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The long road to freedom

Eleven Media Group chairman Dr Than Htut Aung, seated far right, with staff at the Nation Group

Eleven Media Group chairman Dr Than Htut Aung, seated far right, with staff at the Nation Group

Chairman of Eleven Media Group, Dr Than Htut Aung, says the rule of law must be established in Myanmar before economic reforms and democracy can take root

For Dr Than Htut Aung, chairman and CEO of Myanmar's Eleven Media Group, a new era is dawning in his home country after decades of isolation and economic sanctions.

Dr Htut Aung was in Bangkok this week to discuss business cooperation with Nation Multimedia Group. Eleven Media started out as a sports news weekly in Myanmar 12 years ago. Its name signifies the number of players in each football team, as football, like everywhere else, is one of Myanmar's favourite sports.

Today, Eleven Media Group, with 250 employees, has four weekly newspapers with a combined circulation of 450,000 copies.

Dr Htut Aung says: "The most important issue in Myanmar today is that everyone wants democracy. The government talks about democracy but few people know about a genuine democracy.

"For the past 30 years there's been no rule of law in the country. The judiciary is not free, as the government can control the judges and intervene in the justice system," he says.

Yet, the chairman of privately owned Eleven Media, which also operates a popular news website in Myanmar, is optimistic about the prospects of a positive change in the coming years.

To begin with, Myanmar held its first by-elections in decades in April this year, which ushered in a new chapter in its domestic politics.

The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 42 seats in Myanmar's 668-member Parliament.

While the opposition's representation is still far smaller than the establishment's Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which controls the rest of Parliament, pro-democracy observers hope the next general election in 2015 will lead the country towards a genuine democratic regime, with the NLD and USDP being the two major parties.

"A new Parliament, the mass media and the general public will have a crucial role to play to restore the rule of law in the country. People will have to rally and protest if there is no rule of law.

"We also need to have press and other mass media freedom (to help ensure the rule of law exists). Right now, the hardliners still want to control the media by enacting the new Press Council Law, which is unacceptable, as they plan to control us via their proxies in journalism," says the independent Eleven Media chairman.

Another big issue facing the country is corruption and cronyism, in which Htut Aung says Myanmar is currently the world champion. In his opinion, this issue must be tackled at the highest level of government, starting from the top leaders, ministers and senior civil servants.

"Once corruption and cronyism is reduced, the gap between the rich and poor will be narrowed," he says.

After decades of isolation and economic sanctions by the West, he says, another key agenda item is to reform the economy as the country opens up for foreign investment and businesses.

During the current session of Parliament, which started last Wednesday, foreign investment regulations, special economic zones and minimum wage laws are expected to be addressed.

On national reconciliation with the various armed ethnic groups, he says this crucial issue will take some time to resolve as 25 per cent of Myanmar's 60 million people come from various ethnic groups

"A federation of these ethnic groups, or a union, is possible. We will bring all of them together. The army, which is our strongest institution, is not hypocritical. Their leaders want change.

"However, true democracy will not be realised until we have the next general election in 2015. For the NLD, I think they will have about three years to strengthen their human resources. They need a big re-organisation as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be 71 years old by then, and they need a new generation of leaders and successors.

"By then, we hope all the political parties will be more mature and they will work towards reconstruction of our country," he says.




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