Myanmar’s Cinema Centenary and Film Censorship

The 2018 documentary film Child of the Revolution opens with a shot of the rolling green mountains in Myanmar’s eastern Kayin State. A Karen woman begins her story—that of a family torn apart by decades of conflict but committed to improving access to education in the community.

“I wanted to make a film about Karen people and explore their side of the story,” says Aye Nilar Kyaw, a 25-year-old Karen filmmaker born and raised in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and film production centre.

The film, which is in the Karen language with English subtitles, is “about a teacher’s life and how everybody around her was traumatised by the war,” the director explains.

Myanmar once claimed one of the world’s longest-running civil wars between the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) and the Karen National Union (KNU). The armed conflict took place from 1949 until the two signed a ceasefire agreement in 2012 yet, eight years later, lasting peace remains elusive.

Documenting Myanmar’s myriad conflicts raging in the borderlands—home to several of its ethnic minority groups and their armed factions—still presents a challenge to filmmakers and journalists. These areas remain sensitive subjects to the government in Nay Pyi Taw, the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organisations trying to keep inquisitive eyes away from what is happening on the ground in these minority communities.

Still from “Child of the Revolution”. Aye Nilar Kyaw / Yangon Film School 2018

If that strategy fails, then the Motion Picture Censor Board at the Ministry of Information reviews all films—including Aye Nilar Kyaw’s—to ensure they do not violate any religious, ethnic, political or moral codes, a set of directives which can seem quite arbitrary.

In fiction filmmaking this means submitting the script to the censor board before filming takes place. In documentary filmmaking—which is oftentimes unscripted—censorship could lead to cutting out entire scenes which may leave a film feeling incomplete.

Grace Swe Zin Htaik, 67, is a Myanmar Academy Award-winning actress and steering committee member of the government Motion Picture Censor Board and Film Development Department.

“I joined the censor board with the intention to review and revise the censor policy. Since 2015 we’ve relaxed some restrictions,” she claims, although she did not specify which ones when asked.

Aye Nilar Kyaw’s Child of the Revolution was to be screened at a 2019 film festival in Yangon but faced censorship because of references made by the film’s protagonist about Tatmadaw soldiers being the source of the trauma experienced by the Karen community.

“I submitted it [to the censor board]. And they wrote me a letter stating that I can’t show my film,” the director tells New Naratif. “I had to make edits and re-submit the film. This means I had to make two versions, the original version and one censored version to screen in Myanmar.”

After cutting a 30-second scene that attributed Karen trauma to Myanmar soldiers, Aye Nilar Kyaw says she was allowed to screen the film at local festivals. But, she adds, she had to censor the truth.

The Ministry of Information’s pre-publication censorship board for the print media was dismantled in 2012 during the nation’s transition from military dictatorship to quasi-democratic government. This led to a flourishing of opinions and critical news coverage in newspapers and magazines. Radio and television airwaves are still controlled by the state broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television, which has its own censorship guidelines pertaining to TV news and documentary deemed politically sensitive by the Ministry of Information.

Filmmaker Aye Nilar Kyaw in Yangon. Adam Bemma

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Myanmar film, or the nation’s “cinema centenary.” Myanmar Movie Day is celebrated annually on 13 October, since it marks the date the very first feature film, Love and Liquor, was screened in Myanmar in 1920. But, as many would attest, documentary film doesn’t receive the same kind of historical acknowledgement, or support, that fiction films do in the country.

In 3-ACT, a magazine dedicated to Myanmar’s cinema history and film theory, journalist Tin Htet Paing writes: “The documentary film on the funeral of the national leader U Tun Shein was known to be the very first Myanmar film.”

A notice at the beginning of this 1920 short documentary, then known as a newsreel, reads: “Please accept our apologies for the poor quality of the film.” It documents the life of politician U Tun Shein who once travelled to London to campaign for Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom.

“There are no resources on Burmese cinema. Almost everything is oral history,” says Aung Phyoe, co-founder of 3-ACT, who plans to write a book documenting the history of cinema in Myanmar.

Developing a Film Culture

From 1920 to 1960, Myanmar cinema flourished alongside educational newsreels—from silent to sound, and from black and white to colour film. The Burma Film Academy Awards were started in 1952 to celebrate the best in filmmaking. After the 1962 coup by General Ne Win, film and newsreels became a propaganda tool for his socialist regime. Censorship restrictions, which began under the British colonial government, became much more strict, with art made to serve the purposes of the military junta rather than the artist.

This was around the time when the documentary genre in Europe and North America took shape to become the filmmaking style we know it as today. Camera equipment became lighter to carry and cheaper to buy. Expensive film gave way to videocassettes. But in Myanmar—still under strict military rule—it was left up to the international media to cover the 1988 democracy uprising that shone a spotlight on the country.

Fast forward to 2005, and Yangon Film School (YFS) was born out of filmmaking workshops hosted by Anglo-Burmese director Lindsey Merrison. Not only is 2020 Myanmar’s cinema centenary, but it is also the 15th anniversary of the founding of YFS, known as the main purveyor of Myanmar documentary film.

This is where the majority of the country’s documentary filmmakers studied, learned the craft and honed their skills. Some 200 students have graduated from the school since it opened, including Aye Nilar Kyaw in 2018.

“We’ve noticed there’s been a generational shift. The students in 2005 were incredibly quiet. This was because of the oppressive atmosphere under the military government,” Merrison says. “But we do invite these older filmmakers to come back and talk about their films and to tutor the students. It’s all to generate a film culture and appreciation.”

Still from “Child of the Revolution”. Aye Nilar Kyaw / Yangon Film School 2018

The 2019 documentary Kachin Reporter tells the story of a journalist from Yangon who moves to Myitikina, the capital of Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, where a ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) broke down in 2011 and led to a renewed conflict that displaced over 100,000 people. The film’s protagonist, a journalist, interviews those displaced by the war, and as a result raises the ire of local officials.

“I had to hide my camera whenever we came to a [military] checkpoint,” says Seint Yamone Htoo, the 29-year-old director of Kachin Reporter, who spent four years working as a journalist before making the film. In fact, her protagonist is a former colleague who helped her realise that uncovering the truth is the essence of documentary.

But Seint Yamone Htoo knew that Kachin Reporter would never be allowed to screen at local film festivals, or air on local television, because of its scenes portraying life in a conflict zone. So, she never had to censor it.

“Even if I can’t screen it publicly [in Myanmar], I wanted to do a film that makes people feel something,” she tells New Naratif.

Filmmaker Seint Yamone Htoo. Adam Bemma

Child of the Revolution and Kachin Reporter come from a long line of YFS documentary shorts that tell the story of a country in transformation. But as for feature documentaries, the list of films is much shorter.

“I can count on my hand how many there are [in total]. When you research Myanmar documentary films online, the majority made are by international filmmakers, not local ones,” says Lay Thida, a 37-year-old film producer in Yangon.

The 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country was filmed clandestinely by a team of camera operators working for the Burmese exile broadcast media group Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). In it, they caught the world’s attention with footage of the first mass protests in the country seen since 1988, now known as the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Leaked footage of the protests to international media led to an explosion of interest in stories from Myanmar. But this time independent local filmmakers were experienced and ready, thanks to training by YFS and DVB.

