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Home > Reading Room > Focus on Burma

SPJ Reading Room

Focus on Burma

By Bruce C. Swaffield

Few places on earth can match the mystique of Myanmar. The country, commonly known as Burma, is steeped in ancient tradition, shaped by Buddhist values and shrouded with secrecy.

A Web site for international travelers describes this region in Southeast Asia as a "golden country ... where magnificent and ancient Buddhist temples gaze out serenely over a nation restless for change. Myanmar has plenty of wonders for the eye -- slow sinuous rivers, lush mountain forests and intricately drawn cities. It's an extraordinary country of golden pagodas and golden dreams."

Beyond all of the beauty and dreams, however, is a divided nation with deep problems. The last free election was in 1990, but the 485-member People's Assembly was never allowed to convene. From its state-run media to authoritarian rule by a military junta, Burma truly is a "nation restless for change."

Once the richest country in Southeast Asia, it is now the poorest. More than 700,000 refugees want to return to their homeland. But for now, all they can do is wait and dream of the country they once knew.

State of the media in Burma
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Burma among the five most oppressive and dangerous countries in the world for journalists. The nation placed 163 on a list of 167 countries.

According to BBC News, "the media are propaganda tools and tend not to report opposing views except to criticize them. Editors and reporters are answerable to the military authorities. All forms of domestic public media are officially controlled or censored."

There is an official, English-language daily newspaper available online, The New Light of Myanmar (www.myanmar.com/nlm/), but the content is tightly controlled by the government. Accurate and reliable news about Burma may be found in The Irrawaddy (www.irrawaddy.org), an independent publication established in 1992 by former citizens living in exile in neighboring countries; the news magazine is not associated with any group or political party.

Another independent source is Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com/), which was organized in August 1988 by three Burmese journalists in exile. The main office is in Delhi, India, and there is a news bureau in Chaing Mai, Thailand. Thirty paid employees report from five countries: Burma, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China.

Stories making the news
— "The Burmese media has been silent on the weekslong furor created throughout the Muslim world by the publication in European newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Rangoon's Press Scrutiny and Registration Division office has prohibited local media from covering the story without offering any official explanation or directives." (The Irrawaddy, Feb. 19)

— "Opposition activist groups in Burma and overseas say they support a proposal issued by the main opposition National League for Democracy party calling on the military regime to allow a 'people's parliament,' while it remains as a transitional government. Under the proposal, a parliament would be formed according to results of the 1990 general election, which were ignored by the regime after the NLD won by a landslide. In return, the parliament would recognize the regime as a de jure, or lawful, transitional government." (The Irrawaddy, Feb. 14)

— "Burma's military government has stepped up its already harsh treatment of people inside the country who offer information to external media organizations, say Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association. The two affiliated media groups say that the Military Security Force -- a body that replaced Military Intelligence following the fall of its former chief and prime minister, Khin Nyunt in October 2004, is conducting an increasingly sophisticated campaign of intimidation and monitoring of 'informers.'" (The Irrawaddy, Feb. 10)

— "Senior U.S. diplomats say Washington is to step up its international campaign against the regime in Burma and is aiming to raise the issue at the U.N. Security Council. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said lack of political development, continued rights abuses and drugs production in Burma -- which poses threats to neighboring countries and the region -- constitute enough for the world body to discuss the issue at the next gathering of the UNSC, which is currently headed by the U.S." (The Irrawaddy, Feb. 8)

The major issues
— One of the current problems is repositioning the capital from Rangoon, near the coast of the Andaman Sea, to the Pyinmana area of central Burma, a distance of about 250 miles to the north. The junta, which began the unannounced move in the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 2006, hopes to complete the project this spring.

— Another top issue is the fate of a pro-democracy leader. In November, the junta extended the detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Under house arrest from 1989 to 1995 and 2000 to 2002, Suu Kyi was imprisoned in May 2003. She will remain under house arrest at least until May 2006.

Facts about the country
— The nation gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, and a military junta took over in 1988 under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

— The population is estimated to be 42.9 to 50 million, although there has not been an official census since 1930; per capita income is about $225 annually.

— The military junta began using the name Union of Myanmar in 1989. The change was never approved by any legislative body, and the country still is known throughout the world as the Union of Burma; more formally, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.

— The nation is rich in natural gas reserves, a valuable commodity to China, Thailand and India.

— Burma is second only to Afghanistan in the production of opium.

— The United States banned all imports from Burma in 2003 and prohibits investments by American companies. See more details: www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/bm.html

Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He holds a B.S. from Kent State University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Miami. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and may be contacted at brucswa@regent.edu.

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