When Barack Obama became the first serving president to visit Myanmar (or Burma),which just a few months ago was a Southeast Asian pariah nation uttered in the same breath as North Korea and Iran, he found a country newly and seriously changed. Protests, most kinds of speech and freedom of the press are allowed for the first time in over 40 years. Reporter Gabrielle Paluch reports from Yangon on how the end of censorship has affected journalists, novelists, musicians and the country's (hopefully) last censor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week in Burma, or Myanmar, the seizure of land for a government-owned copper mine once again brought protesters out into the streets -
[SOUND OF PROTESTS]
- who were routed by the police.
Myanmar certainly is no stranger to protests and a brutal government response, but this week's episode was notable for two reasons. It’s been mere months since the country made protests legal, and the police response is seen as a gauge of just how government reforms will be respected. The demonstrations also come in the same month Barack Obama became the first serving US president to visit Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation once uttered in the same breath as North Korea. And his presence was a striking acknowledgment of just how substantial Myanmar’s democratic changes have been. In an impassioned speech, he acknowledged both the astonishing reforms implemented in the past two years and the long road ahead. Reporter Gabrielle Paluch was in the newsroom of the Myanmar Times in downtown Rangoon, or Yangon, when he delivered it.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country…
GABRIELLE PALUCH: Reporters crowded around the TV and laughed when Obama his speech with a slow and cautious thank you.
PRSIDENT OBAMA: So, chezudin—badeh.
GABRIELLE PALUCH: Just a year ago, this scene would have been unthinkable. The United States didn’t have formal diplomatic ties with Myanmar, but in August President Thein Sein’s reform government finally kept its promise to end censorship. Before last August, the Myanmar Times would send proofs to the Scrutiny Board where government officials decided what was fit to print. Geoffrey Goddard edited the English-language edition for seven years.
GEOFFREY GODDARD: Some censorship decisions have appalled me, some have astonished me. Most have disappointed me. But, you know, that is the system, and I had to accept it.
GABRIELLE PALUCH: He recalls an incident earlier this year when Myanmar’s chief censor Tint Swe was interviewed about the imminent end of censorship.
GEOFFREY GODDARD: It was a story about the end of censorship, and Tint Swe censored it. And what made it kind of personal for me is that one of the paragraphs he censored from the story was a quote I had given anonymously to the Agence France Presse in which I said, quote, “He had one of the worst jobs in Myanmar. He was pressured from above my ministers, officials and powerful business people to keep stories out and pressurized from below by editors to keep stories in.” And he cut it out of the story, which I think is pretty funny.
INTERPRETER FOR TINT SWE: Not having censorship is very good for development of Burmese literature and for the country also.
GABRIELLE PALUCH: Tint Swe was Myanmar’s last chief censor. He started out in the army as editor for a military science magazine and was eventually promoted to the Information Ministry, where he became chief of the Press Scrutiny Board, or PSRD. When the government declared an end to censorship, he reflected on his time as a censor in an article called “Literary Torturer.”
INTERPRETER FOR TINT SWE: My present office was the office of the Japanese Secret Police during the Second World War. That was where they took people they arrested for interrogation and torture. It is well known as the ruthless Japanese Secret Police Center. And when building was changed into the PSRD Office, people said this office was no longer a place to torture people. Instead, it became a place to torture the media, literature, by cutting, blocking, omitting ideas, opinions and thought. That’s why they nicknamed me “literary torturer.”
GABRIELLE PALUCH: The former Secret Police headquarters is grim, dilapidated, filled with stacks of moldy documents, slowly losing a battle against the encroaching rain-soaked jungle. It was a place where hopes and dreams were shattered.
AMITAV GHOSH: You know, for all my friends who were writers here, it was a place of trauma. You know, they would come here and they would leave just traumatized.
GABRIELLE PALUCH: Amitav Ghosh, Bengali author of “The Glass Palace,” has stopped by the building with Burmese author Ma Thida to pay a friendly visit.
AMITAV GHOSH: I remember being told a story by a modernist writer who would come here and she would be interrogated by some young lieutenant or something who would then roll up her things and throw it in the corner and hit it with a golf club and this is [LAUGHS] – I mean, you know, the fact that it sounds funny to us, just goes to show in a way, you know, how far Burma has moved, you know?
GABRIELLE PALUCH: Many believe the building is haunted by the souls of prisoners that were tortured there. But Ma Thida who just published a memoir of her imprisonment for threatening national serenity, is haunted by the souls of lost stories.
MA THIDA: You know, it took me to get permission for my first and only novel in Burmese, it took altogether more than eight months, and then I was arrested. So they asked the printer to stop, so this, the first and only novel, it took me altogether ten years to get published, including my imprisonment time, you – you could imagine. So it’s, it’s kind of haunting, you know, haunting for us.
GABRIELLE PALUCH: Former censor Tint Swe also describes being haunted.
INTERPRETER FOR TINT SWE: It is my job to decide what should be published and what shouldn’t be published. I question myself and my intellect that my brain wasn’t good enough to make the right decision. I wanted to make only the most necessary cut, but sometime I did cut off more than I should have. But it was because I was simply afraid of repercussion or the writing was unclear to me.
GABRIELLE PALUCH: His old office is now an ordinary registry for books, magazines, even songs. But transformation is tricky. The abolition of censorship is just one of many steps the government is taking to dismantle a military bureaucracy once so pervasive, the nation can barely function without it. Extracting it is like trying to remove a person’s skeleton without killing it.
Musician and radio DJ Kyar Pauk says he finds his creativity is challenged by the new freedom.
KYAR PAUK: Just think about it, you are in the cage, right? You are bird and you’re in the cage. You haven’t flied for like all your life, and then you just open the gate and – you don’t know what to do now. So we are free now, okay. Well, we don’t have to go for the censor, but how far we can push? That’s the important thing. But we don’t know the limit.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
GABRIELLE PALUCH: The new generation is testing the limits. Arrests of copper mine protesters this past week in Yangon illustrates just how perilous the end of censorship can be in a state with such a hobbled system of justice. Once the Burmese people were silenced systemically by the state, personified by Tint Swe and his red pen. Now they have free speech, in theory, but not always in reality. Meanwhile, Tint Swe has started posting his own short nonfiction on his Facebook page. Tint Swe plans to write a memoir of his life as a censor. Censors, after all, were censored too. For On the Media, I’m Gabrielle Paluch in Yangon, Myanmar.