“Dangerous to Film”

Myanmar’s very first feature length documentary was the 2010 film Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing. This celebrated documentary examines the government’s weak response to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people. The film was screened at 43 festivals and won four awards, according to Tin Win Naing, 46, a member of the Nargis film crew.

In one scene, villagers are shown picking up the pieces of their family homes, which were destroyed by a storm surge. Corpses float by passing boats in the Ayeyarwady delta. Fearing retribution from the authorities, the filmmakers chose to remain anonymous until 2012, when they revealed themselves publicly at Yangon’s annual Wathann Film Festival, where  the film was screened to a tearful audience.

“It was dangerous to film at the time. We always hid the camera in fear of being caught and arrested,” says Tin Win Naing, who also directed the 2016 award-winning In Exile.

“I haven’t faced censorship here because I’ve only screened my films at international festivals,” since the Nargis screening, he explains, adding that it is much easier to shoot documentaries in Myanmar today. Yet, Tin Win Naing says he is developing a new documentary idea to pitch for funding, but the film festival will not allow him to discuss it with media. “It’s a politically sensitive topic,” he says.

Other than Tin Win Naing, several local filmmakers in Yangon have feature documentary films in various stages of production. But, with little to no funding available inside Myanmar, they are still forced to take their films to international film festivals to seek investment.

“In Myanmar we don’t have any cultural support or funding. All of the filmmakers are using their own money to make films,” says Thu Thu Shein, the director of the Wathann Film Festival.

She says most filmmakers want to show their documentaries at local festivals like Wathann before trying the international festival circuit. But with censorship restrictions on film in Myanmar there is little chance to challenge the status quo.

Both Aye Nilar Kyaw and Seint Yamone Htoo are developing documentary feature film ideas. But they admit that censorship stifles creativity. When asked about this, they are optimistic that change in the film industry will happen once documentary is officially recognized alongside Myanmar’s commercial film industry. They even suggest adding categories for best documentary short and feature at the Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards, as is done at the Oscars.

Still from “Child of the Revolution”. Aye Nilar Kyaw / Yangon Film School 2018

Grace Swe Zin Htaik, the government censor and former actress, now focuses her efforts on transforming the censorship system from one that orders content removed to a film classification rating system—such as PG (Parental Guidance) or R (Restricted)—to protect children from seeing things the government thinks they should not.

At the end of Child of the Revolution the Karen teacher ponders the fate of her community. Now that war has ended in Kayin State, education is key to a new future for its children, according to the teacher. “And I totally understand what they’re going through,” the protagonist concludes as the film fades to black with her pen and notebook in the foreground.

Although Aye Nilar Kyaw does not name her film’s protagonist, she gives special thanks to her and her family in the credits.

“She told me ‘I never thought in my whole life that someone would come and hear my story and make it into a film.’ Then she cried,” Aye Nilar Kyaw recalls.

“Her father cried too and told me that he didn’t know that his daughter and family struggled so much.”

Published @NewNaratif

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Print

Myanmar Women Seek Social and Political Change in 2020

Nearly five million first time voters (aged 18-22) are anticipated to cast their ballots in Myanmar’s 2020 general election on 8 November, according to figures from the last census.

While youth involvement in political parties is uncommon, the number of women standing as candidates in the election – the country’s second since the transition from military to civilian rule began in 2012 – has risen dramatically.

This is due to the role Aung San Suu Kyi has played as leader of the National League for Democracy government over the last four years. But in smaller political parties across the country, women’s representation is growing at a much slower pace.

“Within political parties, men are nominated more often. If there were a proper representational system there would be more opportunities for women to get involved in the parties and the elections,” said Htet Oo Wai, 34, Director at the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD).

In the last year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has travelled to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide, and has spearheaded the country’s coronavirus response using Facebook Live to deliver timely news and information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inside Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity has soared. Billboards and posters bearing her image are everywhere in Yangon, the largest city. She is widely cited by aspiring women politicians as to why they got involved in the political process, according to the Asia Foundation, an international development agency.

“Within the National League for Democracy [government] the women [members of parliament] perform much better than the male MPs. I think voters realize women can perform better if given a chance,” said Cheery Zahau, 39, a political and human rights activist.

This year, the National League for Democracy almost doubled the number of women candidates it had five years ago. Women now make up 20 percent of the NLD’s slate of candidates in the upcoming election.

In the last election the NLD had 13.5 percent women candidates, which is roughly equivalent to the percentage of women elected to parliament.

But Myanmar’s constitution states that 25 percent of all seats belong to the military. So this means women’s political representation nationwide stands at 10 percent because the military has only six women in its 166 designated seats.

The Asia Foundation’s 2016 report, Women’s Political Participation in Myanmar found after the last election: “The number of female representatives in the national parliament more than doubled from 6.0 to 13.7% of all elected MPs; 23 women parliamentarians entered the upper house and 44 in the lower house.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has come under criticism from former members of parliament. Thet Thet Khine, 53, accused the NLD government of trying to silence her from talking to the media.

So last year, Thet Thet Khine quit the NLD to found a new political party, the Pioneer People’s Party (PPP). She believes fielding only 20 per cent women candidates isn’t enough to effect real change in government.

“I think it’s a universal problem that the roles of women and youth are underestimated. We are trying to reverse this trend,” she said. “We are the party that recognizes the role of women.”

Naw Ohn Hla, will stand as candidate for Kayin Ethnic Affairs Minister in Yangon Region for the United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP).

Fifteen years ago, Naw Ohn Hla was expelled from the NLD because of her activism. But she kept volunteering for the party until 2012 – the year Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament and the transition to democracy began in Myanmar.

Since 2016, Naw Ohn Hla has become a thorn in the side of the NLD government – trying to hold it accountable to women, youth and ethnic minorities.

Naw Ohn Hla, 58, will stand as candidate for Kayin Ethnic Affairs Minister in Yangon Region for the United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP). This new party is hoping to reach voters who feel alienated by the NLD.

“Since we established our party, there were 30 percent of females. It is already included in our party’s principles. When we have more females, we will be able to understand people’s difficulties with the mindset of a mother,” she said.

Defeated in the last election by the NLD candidate in her hometown of Falam, Chin State, Cheery Zahau has since worked hard to unite three ethnic Chin political parties to contest this upcoming election under one umbrella.

The Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) was formed in 2018. It hopes to win big on 8 November and form a state government. But Cheery Zahau said most male party leaders are still hesitant on the idea of gender equality.

“We approved 30 percent of women’s participation in our party both in the community and as candidates. The policy is there but we don’t have the strategy to get more women involved. It’s still a struggle,” she added.

Legislation has been discussed in Myanmar for a gender quota system to mandate an increase on women’s participation in political parties. Some political parties have adopted it voluntarily. This could help to boost the number of women in government as has been seen in countries with the same electoral system as Myanmar such as the UK, Canada, Kenya and India.

But many in the NLD government are hesitant to mandate a space for women for fear of having them seen as needing help and not being electable on their own merits.

With the most famous woman in the country leading the current government under a power sharing agreement with the military, Aung San Suu Kyi lacks the necessary power to institute real social and political change in Myanmar.

