Burmese-language newspapers publicize the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party in April parliamentary by-elections. (Brendan Brady)

For decades, the omnipresent gaze of Big Brother kept most of Burma’s people from speaking their minds in public. The country’s military regime had a sprawling network of intelligence agents and community informers to keep tabs on chatter in schools, markets, teashops and other gathering places and swoop in when people voiced criticism of the government. The autocratic rulers of Burma, also known as Myanmar, displayed an Orwellian intolerance of words and thoughts they deemed unharmonious with their law-and-order-obsessed vision. The regime erected billboards with slogans condemning – in no specific terms – elements threatening national unity, and various security acts banned the publication or broadcast of “incorrect ideas” and “opinions not according with the times.”

These conditions had a paralyzing effect. “People were very fearful, fearful to talk about politics and even their suffering,” says Maung Wun Tha, a Burmese journalist of nearly four decades. “They were thinking they were being watched. They saw many people were arrested and sent to jail.” Little more than a year ago, some 2,000 prisoners of conscience were behind bars in Burma’s squalid prisons, many having endured lengthy torture sessions in the time between their arrest and sentencing at a closed-door military court. Wun Tha himself was jailed on three occasions.

Yet, Wun Tha, whose real name is Soe Thein, is speaking openly today from the same streets that, just two years ago, would have turned on him for fielding questions from a foreign reporter. No one, including a traffic cop, seems bothered that he’s giving an interview while walking along a crowded street in the bustling capital, Rangoon. “Now, they don’t care and the people become very outspoken and [there is] less fear. So they dare to talk, even to the foreigners [and] foreign correspondents.”

Greater tolerance for free speech is among the most tangible signs of the Southeast Asian country’s dramatic reform. Since a power handover last year from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government, Burma’s new regime has surprised people in and outside the country by giving substance to the structural change: hundreds of political prisoners were released; diplomatic overtures were made to the United Nations and influential member states; and controls on political association, civil society and the press were relaxed. And, perhaps of greatest symbolic significance of all, the new president reached out to pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who previous regimes harassed, denigrated and kept under house arrest for most of the past two decades.

After being banned from participating in electoral politics for over two decades, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party fielded candidates in parliamentary by-elections on April 1. The campaign period drew hordes of people to the streets to exercise their newfound right to show support for politicians outside the military clique, and capped off a steady stretch of liberalization that made confidence in the reform no longer seem misplaced. The NLD’s winning 43 of 45 seats confirmed the government’s pledge to recognize the election results. But Maung Wun Tha had cast his bet on better times a full year-and-and-half ago, when many observers believed the transition to civilian rule was largely a ploy for the junta to repair its pariah status – and, specifically, end Western sanctions – while still ruling through plainclothes proxies. At the end of 2010, he launched The People’s Age, a political journal that aggressively pushed the boundaries of what authorities would tolerate.

It was a bullish move that came after years of both begrudging cooperation with, and bold defiance of, authorities. Wun Tha entered journalism in 1964, two years after then-army chief General Ne Win led a coup to replace a civilian government struggling to consolidate peace and unity after the country’s independence from Britain. Ne Win, like his successor, General Than Shwe, cast himself as the country’s guardian, insisting that Burma’s ethnic diversity and tumultuous past required the country by held together by strict and unchallenged rule. According to this vision, an independent press risked undermining national solidarity. For much of the 60s, 70s and 80s, Wun Tha worked for state-controlled newspapers where he was forced to turn out insipid copy glorifying rulers he detested. “We [were] called journalists but actually we were state functionaries,” he says. “Journalism under [a] one-party system is to obey your superiors’ orders. You cannot reflect public opinion.”

Then, in 1988, protests erupted around the country. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to call for an end to military rule. Initially, the junta dispatched soldiers to gun-down protestors: some three thousand unarmed civilians were killed. But, after the initial bloodshed, the army stepped back and allowed protestors and oppositions groups to organize and speak out. For a brief chaotic and confusing period, it looked as though military rule might disappear. Wun Tha and other journalists used the temporary absence of army authority to write with an independent voice. “For 26 days we enjoyed the freedom of press,” he recalls wistfully. But the army soon re-emerged and reinstated its rule. For Wun Tha, however, it was too late: he would, from then on, remain on a defiant path, entering politics and facing repeated arrest as a reality of his new life.

