for “defaming” a minister who was not even identified by name is a severe setback for hopes of democratic rule.

Than Htut Aung sought in his article to point out that corruption and cronyism have not faded from Myanmar politics. In failing to defend his right to comment, the NLD appears to condone such vile practices and endorse the suppression of democratic rights, rather than pursuing essential reforms.