“When we talk about women, when we talk about youth, the narrative is always as vulnerable groups,” said NIMD’s Htet Oo Wai.

“I hope to see women and youth viewed differently. They are capable and ready to take the lead if they are nominated or elected,” she added.

Published @Prachathai

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Print

Southeast Asia Dispatches: Freedom of Expression in Myanmar

NN_SEAD_PeacockGeneration_Header-1200x500After winning the general elections in 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) became the first democratically elected, civilian-led government in Myanmar since 1962, which kindled hope that the country would see a significant shift in freedom of expression. Almost five years on, substantive changes have yet to happen.

On this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches, Adam Bemma speaks to Thinzar Shunlei Yi, advocacy coordinator at Action Committee for Democracy Development, and Maung Saungkha, executive director of ATHAN about freedom of expression in the country under the NLD government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Radio

Myanmar’s menacing frontier

The dangers of reporting on Myanmar’s border-security forces and their business interests.

Journalist Naw Betty Han rubs the bruises on her wrists left by the handcuffs she was forced to wear while detained for 27 hours by the Kayin State’s Border Guard Force (BGF) – a unit under the command of Myanmar’s military. In early March 2020, Naw Betty, a reporter for Yangon-based magazine Frontier Myanmar, was on assignment in Myawaddy, a border town along the Thaunggin-Moei River across the Thai town of Mae Sot. She was taking photos of a casino construction site with Myanmar Times photographer Mar Naw when she was approached by three men.

They accused the two of photographing the nearby Kayin State BGF base. Despite their media accreditation, the two journalists’ backpacks were searched and all of their photos deleted. Before they were eventually blindfolded, handcuffed and driven to one of the Kayin state BGF headquarters 20 minutes away, Naw Betty was able to send messages to friends about her predicament. For this, a BGF soldier stepped on her hand with his boot and cracked her phone screen with the butt of his flashlight. She showed me the bruises on her fingers and her damaged smartphone – somehow still working – to prove it. But her message reached colleagues in Yangon and a social-media campaign soon began to alert the authorities about Naw Betty and Mar Naw’s captivity. They were released the next evening.

The Kayin State BGF tried to distance itself from the incident, citing the detention as an unsanctioned overreach by a junior soldier. However, the attack on two journalists was likely a response to increased scrutiny of the BGF’s activities. The Kayin State BGF has stakes in several lucrative business ventures in the region, including a USD 15 billion project for a ‘new international city’ funded by controversial Chinese investors in the border town of Shwe Kokko, ten miles north of Myawaddy. These businesses have come under serious local opposition and media scrutiny, because they face allegations of land grabbing and have been accused of operating as fronts for online gambling. The source of investments are also dubious. Naw Betty herself has been reporting on the BGF’s links with Chinese investors and how the business nexus operates – often illegally and at the cost of the region and its residents.

Border business

Formed in 2009 and 2010 after the integration of several ethnic armed groups into the Tatmadaw, the Border Guard Forces are militias located along the country’s border with China and Thailand. According to the development organisation Asia Foundation’s 2016 report ‘Militias in Myanmar’, the country has 23 battalion-size militias, each 326 soldiers large, across its borderlands in Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Kayin states. As historian Thant Myint-U notes in his 2011 book Where China Meets India, “The Burmese military leadership… offered the ex-insurgent armies a deal on their future armed status: reorganize your men into a ‘Border Guard Force’, that will partly be officered by us and that will ultimately come under our authority.” Interestingly, among the country’s various militia groups, the BGFs are distinguished by the presence of soldiers originally from the Tatmadaw in their ranks.

In the Karen-majority Kayin state, the BGFs largely consist of a breakaway faction of the Karen National Union (KNU), which took up arms against the government one year after Burma’s independence in 1948, and was engaged in one of the longest running conflicts in the world until the 2012 ceasefire with the Tatmadaw. Known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the split group signed a peace agreement with the military two years before the KNU did, and was eventually transformed into the Kayin State BGF. According to a 2020 report by the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN), a network of Karen civil-society groups:

One of the leaders of the DKBA was Saw Chit Thu, a former member of the KNU Special Battalion 101 based at Wangkha… After helping the Burma Army [Tatmadaw] seize Kawmoorah, his DKBA forces were permitted to share control of the lucrative cross border trade in the area, including the logging business. A sawmill was set up north of Kawmoorah, and within a few years, DKBA families, workers and traders had settled around the timber camp and established the village of Shwe Kokko Myaing.

Colonel Saw Chit Thu now heads the Kayin State BGF central command, based in Shwe Kokko, which is located along the Myanmar-Thailand border and is home to around 6000, mostly Karen people. He is also the managing director of Chit Linn Myaing Co Ltd, the business arm of the Kayin State BGF. In recent years, the area has seen a surge of Chinese-owned private businesses, including the planned New City Project. Many believe that the town may not only become a gambling hotspot, but also a place for smuggling weapons, wildlife, drugs and human beings, as is seen in several border areas under the control of ethnic armed groups. The region is also seeing increased ethnic tension, with the local residents complaining about the influx of Chinese migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented.

“These are sensitive issues and those groups involved [such as the BGFs] do not like CSOs [civil-society organisations] and media to investigate and report on these activities,” says Tom Kramer, the coordinator of the Myanmar Programme at the Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy think tank.

In the three months leading up to her detention, Naw Betty had travelled from Yangon to Myawaddy seven times to investigate the Shwe Kokko New City Project and allegations that the BGF was providing protection to Chinese-owned businesses. She also wanted to continue reporting on the peace process in the Kayin State. As someone from the Karen community, she felt a need to cover the transition of the state from a battlefield to a marketplace, a process that has come to be known as ceasefire capitalism.

Fuzzy authority

In principle, the BGFs come under the Ministry of Border Affairs, one of the three key government ministries controlled by the Tatmadaw (along with the Ministries of Defense and Home Affairs) according to the military-drafted 2008 constitution. In 2011, a government spokesperson said that armed groups must assume “the State’s duties as Border Guard Forces and regional militia forces in compliance with the constitution under the command of the Tatmadaw.” The Kayin State BGFs, therefore, are fully integrated into the military command structure. Journalists, civil society and human rights groups, however, argue that the BGF lacks oversight or accountability from the Tatmadaw, which itself lacks civilian supervision; one-fourth of all seats in national, state and regional governments in the country are allocated to members of the military, giving them an effective veto over any legislation.

Part of the problem is the unclear description of the force and its status in official documents, including the Constitution. According to Burma News International (BNI), a network of independent media organisations, “There is no official governmental document that defines their BGF policy. The people’s militia force is mentioned in the Defense Services, Chapter 7, of the 2008 constitution. However, the wording is vague and no details about the role of the people’s militia are provided.”

This allows the BGFs to often ignore government regulations and the authority of local police and officials. In fact, despite the government’s suspension of the New City Project due to a breach of investment regulations, reports indicate the construction continued for some time. While the BGF chief said back in August 2019 that construction work at Shwe Kokko had been halted, according to a story in Frontier Myanmar from July 2020, both satellite imagery and onsite visits contradicted this claim. “The government finally confirmed in June [2020] that it had formed a tribunal to investigate the alleged irregularities at Shwe Kokko,” the report noted.

