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Asia

Postcard from Yangon, Myanmar

After decades of dictatorship, the people of Myanmar are euphoric about their country's new civilian government. But will it be protecting freedom of expression? DW Akademie's Patrick Benning is cautiously optimistic.

Patrick Benning (right) has been based in Yangon for many years, experiencing rapid political and cultural changes (photo: DW/Patrick Benning)

Patrick Benning (right) has been based in Yangon for many years, experiencing rapid political and cultural changes

Myanmar is no longer the same country that I first visited four years ago. Back then, we were exchanging freshly minted hundred dollar bills for local currency in brown paper bags. It was all done on the black market.
Next door to our training, censors from the Information Ministry were in one of the state broadcaster's offices, sifting through the proofs of independent media.
It was an open secret back then that everyone in the so-called "civilian" government - from the president on downwards - still had a military uniform hanging in the closet.
I recently read in the papers that the former President Thein Sein has had himself ordained as a Buddhist monk after handing over power to the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Equally charming is the news that one of the country's best known non-conformist journalists is set to become the new Information Minister. U Pe Myint is a poet, newspaper owner, member of the permanent Press Council and one of DW Akademie's closest and oldest friends in Myanmar.
It's almost too good to be true.

Crowds of supporters for The Lady at Aung San Suu Kyi's electoral campaign appearance on November 1, 2015 in Yangon (photo: DW/Patrick Benning)

Crowds of supporters for "The Lady" at Aung San Suu Kyi's electoral campaign appearance on November 1, 2015 in Yangon

Real media freedom?

State censorship, by the way, was largely lifted in 2012 and these days you can withdraw money directly from banking machines in Buddhist temples.
Does this mean, then, that everything's now rosy in Myanmar? Or to put it another way, is the peaceful transfer of power really consolidating democratic change, and is freedom of the press and expression being achieved after 50 years of censorship?
I'd like to believe that it is, but at this point I'm not really sure. The fact is that the former government had a conflicted relationship with journalists, and sent a number of them to prison on trumped-up charges.
That being said, most experts agree that the government's media laws are among the more progressive in Southeast Asia. Myanmar now has an independent, private journalism school, an officially sanctioned Press Council, editorial freedom for the former state-run media, and community radio stations that are even located in the multi-ethnic conflict areas. These are all things that Aung San Suu Kyi's predecessors stood for, and have certainly benefited DW Akademie's projects in Myanmar.
Scepticism

High hopes and a clear message: reforms are needed (photo: DW/Patrick Benning)

High hopes and a clear message

It remains to be seen how "The Lady" - as Aung San Suu Kyi is often referred to - will deal with the media, and whether she'll support the Fourth Estate in practice, and not just in theory. During the election campaign she prohibited her party's parliamentary candidates from making public statements, and after barely having come to power began regulating the media's access to parliament.

Although the country's constitution, drafted by the former military leaders, prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, she has declared that she will stand "above" the president. She is to take on four ministerial posts, as well as the special position of "state counsellor". For me, and for most of my journalist friends in Myanmar, these are all red flags.


It's hard to say at this point whether the new government is simply dealing with political teething problems or whether, just like the generals in the dark years, Aung San Suu Kyi will put maintaining her hold on power above the overall good of the country. I have faith, however, that our friends and partners in the media will be asking themselves the same question and will come up with their own answers.
And for this reason alone, I'm just as excited as they are that Myanmar is no longer the same country that I encountered four years ago for the very first time.

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