Why Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Has Failed on Media Freedom

The current government’s approach looks eerily familiar.

Why Myanmar’s Suu Kyi Has Failed on Media Freedom
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government in Myanmar has now been in office for more than a year, with Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto head of government. Suu Kyi certainly wields sizable influence. In fact, Suu Kyi has often been criticized, by commentators and members of her own party, for keeping too tight-fisted control of actions by the government, so much so that NLD members of parliament seemingly have little to do.

To be sure, on some policy areas, Suu Kyi does not have the level of control that leaders of other, more established democracies enjoy. The military remains an extraordinarily powerful actor in Myanmar, and one apparently capable of operating, in outlying areas at least, without even clearing policy through the Cabinet. The military retains its percentage of seats in parliament, essential control over its budget, and its strong resistance to any constitutional change. Proponents of constitutional change that might reduce the formal powers of the armed forces, like former NLD lawyer U Ko Ni, have been murdered.

Nonetheless, there are areas of policy over which Suu Kyi should enjoy significant influence, and freedom of the press is one of them. Suu Kyi was a longtime opposition leader, at a time (mostly) when Myanmar’s media was tightly controlled, the security forces regularly detained reporters, and state media outlets used their pages to mock and condemn her. She could use her bully pulpit to promote independent media, greater freedoms for journalists working throughout Myanmar, and an end to media monopolies. She could step in strongly if journalists were detained, and call for greater transparency in government— transparency that might actually work in her favor, since a more vibrant Myanmar press could well expose abuses by the armed forces and, indirectly, apply pressure for constitutional change.

But Suu Kyi has not taken this approach. Instead, over the past year, press freedom in Myanmar seems to have regressed. In some respects, press freedom in Myanmar now seems more restrictive than it was in the final years of the former Thein Sein government. The Suu Kyi government has not tried to change existing laws that are major barriers to a free press. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Shawn Crispin notes:

“Chief among those laws is section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, a broad provision that carries potential three-year prison terms for cases of defamation over communications networks. While the law was used only occasionally against journalists under military rule, politicians, military officials, and even Buddhist monks are increasingly using it now to stifle online and social media criticism.”

The Myanmar chapter of the PEN press freedom group has estimated that over 55 cases have been filed, under this law, just in the year since Suu Kyi’s government came into office. Meanwhile, late last month three journalists were arrested in Shan State, under a different Unlawful Association law. These reporters included one from The Irrawaddy; they had been covering one of the country’s ethnic insurgencies as well as allegations of abuses by the state security forces. “The return of a climate of fear is very disturbing,” wrote The Irrawaddy’s editor-in-chief, Aung Zaw, after the publication’s reporter was arrested.

As with the rising toll of defamation cases, Suu Kyi has said nothing about the arrests in Shan State. A spokesperson for her party told the New York Times, “For media personnel, press freedom is a key need… For us, peace, national development and economic development are the priority, and then democracy and human rights, including press freedom.”

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s government has enacted other restrictions on press access.  It has made it nearly impossible for journalists to cover parts of Rakhine State in the west. The Suu Kyi government also recently refused to provide visas to UN investigators tasked with analyzing the situation in Rakhine State and allegations of abuse by Myanmar security forces in Rakhine State. In some ways, the Suu Kyi government is looking more and more like its predecessors.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This originally appeared over at CFR’s Asia Unbound here and is republished here with kind permission.