The BGF’s flouting of government regulations and undermining of Kayin State authorities, however, doesn’t necessarily mean this is a completely local affair. As the KPSN report notes, evidence indicates that the project couldn’t have gone so far without the Tatmadaw’s backing: “the Chinese investors’ confidence in extending construction far outside the ‘official’ permit, and in publishing their own extra-legal investment regulations, and most importantly, the absolute control of the BGF by the Burma Army”.

‘Not free’

While reporting from Myanmar’s borderlands along Thailand and China remains particularly risky, gains in media freedom since the end of state censorship in 2012 have been steadily reversed over the last three years. This is evident in the continuing arrests of journalists across the country, the most well-known example of which was the arrest and prosecution of two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. In 2017, the two had exposed the mass execution of several Rohingya civilians in a village in the Rakhine State. They were convicted, but later released from prison by presidential pardon in 2019. Both have since left Myanmar with their families.

In 2020, independent news organisations such as Karen News, and Rakhine-based Development Media Group and Narinjara News, have been banned from local telecommunication operator’s networks by the government for allegedly disseminating ‘fake news’. Yangon-based Khit Thit Media, Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, and Sittwe-based Narinjara News are all facing anti-terrorism charges for publishing interviews with the outlawed Arakan Army, which has been fighting for autonomy in the Rakhine and Chin states of western Myanmar. Today, Reporters Without Borders ranks Myanmar 139 out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while Freedom House categorises Myanmar as ‘Not Free’.

Back in Yangon, Naw Betty couldn’t sleep for four days upon her return home; she had to see a therapist and take medication to treat her insomnia. “They pointed guns at us and threatened to shoot us. They said we [had] betrayed Kayin people. I didn’t understand what they were talking about,” she told me. She had told them that they weren’t in Myawaddy to report on BGF activities but to investigate businesses operating illegally in the area. Her explanation was ignored until Saw Chit Thu arrived. He had them both taken to the state capital, Hpa’an, and released. He assured them, and the media, that those responsible for this incident would be punished with up to 30 days in detention.

It’s hard for Naw Betty to believe Saw Chit Thu. She plans to return to Myawaddy to continue her investigative reporting. These days, she tells me, she can sleep without medication, but one thing she learned in captivity weighs heavily on her mind. “I learned from [the Kayin State BGFs] that before us they had arrested six others for taking photos,” she says. “I’m still investigating this. I didn’t get detailed information. I’m not sure if they’re alive or not.”

Published @HimalSouthasian

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Print

This 25-year-old podcaster is Myanmar’s leading voice for gender equality

Nandar is trying to build a movement through her two podcasts.

Sitting cross-legged on a couch, Nandar (who goes by one name) places a pair of headphones over her ears and a lapel microphone on her collar. Seated across from her, in a makeshift home recording studio, is A.J., a feminist documentary filmmaker.

Nandar, 25, attaches the microphone to A.J.’s collar then presses the record button. The interview begins. Her voice is unmistakable.

“This is Feminist Talks, a new podcast featuring interviews with Myanmar women discussing their profession or expertise from a feminist point of view,” said Nandar emphatically in the Burmese language.

Addressing stereotypes

Born and raised in Mansam, a village located in the Namtu Township of northeastern Shan state, Nandar (né Nandu Gawali) learned first-hand of the hardships women face in going against the traditional values of family and community in Myanmar.

“My mom told me I was a fierce child. I never liked to conform to stereotypes and never dressed the way my parents wanted me to,” said Nandar, wearing a t-shirt with “Menstruation is not shameful” emblazoned across it.

“When you live in a small village and overcome the barriers [placed on you], no one can limit you,” she added.

Nandar is a feminist, a translator, a theatre director and a podcaster. She has translated three books, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, from Burmese into English, co-directed The Vagina Monologues for the last three years, and hosts two podcasts.

“I have a large following of young girls and I want to make sure they understand women’s issues. Boys too,” she said with a smile.

Building a movement

Nandar is trying to build a movement through podcasts, as well as her various speaking engagements at universities or international events.

Feminist Talks (listen on Apple/Google) is in fact Nandar’s second podcast — which launched on July 3 on Myanmar Women’s Day 2020 and distributed on Anchor. Last August, Nandar launched G-Taw Zagar Wyne (listen on Google/Soundcloud), a podcast focusing on women’s issues.

She hopes to see her new Feminist Talks podcast reach an even bigger audience than G-Taw Zagar Wyne. She doesn’t actively track her numbers, but her plan is to reach an audience beyond Myanmar’s borders and bring listeners into a broader discussion on feminism — even by including male feminists.

She said G-Taw Zagar Wyne tackles taboo topics like menstruation, abortion and consent in a more informative way rather than through storytelling like Feminist Talks hopes to do.

G-Taw Zagar Wyne is a nickname given to Nandar. In English, it means a woman willing to speak up and start a dialogue. She translates it as “boss lady”.

For International Women’s Day last March, Nandar hosted a live podcast recording of G-Taw Zagar Wyne. It featured an interview with Myanmar social media influencer, and beauty blogger, Win Min Than. The two had an engaging and sometimes funny conversation on relationships in Myanmar.

A fresh angle

In the crowd at that event was someone who’s been closely following Nandar’s work. Marisa Charles has spent the last eight years working in Myanmar. She’s become a trusted friend and mentor to Nandar.

“When Nandar speaks about her own situation, it’s that kind of personal storytelling that is adding a new angle to what has been going on for many years in the women’s rights movement,” said Charles.

“Podcasts are not popular in Myanmar yet so it’s refreshing to see something other than a training,” she added.

Nandar’s communication skills in both Burmese and English seem innate. She got her start at home, in Shan State.

“I always craved attention growing up. The place I got the most attention was in school because I was one of the best students in the classroom,” Nandar said. “I was forced by teachers to do public speaking.”

When she returns home from Yangon to visit her family, Nandar said she’s now treated as a local celebrity returning from the big city.

This is quite a drastic change from her youth, when Nandar was viewed as a troublemaker for not conforming to her role as a young woman set out by custom.

She refused marriage and left to pursue her studies in Yangon, where she received scholarships to study outside of the country, first in Thailand and then in Bangladesh.

“Now, everyone in my village respects me. They tell their daughters to be like me,” Nandar said with a wry smile.

She motions to A.J. to stop and hits the pause button on the audio recorder as a street vendor outside her home studio window shouts loudly so everyone on the block can hear what he’s hawking.

She waits for the vendor to pass, then returns to the interview.

“Nandar doesn’t give a lot of answers to people, but she brings them along the path of understanding. Just saying words like abortion is moving forward. You can’t talk about something if you don’t name it,” Charles said.

Before Nandar became known as Myanmar’s trailblazing podcaster, the young feminist interned at Rainfall Feminist Organization in Yangon. There, Nandar put what she learned to found Purple Feminists Group as a means to educate people on gender-related issues.

“She’s a great storyteller. She’s young. She’s energetic. Her public speaking skills are unquestionable,” said Shunn Lei from Rainfall Feminist Organization.

