BURMA: Elections without speech
When the military government of Burma passed five new laws and four bylaws during March in preparation for planned elections later this year, it attracted a lot of interest, discussion and analysis in the global media. The only place where the media did not pick up the story was in Burma, or Myanmar, itself. Aside from official announcements in the turgid state mouthpieces and some articles in news journals iterating the facts, there was no analysis, commentary or debate.
The absence of debate was not because the persons writing and publishing these periodicals did not want discussion, or even try to have some. According to various reports, journalists have interviewed experts and obtained views that they had thought would be printable. But instead, journals have so far been prohibited from covering anything significant about the laws at all, or the parties now registering for the upcoming ballot. The absurd situation exists of an election having been announced and the process of party registration begun without anything other than formal acknowledgement of these facts in the local media.
Burma is a difficult place to be a reporter. The Asian Human Rights Commission has itself over a number of years taken up and followed cases of journalists and others who have been imprisoned for acts that in other countries are simply taken for granted, such as filming people at electoral booths during the 2008 referendum (AHRC-UAC-040-2009).
But the blackout on news about the electoral process is not merely a question of media freedom. It is indicative of far deeper dysfunction that prohibits the possibility of free or fair elections. The problem is not just one of how journalists can communicate with their society but how their society can communicate with itself.
The vitality of a society depends upon its capacity for internal communication. It is no coincidence that the most successful and happy societies in the world today are where people can communicate with one another, freely and equitably. Internal communication is not about the number and size of television stations or political parties. It is about the extent to which everyone is able to communicate with everyone else, the extent to which there is widespread participation and sharing of ideas from different quarters, with which to grow and improve as a community.
In recent years, the Internet and mobile technologies have brought about many new opportunities for this sort of communication, and it is not surprising that the military regime in Burma has only slowly and reluctantly opened up the country to them, with severe warnings to users that transgress vague laws on usage. Today Internet cafes around the country carry warnings on their walls and above computers that users are not to access either political or pornographic websites. In Burma, politics and pornography are indeed analogous.
Where internal communication is blocked for a long time, as it has been in Burma, it brings about all sorts of deep psychoses hidden under the surface of day-to-day life. As different parts of society are not able to communicate openly with each other, problems build up and fester. Tensions may emerge that are a consequence of other aspects of life about which people can do nothing. They become deeply frustrated and angry, and occasionally the frustration and anger burst out suddenly on a very large scale, as during the nationwide protests of 2007. At such times, when the authorities use force to bring people back under control the problems are again submerged and worsened.
Under these circumstances, the type of controlled communication that the military regime in Burma envisages for the anticipated elections is not a form of communication at all. It is a mere contrivance aimed at a different type of social control from what came before. This is obvious from reading Burma's print media: when officialdom says it is now okay to publish cartoons, everyone publishes cartoons; when officialdom says that it is now okay to comment on new political parties, everyone will comment. In this way, the government hopes to construct a wall of its own opinions in which the public will be a mere onlooker and recipient of fabricated, sanctioned views.
The jerking puppet-like responses of private media outlets to the instructions of the government on the upcoming elections and manifest lack of commentary are merely manifestations of much deeper afflictions. Artificial debate will, of course, do nothing to address or ease these. In fact, it will only make them worse. Until there are enough opportunities for open communication about the psychological illnesses that society has contracted from decades of military rule, the possibility of some kind of democratic government emerging in Burma is zero. Under these conditions, the only type of politics that can be practiced, the only type of politics possible is the politics of demoralization, the politics of despair.
[This is the third in a series of statements by the AHRC on the planned general elections in Burma. The previous two were Elections without a judiciary (AHRC-STM-059-2010) and, "Elections without rights" (AHRC-STM-063-2010). Next: "The politics of despair".]