Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Myanmar is grieving the death of Burmese writer and pro-democracy leader U Win Tin, who died of renal failure on April 21 at the age of 85.

Win Tin was editor of a popular newspaper in the 1960s, when he became critical of the military junta. Perhaps his most enduring legacy was his role in establishing the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was arrested in 1989 and remained in detention for 19 years, making him Myanmar’s longest-held political prisoner. Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest, Win Tin was detained in a cell designed for military dogs.

He continued to write inside his cell by using a strip of bamboo as pen and powdered brick as ink. In 1996, his jail term was extended seven years after he sent an 83-page report to the United Nations about the poor prison conditions in Myanmar and the human rights violations perpetrated by the ruling junta. About 115 prisoners signed the petition.

Because of his refusal to cooperate with authorities, he was regularly tortured and denied medical attention. His health deteriorated but he remained steadfast in his fight for democracy.

Win Tin was finally released in 2008 but he refused the amnesty given by the president because he didn’t want to recognize the legitimacy of the military-backed government. After regaining his freedom, he surprised many when he insisted on wearing a blue prison shirt in solidarity with other political prisoners.

Win Tin was seen as a hardliner and influential figure in the democracy movement, which explains why the government imprisoned him for almost two decades. In recent years, he was one of those who remained skeptical of Myanmar’s so-called transition to modern democracy. He even expressed misgivings over the decision of Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD to participate in the elections and the parliamentary process.

He once said in an interview that Aung San Suu Kyi only wanted to “to push the military into Kandawgyi Lake” (in central Yangon) while many people wanted to drive the army generals into the Bay of Bengal. Despite this critical comment, Win Tin remained on good terms with Aung San Suu Kyi, seeing her as the only political figure capable of uniting the country.

Win Tin reportedly wished to be buried quickly but this is quite impossible with so many people and organizations wanting to honor him. Even the government acknowledged his many sacrifices for the sake of the nation.

“We have different political views than Win Tin, but we all take our hats off to him for his commitment to his beliefs and for his sacrifices. Though we don’t agree with him, we take seriously his good intentions to make the country developed, democratic and prosperous in the ways he believed,” said Ye Htut, deputy minister of information.

Aung Zaw of The Irrawaddy described Win Tin as a guiding light of the democracy movement: “Win Tin was a keen, unrelenting government critic to the very end, intent on taking down all the obstacles on Burma’s long road to democracy. Without his guiding light, it’s hard to imagine how the democracy movement will treat the many challenges ahead during this unpredictable democratic transition, where there are still many wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Kay Mastenbroek, who made a documentary about Win Tin, remembered the late journalist as an uncompromising activist: “For me, the film tells a story of a strong and independent mind – a man who dared to say ‘No’, when all others said ‘Yes’.”

Many others have paid tribute to Win Tin and all were inspired by his intellect, commitment and passion in pursuing his principles. His unbending political stance will continue to exert a profound impact, on the opposition forces and indeed on all Myanmar politics.

Myanmar’s ‘Black Page’ Media Protest

Written for The Diplomat

In a rare protest, several Myanmar newspapers and journals blacked-out their front pages on April 11 after a provincial court sentenced a video reporter to one year in prison for trespassing and disrupting the work of a government official.

The case involved Zaw Pe, a multimedia reporter of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), who was accused of trespassing an education department office in central Myanmar while reporting about a Japanese-funded scholarship program in 2012. It is difficult not to sympathize with Zaw Pe since his alleged crime of disrupting the duties of a civil servant took place during office hours. How can a media interview constitute disruption?

For Toe Zaw Latt, bureau chief of DVB, the case negates the government boast about the supposed rise of press freedom in the country.

“These are not good signs for press freedom, if journalists have to face a lawsuit for covering news during office hours. We are worried that these actions might be a sign of restrictions in press freedom again, as it was in the past,” he said.

But it was not just the bizarre charge that pushed the Myanmar Journalist Network to organize the “black page” protest. The bold move was also intended to call for the release of five journalists who have been detained since December on various spurious cases.

Last year, Eleven Media reporter Ma Khine was charged with trespassing and the use of abusive language in connection to a news expose about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, the CEO and four reporters of the weekly Unity Journal are still in prison and refused bail after they reported allegations of secret chemical weapons production. According to government prosecutors, the report undermined national security and violated a colonial-era law, the Official Secrets Act.

The Irrawaddy, one of the local media groups that spearheaded the protest, described the jailing of reporters as a worrying throwback to the dark days of dictatorship: “President Thein Sein’s promise to lift censorship and uphold press freedom rings hollow. Reforms in Burma have stalled, if not reversed. We call on the government to immediately free all reporters in custody.”

This was echoed by Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He warned that the “once-promising democratic reform program (of the government) is rapidly being reversed.”

Indeed, an important phase in Myanmar’s transition toward modern democracy is the abolition of censorship and repressive media regulation. When the government finally removed its notorious censorship board, this was praised by global media groups. But journalists continued to face harassment suits as obsolete laws remain in effect.

Many politicians still expect the media to be less critical when reporting about controversial government policies. This attitude was revealed in a public forum when Deputy Information Minister and presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut lambasted foreign journalists for their coverage of ethnic tensions in Rakhine State.

Without belittling the reforms undertaken by the government, it must be underscored that the political situation in Myanmar is still hostile to a free and independent press.

The Eleven Media group succinctly explained how censorship persists in the post-Junta rule: “Myanmar journalists have to practice the self-censorship by themselves although they no longer need to submit their works for censorship before publishing. A reporter may go to jail anytime for his or her reporting. There are too many laws that authorities can use to control the freedom of expression. But there are hardly any laws to protect the freedom of expression for the journalists.”

But despite these challenges, the “black page” protest also means that Myanmar journalists are ready to defend and assert their rights.

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