“It’s good that we have choices [in Myanmar], like feminist books, podcasts and blogs. But it would be great if we can make a platform to build solidarity among different classes, races and ethnic groups. This is what we need in the feminist movement.”

Published @Splice

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Print

Southeast Asia Dispatches: Myanmar’s Trailblazing Podcaster

On this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches, Adam Bemma speaks to Myanmar’s trailblazing podcaster, Nandar. Last year, Nandar started the G-Taw Zagar Wyne podcast along with members of her Purple Feminists Group in Yangon to amplify women’s voices in the country. The name G-Taw Zagar Wyne comes from a nickname Nandar was given growing up in Shan State. It means a woman willing to speak up to share her ideas and begin a dialogue.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Radio

Once a Safe Haven, Bangkok Now a “Hunting Ground” for Dissidents

Joseph steps off the subway train onto Bangkok’s Chatuchak metro station platform. As the 29-year-old Laotian refugee exits to the street above he notices two men trailing behind him.

Both men are carrying large suitcases that seem light to the touch as they lift them easily on to the escalator, Joseph* recalls.

He had recently read about the hit squad that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Istanbul and stuffed his remains into a suitcase. The killers then fled Turkey, where it all went down, without a trace.

Terrified, Joseph rushes into the street and hides behind a large electrical box. He watches the men talk to each other before quickly searching the surrounding area and departing.

Several other political activists and dissidents from neighbouring Mekong countries who have fled to Bangkok seeking asylum have felt that same fear as Joseph.

Some human rights advocates in Thailand have begun to call the capital a “hunting ground” as repressive regimes search Bangkok streets or its detention facilities to find and forcibly repatriate their nationals, whether or not they’re registered as refugees or awaiting refugee status from the UN.

This violates the international legal principle of non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

Following September 11 in 2001, the United States’ “War on Terror” was brought to the region as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up and operated its first “black site” in Thailand, where terrorism suspects were brought for “enhanced interrogation.”

“After that, the door was left wide open,” says Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch in Bangkok.

The current CIA director Gina Haspel ran the site in northeast Thailand, where suspects were allegedly tortured.

In an attempt to replicate the US activities, Thai authorities have been accused by rights groups of using the same tactics and are alleged to have allowed foreign agents to monitor and surveil dissidents seeking asylum in Bangkok and its environs.

A Thai police spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.

But it is the story of five missing Thai Republicans and two of their bodies discovered dead and mutilated in the Mekong River in December 2018 that has exposed a sinister connection between Thailand and its neighbouring countries.

Thai folk band Fai Yen was hiding in the Laos capital Vientiane following the gruesome deaths of these known Thai anti-monarchists.

The band had fled Thailand to Laos in the aftermath of the 2014 Thai military coup under the increasing threat of Article 112, the nation’s lese-majeste law, which has been used to jail critical voices. But soon after their exodus, Fai Yen began to fear they were targeted for execution like their compatriots.

An international response called #SaveFaiyen was launched on social media. They received asylum from the French government and await refugee status.

“I Thought Bangkok Would Be Safe”

Those who have fled to Thailand—once considered a safe haven—from countries in the Mekong region have faced similar threats.

In 2018, Cambodian translator Rath Rott Mony was arrested by Thai police in Bangkok and deported to Phnom Penh where he was sentenced to two years in jail over a televised film he worked on about child sexual exploitation.

In 2019, Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat was awaiting a hearing with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok but disappeared from a shopping mall and turned up last March in a Hanoi courtroom facing trial.

Nhat was sentenced in March 2020 to 10 years in jail for fraud.

It is suspected by Nhat’s family and associates in Thailand that Vietnamese security agents forcibly repatriated him with the help of local authorities.

About 5,000 urban asylum seekers and refugees from more than 40 countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, were in Thailand last year, UNHCR says. Due to protection concerns, UNHCR declined to provide the exact number of those fleeing persecution to Thailand from neighbouring countries.

Many asylum seekers and registered refugees in Bangkok still live in fear of arrest, detention and possible deportation from Thailand. But now they have the added fear of enforced disappearance or extrajudicial killing.

Groups like Asylum Access Thailand are able to provide support to asylum seekers to access and apply for refugee status with the UNHCR office in Bangkok.

Becoming a UN-registered refugee is the only official way to find resettlement to a third country like France. But as Joseph attests, it does nothing to quell the fear he has felt every day since arriving in Thailand two years ago.

Joseph has had to move apartments several times in Bangkok because of threats to his life, which he believes came from Thai and Laos authorities. He fled Laos in 2018 across the border to Thailand.

Joseph remembered how six years earlier, Laotian community development worker Sombath Somphone disappeared from the same streets of Vientiane where he was hiding.

Sombath has never been seen or heard from since. The Laotian government denies it had anything to do with the disappearance despite video evidence proving police involvement.

Once in Thailand, Joseph made his way by car from Nong Khai on the Laos-Thailand border to Bangkok.

“I thought Bangkok would be a safe place since there are so many human rights groups here. I was wrong. I realised being in Thailand wasn’t as easy as I had been told,” he says.

“Information on Those Who’ve Disappeared”

Od Sayavong was a UN-registered refugee in Bangkok awaiting resettlement to a third country when he suddenly disappeared from the city late last year.

Od’s whereabouts are still unknown. But increased cooperation between the Thai and Laos authorities, plus repeated violations of non-refoulement, have led many rights groups to fear the worst.

Thailand never signed the UN Refugee Convention and does not guarantee any protection to refugees and asylum seekers. But with the help of the UNHCR, the Thai government will begin a national screening mechanism this year to help identify refugees.

Chanmony is a UN-registered refugee from Cambodia. She fled from Phnom Penh to Bangkok last year after receiving threats to her life for participating in protests.

“I came to Bangkok because I thought my son and I would be safe. But now I realise we’re not,” she says. “Police have come looking for me. But I don’t answer the door.”

Under Thailand’s national screening mechanism, all UN-registered refugees must register with the Thai government.

But for those seeking asylum from Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia, the Thai government could still consider them economic migrants searching for work, rather than potential refugees fleeing persecution at home.

This year, civil society groups renewed calls for the Thai and Laos governments to investigate enforced disappearances on both sides of the Mekong River.

“This issue creates a chilling effect. We have to work regionally. The families need to receive information on the whereabouts of their loved ones who’ve disappeared,” says Piyanut Kotsan, Thailand country director of Amnesty International.

Draft legislation called the Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act has yet to be signed into law by Thailand’s parliament. This would allow authorities to hold those last seen with the victim accountable.

The legislation could possibly help Thai authorities in their case to find Od, the missing Laotian refugee.

“Neighbours Doing the Same Thing”

Piyanut from Amnesty spoke about enforced disappearances at the annual Amnesty International Human Rights in Asia Pacific Review of 2019, held in Bangkok earlier this year.

The Amnesty report highlights human rights in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, but Laos did not receive a mention.

Joseph knows the feeling of being forgotten. Besides the lack of progress by Thai police on Od’s case, his friend inside Laos, Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison shortly after Od’s disappearance.

Muay was convicted of violating a law against spreading “anti-state propaganda.” She had shared a 17-minute Facebook Live video drawing attention to the Laotian government’s inaction in communities affected by flooding in the south of the country.

