When Vietnam and Laos opened their countries back in the mid-1980s, their governments permitted a limited numbers of foreign correspondents to come into their countries to report on specific issues. These journalists, mainly from the well-established Western media such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, had to pay a hefty price to follow what was happening inside the two countries. Those who came from China, the former Soviet Union and Cuba did not have to pay a dime.
In Vietnam, for instance, a week of news reporting at that time would require at least US $2,000, which included accommodation and transportation. The most important expense would be the minder or interpreter assigned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who would cost a few hundred dollars a day. Depending on the knowledge and overall capacity of journalists, the interpreters were the first filters of information to be given.
Quite often, casual talks between them produced a lead story of intrigues inside the society that was
closed for so long. Sometimes, these topics or catch words were mentioned deliberately to grab the attention of journalists. Sometimes journalist picked up, sometimes they did not. There were cases when the minders were the subject of reports themselves. These were part and parcel of the communications strategy of communist countries that permitted certain views and information out to Western policymakers and the public. In retrospect, many reports about Vietnam and Laos were raised through the minders’ perspective. In turn, they were briefed by authorities of party lines. However, from time to time, personal views were included to render credibility to their opinions.
Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.
At that time, it was difficult for foreign correspondents to write on domestic issues, especially those related to political development inside the country and the power politics of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Strict access to rural areas and senior officials made it extremely difficult to write independent reports. There were no social media or bloggers for new clues. So the minders were the gateway to the foreign correspondents’ initial perception of their countries.
In the case of Burma, it is entirely different, especially since the country adopted dramatic reforms two years ago. Previously, Burma was similar to Vietnam and Laos: there was press censorship and freedom of expression was severely restricted. Each year, its ranking in the international free media indexes was among the world’s lowest, along with North Korea.
Over the past two years, however, there have been huge fundamental changes in Burma’s media system and culture. First of all, Burma chose to open up the most sensitive political area dealing with the freedom of media. All new Asean countries have avoided this path for fear it would expose their governments to the outside world, especially the ruling elites. In turn, it could weaken their grip on power. Secondly, journalists and scholars have better access to senior officials for their views and assessments. The officials of Naypyidaw are no longer walking away from journalists. These days they talk back and give relevant information. Indeed, they are very assertive and ready to dispute the media reports if they deem them inaccurate and slanderous.
Foreign correspondents do not need official minders or interpreters when they are inside the country, and they can easily approach officials. Indeed, the government has hired foreign experts to train dozens of spokespersons on the best ways to handle the media and send relevant messages out.
The authorities in Naypyidaw have been wise to allow free press as part of the reform package to publicize the government’s efforts to develop the backward country. Without good publicity, it would be difficult for the ordinary Burmese to understand and appreciate what the government is doing. This step is important because it would translate into strong public support or lack of support. Obviously, the desire to reach ordinary Burmese people is why the government decided to get rid of news censorship as its highest priority.
The second priority is reaching a foreign audience, which comes later. Interestingly, it was the reporting of foreign correspondents that helped to improve Burma’s image and international standing within such a short time. Without the free media atmosphere including relaxation of visa rules for journalists from abroad, Burma would not dominate news headlines globally as it does today. Foreign reporting on Burma is a mix of both negative and positive—as it should be. After reports about the current reforms, news about the reconciliation process between the government and minorities has grabbed the biggest headlines.
Today, foreign journalists and outside visitors can have an easy access to government officials, opposition leaders, activists, media and monks inside Burma. They have reported their views and increased overall knowledge of this nation—once the world’s most isolated country.
However, there is a drawback, as one can easily notice that there are small groups of movers and shakers in Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw who literally dominate the reports on Burma by foreign correspondents and scholars. These key thinkers include President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 88 Generation leader Ko Ko Kyi and Kyaw Yin Hlaing of Myanmar Egress, to name but a few. What is lacking are the views of ordinary people, emerging civil society groups and ethnic minority groups.
Burma is willing to open up and face the free media because the government, including military leaders, because benefits from this. It is remains to be seen how all of this will play out in the near future.