Today, his world has once again turned upside down. Since the government has eased restrictions on the press and stopped framing critical journalists as enemies of the state, Wun Tha, who returned to journalism in 2001, has evolved into something of a journalistic celebrity. He earns invitations to conferences and magazine launches to deliver speeches as an honored guest. Asked to speak at the launch of a women’s lifestyle magazine in March, he used the podium to urged its editors to solicit articles from political activists: “Audiences will look forward to their articles, pay attention to their stories and learn from their experiences,” he told people assembled in a banquet hall.

In March, in the run-up to the parliamentary by-elections, the National League for Democracy held boisterous rallies in districts where seats were contested. In Yangon, on the same streets where in 2007 tens of thousands of residents marching for democracy were bloodily dispersed with bullets, batons and tear gas, whole neighborhoods cheered on campaigning NLD politicians. Before the reform, possessing an image of Suu Kyi or her party’s peacock-and-star emblazoned red flag was grounds for arrest; today these symbols are stamped on t-shirts, taxi windows and posters around the city.

The figure at the center of change is the new president, Thein Sein, an unlikely reformer given that he was among the junta’s top generals and reputedly close with the last junta leader, General Than Shwe. Though not long ago journalists who attempted to write critically about the government were jailed as agitators, the new president has called for the press to play a role in covering and shaping the country’s reform. For the first time, the government is issuing journalism visas to foreign correspondents. “It realizes that if it wants to change perceptions about Myanmar, it has to engage,” says Tom Kean, Managing Editor of the Yangon-based Myanmar Times’ English-language edition. “And that engagement can’t just be government-to-government, or government-to-business. They have to engage with the media because the media shape the way Myanmar is viewed.”

It will, however, take a while for Burma to shed its reputation as one of the world’s most restricted theatres for journalists. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists kept Myanmar on its list of “10 Most Censored Countries”, in a report published this month, though it upgraded Burma’s standing to the seventh spot after previously lumping it among the five worst – with the likes of Iran and North Korean – for four consecutive years. Indeed, a slew of draconian press-related laws remain in place, including the oft-used Electronics Act, which imposes a jail sentence of up to 20 years on anyone caught disseminating via the internet material deemed subversive.

Though less harsh, the most stultifying restriction has been a weekly vetting process that requires most publications, including Wun Tha’s, to submit their copy to a censorship board, the baleful-sounding Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), before publication. The PSRD’s officials draw red ink over sentences, paragraphs and whole articles that are critical or touch on sensitive issues.

The government announced this month that it would do away with this pre-censorship process as soon as next month but Burmese journalists remain concerned about the new system that will take its place. “What concerns us is that they will try to control us through the licensing process and force us to self-censor by imposing heavy [financial] penalties,” says Thiha Saw, editor-in-chief of two Yangon-based publications, Myanmar Dana and Open News, who predicts defamation cases will multiply.

For exile publications, like The Irrawaddy, based in Thailand, the relaxation of press controls has raised questions about whether they should repatriate themselves. “I think our current strategy is one foot in and one foot out and we think there must be a guarantee for safety and protection for journalists who will reveal and investigate and unearth many, many untold stories there,” says Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy’s founder. Though the government recently de-criminalized The Irrawaddy and other exile publications, Aung Zaw says he’s waiting for greater guarantees before considering opening an office inside Myanmar. “Our bottom line is press freedom is ultimate and we won’t compromise.”

Speaking at the annual Armed Forces Day parade in late March, just a few days before the parliamentary by-election, Myanmar’s military chief reaffirmed the role of the army in national politics and pledged to guard the junta-drafted constitution, which reserves a quarter of all parliamentary seats for the army. General Min Aung Hlaing’s exact words were fairly tame –  “the army has a fundamental duty to protect the constitution,” he said – but his remarks were nonetheless a reminder of the army’s entrenched power and desire to keep it that way.

The benefits of a free press probably matter little to Burma’s 400,000-strong army. But reformers hope that the rank-and-file will see the growth of democratic systems as benefiting them as well. “If we look at the country now, the economy, healthcare and social services, including what’s provided for soldiers, are in shambles,” says Phyu Phyu Thinn, a recently-elected parliamentary representative with the National League for Democracy.  “Even in the military, only a small group of people was benefiting from authoritarian rule. The low-ranking soldiers, policemen and government staff are facing problems just like the common citizens. If the low-ranking soldiers and police work together with the people, there will be no chance of reverting to the old system.”

So far, the army has not made any major movements to intervene. And as change keeps apace, the Burmese “spring” looks increasingly resilient. “Two years ago such a paper would not have been possible,” Wun Tha says on a Saturday evening approaching midnight as he inspects the pages coming out of the rickety press where his publication is printed. “Now we can, to some extent, write about our reality.”

[Published on May 31, 2012 by The Diplomat]