“People should care more about Laos. We all need to work together,” says Emilie Pradichit, director of Manushya Foundation, a rights group based in Bangkok.

Muay is a 31-year-old mother who worked as a tour guide. She was supporting her parents before she was jailed for speaking out against the government in Laos.

“I feel guilty about Muay’s arrest because I encouraged her to continue her work. I was working with her and saying we need to stand up and denounce human rights violations in Laos,” Joseph says.

Joseph and other Laotian refugees have teamed up with Thai political activists to form a new group called Humanity Beyond Borders. This group seeks to assist those fleeing from repressive regimes in the Mekong region.

To kick off, they have launched the #FreeMuay campaign on social media to highlight Muay’s case and the need for international pressure on Laos to release her from prison.

They are hoping it could be successful like #SaveFaiyen was for the Thai folk band.

But for asylum seekers and registered UN refugees like Joseph and Chanmony in today’s Thailand, there’s no guaranteed protection from non-refoulement, or enforced disappearance.

Sunai at Human Rights Watch believes international action will not be forthcoming due to the deteriorating human rights situation in Thailand that has taken place over the last two decades.

“If we want to look at the precedent that has been set we need to look at the way that Thailand collaborated with the Americans. Other countries followed suit,” he says.

“The Thai government granted permission to the Americans to carry out this rendition [program] and the Chinese are doing it. Now our neighbours, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians and the Lao are doing the same thing.”

*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.

Published @NewNaratif

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Print

Myanmar’s ‘Peacock Generation’ silenced as political prisoners being politicized

Three Burmese men wearing traditional blue longyis shackled at the waist and feet carefully step down, one after the other, from a police truck in Ayeyarwady Region – 84 kms from the commercial capital, Yangon.

Armed officers lead Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu and Paing Phyo Min into a courthouse.

The three are members of The Peacock Generation, a troupe of performers jailed in 2019 for mocking Myanmar’s military (along with three other members; Su Yadanar Myint, Kay Khine Tun and Zaw Lin Htut, also in prison).

“The military wants to censor and give a warning to the younger generation not to speak out against wrongdoings. It’s a threat to our freedom of expression,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a 25-year-old spokesperson for The Peacock Generation.

All six were sentenced last year in Yangon for violating 505(a) of Myanmar’s penal code for performing thangyat, Myanmar’s traditional form of satirical street theatre, and 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for broadcasting it to Facebook.

But they still face charges of criminal defamation for performing during last year’s Thingyan New Year festivities in Ayeyarwady Region.

Bulldog vs. Peacock

“We [displayed] a picture of a bulldog in an army general’s uniform,” said Nyein Chan Soe, a 25-year-old member of The Peacock Generation arrested in 2019 but released after charges against him were dropped.

Nyein Chan Soe, 25, is a student actiivst and comedian who goes by the stage name of Chit Yone. He’s a member of The Peacock Generation, arrested in 2019 but released after charges against him were dropped.

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the peacock is a symbol of resistance first adopted by student unions and independence leaders.

Then it became the logo of a movement fighting for a return to democracy during military rule from 1962 to 1988. This led to the establishment of the National League for Democracy that has a peacock on its flag.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide election victory in 1990 but wasn’t allowed to take power until after Myanmar’s military junta allowed a second election – during its touted “roadmap to democracy” – in 2015.

Myanmar’s military holds 25 per cent of all seats in government – giving it veto power. It also controls three key ministries (Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs).

From 1989 to 2013, the junta banned thangyat performances during the Thingyan New Year because the NLD had used it to raise awareness about the need for democratic change in Myanmar.

Students, artists and activists formed The Peacock Generation in 2014 to revive this form of traditional entertainment. The authorities began to monitor these annual street performances.

“The way thangyat is performed is a way to make [people] change their behavior. It’s not naming and shaming. It’s just a lovely way of telling the truth,” said Ma Thida, president of PEN Myanmar and former NLD party member. “It criticizes everybody not just the government [or military].”

Political Prisoners

Last April, President Win Myint released 24,900 prisoners in the government’s largest amnesty to date. But according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) only 26 freed were political prisoners; 183 remain behind bars including the six members of The Peacock Generation.

International rights groups consider The Peacock Generation leaders in the fight for freedom of expression in Myanmar. For their efforts, they were awarded the 2020 E.U. Schuman Award.

Ma Thida believes they weren’t released in the amnesty because of the 2020 election expected this November. All six members of The Peacock Generation are noted political activists that could help mobilize the youth vote.

But recent accusations against Zayar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu have shown the jailed activists in a new light.

Local media reported the two had spread online hate speech towards the Rohingya in 2017. This came after the military’s brutal response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and resulting crackdown against Rohingya villages and murder of civilians in Rakhine state.

The UN said the military assault and unjust treatment of the Rohingya bear “the hallmarks of genocide.”

“In Myanmar, there is a difference between human rights defenders and political activists,” explained Thinzar Shunlei Yi. “These two are not the same.”

What she means is that political activists in Myanmar shouldn’t necessarily be recognized as human rights defenders, as is the case in other Southeast Asian countries.

Political activists in Myanmar may want the military to leave the political arena to the civilian leaders, but may still support the military in keeping the country secure against ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) operating in the borderlands.

‘Othering’ the Rohingya

Some of the Myanmar’s most celebrated democracy activists and politicians have been accused of making Islamophobic statements in the past. Many still refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali” which means they view them as immigrants from Bangladesh and not native to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community has been excluded from the country’s 135 recognized ethnic groups.

“In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi issued an order to the media and [foreign] embassies not to use the word ‘Rohingya.’ This caused a lot of problems,” said Moe Thway, 39, president of Generation Wave youth movement.

“Now nearly one million Rohingya [have been] displaced and more than 10,000 were killed. Many lives were destroyed.”

The 2018 prison sentence handed to Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for uncovering the murder of Rohingya civilians by soldiers in Rakhine state’s Inn Dinn village saw Myanmar’s recently won press freedom from 2013-17 start to backslide.

In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 139 out of 185 – a 20-point drop in four years.

According to Myanmar’s ATHAN – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization – a total of 1,051 people have been charged under laws restricting free speech since the NLD government came to power.

This year, Myanmar’s Thingyan New Year was cancelled because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19. There were no thangyat performances in 2020. But The Peacock Generation is hoping to return to the stage once released from prison.

They’ll have a lot of questions to answer about statements made in the past. But even though six are in jail, The Peacock Generation’s supporters have gone on to attack negative media coverage via the troupe’s Facebook page.

“The Peacock Generation’s spirit is strong. A prison sentence will not stop them from expressing their ideas and opinions. They’ve decided to raise their voice and fight for political reform,” said Nyein Chan Soe.

Published @Prachathai

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Print

Yangon’s Pirates of Pansodan St. – A new copyright law may bankrupt Myanmar’s book business

Along Yangon’s Pansodan Street toward Merchant Road, located among the heritage Victorian buildings of colonial-era Rangoon, a pirated book market thrives. The books lining the shelves of street-side stalls, or inside adjacent bookstores, give the appearance of a booming business, featuring longtime bestsellers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma to George Orwell’s Burmese Days. But a closer inspection reveals that these are photocopied versions of the originals being sold for a fraction of the price.

