Delphine Schrank is a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review and a co-founder of DECA Stories, a pioneering writers’ cooperative for deeply reported, global journalism. She was The Washington Post’s correspondent in Myanmar and is the recent author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance (Nation Books, 2015), a narrative, nonfiction account about dissidents in Myanmar and their multi-generational fight for democracy.
She recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the future of democracy and human rights in Myanmar ahead of upcoming historic elections expected this November. An edited version of that interview follows.
You had a chance to interact with the people who resisted the regime politically, which forms the basis of your book. Has that experience made you more optimistic or pessimistic regarding the trajectory of reform in the country?
Optimistic! Burma/Myanmar presents a rare case of a country with a social movement whose members have had decades of experience pursuing their goal of democracy and attendant freedoms under one of the world’s most repressive and whimsically cruel regimes. People across the years died or fled into exile or broke under the pressure. It wasn’t a story of victory – they failed time and again, or felt themselves fail. But they studied their mistakes and lessons from their history, or sought inspiration from outside, and they evolved. So they’ve developed an unparalleled sophistication, at least relative to other people’s struggles for freedom – and we are seeing this now, very visibly, as they take full advantage of the political space that has opened since 2011 to expand the reforms – beyond whatever limits the military-dominated government had intended. And that’s across all sectors – the media, in commerce, in education – people working to build civil society, or adapting to the flawed parameters of the parliamentary system. Very creatively, they’ll find ways to make sure the clocks don’t turn back.
You experienced the media environment in Myanmar first hand as a foreign journalist from 2008 to 2012. How was the environment and how do you think that has changed over time? What are the challenges that remain?
In 2008 to about 2011, Myanmar’s press censorship was among the worst in the world. Everything for print had to pass through the Press Scrutiny Board and the junta had complete control over the Internet – although people employed proxies to get around firewalls. But everything was licensed and regulated, from acquiring flash-drives to copy paper. It was nearly impossible to publish anything even vaguely subversive. The consequences for defying the censors, or laws such as the notorious Electronic Transactions Act, could be years in prison. For credible local news, people were forced to depend on the illicit broadcasts of the Burmese services of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, or the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma.
But in the decade before 2011, a core of serious journalists managed to keep alive about 100-150 private journals, weekly or monthly publications. They could only obliquely or metaphorically pass messages about the economy, or political issues and many filled their pages with horoscopes and sports news. But there was a thirst for more substantive information.
So it’s no surprise to me that with the easing of censorship since 2011, there’s been a burst of new publications and a very vocal and combative journalism—some of it ready to take on the most sensitive political taboos such as corruption within the ranks or state-led crackdowns on protesters. The battle’s ongoing right now for freedom of the press. But journalists are covering it, and a whole slew of new journalists, not always abiding by the best editorial or ethical standards. So—there’s a long road ahead. And publications will be born and die as fast. But the fourth estate is very much alive, and with a little time, it’ll grow up.
Within Myanmar’s fight for democracy, democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has loomed large. How was she perceived in the dissident underground in Myanmar, and how should we think about her role?
Aung San Suu Kyi remained the unchallenged leader of the democracy movement for members of the dissident underground– but largely without the cult of personality that wider society built around her. There was a strategic reason for this: dissidents saw her as the only public figure who could cultivate widespread trust, and bring together Burma/Myanmar’s different stakeholders in the interests of national reconciliation. No one else, they’d say, not even the iconic student leaders who had led the 1988 uprising, had her broad reach. At a personal level, dissidents who had worked beside her or were directly inspired by her to join her party, the National League for Democracy or the movement beyond, repeatedly told me anecdotes illustrating her qualities of leadership – her intelligence and strength of character. And even if they disagreed with some of her positions, they saw the need for her as a unifying force – as a focal point for the opposition.
But I think the reality now is more complex—and even as she remains the single greatest source of inspiration and the most eloquent defender of their rights and aspirations, there are multiple actors within the pro-democratic opposition who have begun to earn people’s trust and who are making their voices heard more independently, because now they can. Until now, few of them wanted to break rank, in that sense. They understood that even if they had their differences, working under the kinds of constraints of authoritarian rule meant keeping quiet and standing behind Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar is expected to hold historic elections in November 2015. How do you think this will impact the country?
Among the 75 percent of parliamentary seats that will be up for election, it seems clear that the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will lose its absolute majority – which it had secured in the last general elections in 2010 largely by rigging the vote. With the world watching, and if the elections are relatively clean (and that’s a big if), there will likely be a surge of new seats for the pro-democratic parties and representatives of the ethnic minorities. People are speculating the largest win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
And I think that can only be a good thing – because these are parties with clear and explicit mandates that have less to do with holding onto power than delivering on promises to the people on whose behalf they’ve been advocating for years. That might sound naïve, but these are politicians who couldn’t talk aloud for years, many of them jailed, and now they’ll be able speak openly in parliament and legislate on a raft of issues that deeply affect people’s livelihoods.
Before the last general elections, I heard people say that every five years they’d get a few more seats, and in that way, nibble away at the in-built undemocratic flaws within the parliamentary system. So even though the constitution still reserves a 25 percent bloc of seats for the military, and other clauses remain offensive to pro-democracy activists, it’ll be interesting to watch how forcefully they’ll push for aggressive changes within the parameters of the legal system.
So in sum: fewer military men or former military officers in parliament; a break-up of the old centers of power; and more reform, incrementally. And there’s also a slow, deep cultural change that comes of people learning to articulate their grievances through public discourse, and legislating accordingly, as opposed to resisting orders from men in uniform.
That’s a very optimistic reading, which is not to say it won’t be a battle at every turn, with spoilers who retain a lot of power looking for ways to trip up the reform process. But that’s the definition of politics!
The Rohingya migrant crisis has made the headlines the world over this year and focused global attention on a heavily persecuted group. How should we think about the Rohingya issue within Myanmar’s struggle towards democracy and freedom?
Since the violence escalated in 2012, the government has seemed either unable or unwilling to prevent attacks on the Rohingya, who are concentrated in western Arakan state. People have been quick to point out that security forces have no trouble cracking down on activists who are protesting for land or education rights, but meanwhile those same forces have done next to nothing to contain the ultra-nationalist movement that invokes the name of Buddhism and the Buddhist character of the country to spew invective and fan longstanding anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment, despite the fact that those populations have lived for generations in the country. Why there is such visceral hatred of the Rohingya – and official refusal to acknowledge their rights as citizens or their historical presence – remains a mystery in a country that recognizes 135 other ethnic groups.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized heavily, particularly outside the country, for not coming out explicitly to denounce persecution of the Rohingya, and the NLD has likewise been muted. And that seems indefensible – they are the best placed voices to stand up forcefully for the lofty goals and expansive rights that they’ve been fighting for – and those were never intended for exclusive enjoyment by the country’s Buddhist majority. So I think there’s a real challenge here that’s symptomatic of a country in which the question of national identity has always been fraught, complex and unresolved. But also it’s important to remember that the NLD and the democracy movement have yet to fully achieve their goals. Burma isn’t yet a democracy. The country is still run under a military-dominated system. There’s still a very delicate line to tread for the NLD and other pro-democracy forces—and they are well aware of this. The creativity I wrote of above, that’s in part a necessity because they still can’t always be direct—they have to be devious. History has shown them that head-on confrontation against the military can result in genuine setbacks.
So, without defending their failings, I think it’s important to recognize the inherent complexities of a democracy struggle that operates in a muddy and complex reality, particularly as the black-and-white struggle of junta-vs-people cedes space in people’s perceptions to Burma/Myanmar’s other emergencies. There’s still a long way to go.