As Myanmar’s new copyright law comes into effect this year, pirated books will likely begin to disappear from the bargain shelves, and many bookstores will feel the pinch. Urged on by publishers in the country, the government has begun to hold panel discussions on the new laws. Writers – many disgruntled by past copyright infringements – have also begun to highlight copyright issues through campaigns. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. Pirated books have seen Myanmar through periods of media suppression, they help the public learn about sensitive topics like the Rohingya crisis, and, some might argue, they add value to the economy.

Pirates versus publishers

Book piracy, the unauthorised use or reproduction of another’s work, is a term that evokes maritime theft and plunder. The industry dates back to 16th-century England and 17th-century Europe. In Myanmar, as in many emerging economies, pirated books are commonplace.

But over the years Myanmar’s book pirates have faced increasing opposition from Myanmar’s publishing industry. Publishers like Myo Aung, who sells imported books, have been asking the government to adopt modern intellectual-property legislation for the last ten years. Myanmar did not sign the 1886 Berne Convention – an international agreement governing copyright, and the Burma Copyright Act of 1914, conceived prior to the advent of the internet and applicable only to domestically produced literary works, has been ineffective.

Publishers claim that their industry faces structural challenges, such as rising rents and poor logistics and distribution systems. In 2019, a new copyright law was adopted along with patent, trademark and industrial-design laws to bring Myanmar into a new age of intellectual property rights. The law will impact approximately 2,822 registered publishing businesses in Myanmar. Still, according to the new law, Myanmar’s President Win Myint must announce the date of enforcement for the law to be applicable. “I told the government not to wait [to implement the law]. The earliest date possible is good for everyone,” said Myo Aung, owner of Pyi Zone Publishing House in Yangon.

Myo Aung believes there are roughly 100 unregistered book publishers still operating in Yangon, where the country’s publishing industry is located. Looming enforcement has sent shockwaves through Yangon’s pirated-book market to nearby streets where pirated DVDs and CDs can be found. The new law extends to audiovisual, film, architectural and choreographic works, among others.

Piracy during dictatorship

Parallel to Pansodan Street, just one block east on Merchant Road, is 37th Street. This is where Ko Harry Books, Bagan Book House and OS Bookshop are located. It is also home to the Old Book Market that sells secondhand children’s books and novels in English and Burmese languages, buried alongside pirated nonfiction books on Burma’s turbulent political history.

Following the 1962 military coup, many books were banned outright by the new regime and freedom of speech was severely restricted. As a result, many people smuggled books into the country, photocopied them and sold them clandestinely. At the time, piracy was critical for spreading new ideas. “In the past, booksellers would hide banned books. You needed to request the book. He would look at you to determine whether he should sell it to you or not,” said Myo Myo, a Yangon-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “If the authorities knew he was selling banned books he could be detained,” she added.

It was only after the National League for Democracy’s 2012 by-election victory that restrictions on media and censorship were relaxed. Gradually, books on political affairs were displayed openly, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s own books and the numerous biographies written about her.

U Htay Aung runs Bagan Book House, established in 1976 by his father as the preeminent destination for used English-language books. But secondhand books were difficult to bring into the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and now very few used books are on display inside. Instead, the walls and shelves are covered instead with pirated books. Htay Aung said he knew he risked arrest and interrogation by police and security agents in the past for carrying certain titles on Myanmar. Today, he carries on his family’s tradition of selling a curated selection of low-cost used and pirated books. It is still the go-to bookshop downtown for locals, foreigners and tourists looking for cheap reads in English.

Bagan Book House also carries books on sensitive topics like the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. These books are flaunted next to more academic texts that also would have been banned before 2012, because they are critical of the role of Myanmar’s military in society and politics. In today’s Myanmar, the most risky books are those about the Rohingya community, against whom the Myanmar military carried out what it called “clearance operations”, but which the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Pirated copies of Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict (2018), The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (2016), and Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (2017) are available in English. But they are unlikely to have Burmese translations any time soon, since translations may cause offence to nationalists and Buddhist monks, many of whom reject the name ‘Rohingya’ and – imputing foreignness to this community – use the appellation ‘Bengali’ instead.

The disgruntled author

Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner has spent the last 40 years reporting and writing about Myanmar. Walking down Pansodan Street one day, he spotted pirated versions of his books on Myanmar, along with their unofficial Burmese translations on bestseller shelves. They ranged in price from MMK 5,000 to 10,000 (USD 3.50 to 7) while the original copies can cost between USD 25 to 45 at two of the country’s most popular book chains, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre.

Lintner told me, “I haven’t been paid even one kyat for any of the altogether seven books which were translated into Burmese with [or] without permission from me or the original publisher.” He added, “Some Myanmar publishers have asked me for permission to translate books, but I have to explain to them that they can’t ask me for permission to do that. They have to ask the publishers.”

To challenge piracy in Myanmar’s book publishing industry, author and historian Thant Myint U had a legal notice published in the state-run Kyemon daily and shared on his Facebook wall. He requested bookstores and stalls to no longer carry pirated versions of his books. As a result, his most recent work, The Hidden History of Burma, is not displayed on the bestseller shelves at Yangon’s book shops and stalls that sell pirated books. Since it was released in late 2019, it has only been possible to purchase an original copy at the Myanmar Book Centre, located on Merchant Road one block west of Pansodan Street – rather than east where pirated copies of his books were once sold openly.

Thant’s three previous books – including his bestselling historical memoir The River of Lost Footsteps (2006) – were pulled from bestseller shelves last year as the notice went out. “I’m no longer allowed to sell Thant Myint U books,” Htay Aung said as he reached behind a rack of other bestselling pirated books on Suu Kyi to show me a stash of copies of The Hidden History of Burma.

These pirated books are now hidden away and only sold to customers who really want to read the book but don’t have enough money to pay MMK 35,000 (USD 24) Myanmar Book Center. Htay Aung only charges MMK 7000 (USD 5) for this book and MMK 5000 (USD 3.50) for each of Myint U’s previous three books.

In the past, authors have had no legal recourse to combat copyright infringement. Myint U is the first author to challenge book piracy and have bookstore owners pull pirated copies from shelves. Some pirated books stalls along Pansodan Street are even located inside entranceways to the heritage buildings that Yangon Heritage Trust, a group founded by Myint U that works to preserve the city’s colonial-era architecture, has been fighting to protect from demolition or neglect. The trust’s office, ironically, is one block south of the pirated book market on Pansodan Street.

Enforcing copyright

Pirated books banned under the military regime are starting to disappear off shelves as word of the 2019 copyright law reaches the pirated book market. This has many bookstore owners like Htay Aung and Khin Maung Tin confused. Skeptics like Myo Myo, on the other hand, believe enforcement of the copyright law won’t happen for many years, likely after the 2025 parliamentary election.

“We obey the law. In a few years the copied books may disappear,” said Khin Maung Tin from Ar Yone Thit Bookshop – a bookstore in Yangon that sells mainly pirated English language textbooks and novels for students and foreigners. “Customers may not be able to afford expensive books. Nobody knows what will happen in the future. [This law] may be good or bad.”

According to the new copyright law, those caught selling pirated works will be imprisoned for at least one year with a fine of MMK 1 million (approximately USD 700). Repeat offenders will be subject to up to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of MMK 10 million (approximately USD 7000). Says Myo Myo, “After 2012, people have begun to talk about copyright. Nowadays these voices are louder. In the future, most people in Myanmar [must] follow and obey the law.”

But getting rid of pirated books may be harder than imagined. Pirated books are available for purchase in all bookstores in Myanmar, not only in the pirated book shops and stalls of downtown Yangon. In fact, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre, too, sell pirated books alongside originals. For most book buyers, it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the retailers put up notices that read: “English books from these shelves are not original or authentic books.” When asked about this, staff at both stores would not comment.

The economics of piracy

With free primary education and an adult literacy rate of approximately 76 percent, Myanmar has a significant appetite for reading. However, despite this, many people may not be able to afford to pay the full listed price for a book like The Hidden History of Burma;the purchase would represent about 2 percent of the average annual income in Myanmar (USD 1325).

This is unrealistic given that the average Burmese household spends only 3 percent of total expenditure on entertainment. Myanmar is not alone in this; the inability to afford book prices set in advanced economies is a problem in other developing countries as well, including India, Brazil and South Africa.

As the authors of Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (2011) suggest, specific industries may incur losses as a result of piracy, but these are not necessarily losses to the national economy. Piracy of domestic goods is “a transfer of income, not a loss. Money saved by consumers or businesses on CDs, DVDs, or software will not disappear but rather be spent on other things—housing, food, other entertainment, other business expenses, and so on.”

Meanwhile, the 2019 copyright law will almost definitely affect the revenue stream of book retailers. Their revenues have continually decreased since the reforms to Myanmar’s telecommunications sector began to take effect in 2013, allowing for the spread of cheap SIM cards and data plans. Myanmar’s internet penetration rate increased from approximately one percent to 31 percent between 2011 and 2017, while in the same period mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants increased from 2.4 to 90.

This means that more people are now likely to use the internet to read books – where many books are now available, for free, online. Recognising this trend, Myanmar’s biggest wireless carrier created an ebook app with book prices between MMK 500 and 800 kyat (35 to 56 US cents). Like book pirates, they too hope to capitalise on high demand for books and the unaffordability of original books.

Unfortunately, this is a perspective that is often overlooked by publishers in Myanmar. “In this business it’s important to be honest,” said Myo Aung. “You must ask permission and acquire the rights to publish a book. If you’re caught pirating, please apologise.”

Published @HimalSouthasian

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Print

Aung San Suu Kyi turns to Facebook to get coronavirus message out

Myanmar leader’s live broadcasts on Facebook draws hundreds of thousands of views.


A video conference between Aung San Suu Kyi, (top right) and government officials from the Yangon region as she gives daily updates on Facebook [Myanmar’s Ministry of Information/ AFP]

YANGON, Myanmar – Broadcasting live from Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi shuffled some papers, looked straight at the camera and smiled before welcoming her guests to a teleconference call on Facebook.

“Currently, migrant workers are coming back from Thailand and some have resettled in the country. So we are taking the necessary steps to provide quarantine facilities,” the country’s de facto leader told the more than 300,000 viewers who had tuned into her broadcast on Wednesday.

Alongside her, the screen featured three of Myanmar’s labour leaders. The first topic of the day was about how returning migrant workers could minimise the spread of the new coronavirus in the impoverished country.

“Those gathered in large groups could be a danger to themselves and the country if they don’t follow the rules,” Suu Kyi said.

The 74-year-old state counsellor heads Myanmar’s coronavirus response team and has reluctantly turned to Facebook to spread her message on the challenges posed by COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.


Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi talks to government officials from the Yangon region via a video conference from the presidential house in Naypyidaw [Handout/ Myanmar’s Ministry of Information/ via AFP]

Despite creating a Facebook profile in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi only posted her first update on April 1, declaring that while she did not want to use the platform at all she was forced to do so in order to “effectively communicate with citizens”.

Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to the platform daily to update her 2.2 million followers on the government’s efforts to fight the virus. Facebook has the largest reach out of any traditional media or social media platform in Myanmar, registering an estimated 21 million users in the country of 53 million.

There are now 127 confirmed infections and five deaths from the coronavirus in Myanmar. While the figures are the second-lowest in Southeast Asia, experts worry a large outbreak could swiftly overwhelm the country’s healthcare system, which is ranked among the worst in the world following decades of military rule. The country is now bracing for the return of more migrant workers from Thailand and China, some of whom may have the coronavirus.

During her broadcasts, Aung San Suu Kyi hosts state and regional health officials as well as volunteers working to slow community transmission. She moderates panel discussions and listens to and congratulates people across Myanmar, from Mon state in the southeast of the country to the Ayeyarwady region outside Yangon, in an effort to reassure people that authorities are doing everything possible to combat the virus. Respect the rules, she urges viewers frequently, telling them to follow social distancing guidelines and hygiene practices including the wearing of face coverings.

The broadcasts typically garner hundreds of thousands of views and as people on the front lines share their stories, viewers flood the screen with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emojis. In addition to the praise from supporters, the discussions have drawn plaudits from the traditional news media, too.

“The biggest result of our video meeting with citizens across our country is to know about the important needs of those who are trying to overcome the COVID-19 challenges [we face],” Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday.

Kaung Htut, a bank employee in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.

“The teleconference call is a good thing … she should have been doing this all along,” the 39-year-old said. “She’s not communicating detailed plans by the government. She’s trying to clarify some information for the public. The guests respectfully listen and answer her questions. But nobody challenges her.”

But some critics say the tactic bypasses the news media and public health officials should have taken the lead, not Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She should hold press conferences and communicate with journalists to make sure the right messages are getting out,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a 28-year-old democracy activist who tunes in to Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.

“The press conferences or online press briefings should be regular. She’s taking on the roles other people should.”

Meanwhile, some activists are using Aung San Suu Kyi’s newfound appreciation for Facebook to seek accountability for the continuing conflict between the military and the Arakan Army rebel group in Rakhine and Chin states.

The United Nations says 32 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the fighting in Rakhine and Chin since March 23 – the date the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Myanmar. And while Aung San Suu Kyi used one of her recent Facebook broadcasts to mourn the loss of a woman to the coronavirus, activists say she has not paid the same attention to the conflict deaths.

On Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi released a statement expressing her support for the military in western Myanmar, and went on to remark that her government was “deeply saddened to learn of civilian casualties in Rakhine and Chin states,” where 150,000 displaced people are living under a mobile internet ban and are unable to receive information about the pandemic.

Moe Thway, president of Generation Wave Youth Force, a group of political activists critical of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, said he frequently leaves comments on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook posts highlighting the number of people who’ve been killed in the conflict in the past month alone.

“For the moment coronavirus is the most important issue in the country. But the war in Rakhine and Chin states should be the second,” he said.

“People living in the conflict zones need protection and information,” said Moe Thway.

Aung Hla Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government, declined to comment for this story.

Published @AlJazeera

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Print