Daniel Wood reviews how Myanmar Media in Transition unravels legacies of authoritarianism, carving new spaces for dissent.
In the first book-length critical media study of Myanmar after the “democratic transition,” Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change exposes the struggles of Myanmar’s decade-long transition toward democracy. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) continues to dominate the nation’s economy, legal system, and armed forces despite the rise of a civilian government led by the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD). In 2012, the transitional military government of Thein Sein promised to usher in an era of free press, making space for a new independent media sector in the nation after decades of pre-publication censorship. But difficulties remain despite a rise in private media production. Now, the NLD also uses the law and courts to silence dissent and arrest media producers who dare to publish critiques of the party, crushing hopes that the democratically elected civilian government would champion a free press.
Myanmar Media in Transition is arranged in four parts: Structural Constraints and Opportunities, Journalism in Transition, Creative Expression, and Society and Media. This review highlights chapters that most convincingly trace the media process via the structuring conditions of Myanmar’s prevailing political economy alongside hyper-specific cases highlighting particular impacts of individual and collective social action.
Under the prevailing political economy and censorship that structures national media production, Myanmar-language news consumers are selectively exposed to violence along ethno-religious national lines. Within media worlds framed by this lens, many readers in Myanmar remain skeptical of the violence against Rohingya and other minorities that continues in their nation. These ambivalences are laid out in this groundbreaking new book, which contains a collection of twenty-one essays including the Epilogue, by grassroot activists, news editors, media scholars, writers, and professionals. Analyzing media and its production at this critical juncture in Myanmar’s history, the collection lays the groundwork for future scholarship in critical media studies of Myanmar.
The introduction leads with the story of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Myanmar Reuters journalists whose arrest shook media in Myanmar and the world. They were imprisoned for reporting on a mass killing of Rohingya people by Tatmadaw troops in the village of Inn Din. The journalists won a Pulitzer Prize for their work while in prison as the Myanmar media establishment rallied against the state for their release. Although the text is already outdated, as the journalists were pardoned in May 2019, their stories effectively introduce readers to the risks and importance of media production in the nation.
Conceptually and methodologically, this text aims to move beyond a “systems” approach to media studies that reifies complex media practices into static models and toward a framework for “media processes” of social action that produce media with an agency of its own. This approach looks beyond the independent agency of journalists, activists, and artists, as media processes involve the work of key stakeholders, such as editors, politicians, activists, judges, and journalists, alongside media technologies with the potential for new forms of social action.
Part 1: Structural Constraints and Opportunities
This section contextualizes how power structures inherited from decades-long military rule continue to dominate media production despite a decade of immense political and technological change. Chapter 2, “Legal Changes for Media and Expression: New Reforms, Old Controls,” by Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Yin Yadanar Thein, and Myint Kyaw, outlines how Myanmar’s legal system produces a specter of power that continues to structure the present.
The legacy of British colonialism in Myanmar’s post-colonial governance is particularly apparent in the nation’s judicial system, as the state continues to use colonial-era laws to target free press and free expression (e.g. the Penal Code of 1860, the Unlawful Association Act of 1908, and the Official Secrets Act of 1923). Beyond the colonial legacy, the post-colonial state continues to appropriate foreign-influenced laws to target dissidents. For example, Section 66D of the nation’s Media and Communications Law—which bans defamation over telecommunications networks—was drafted by the Thein Sein administration in conjunction with the World Bank in 2015 and provides a new legal structure for the state to target dissent. Critics say that the World-Bank-approved media law allows military reformers to prioritize profit and security over human rights and freedom of expression. The authors argue that the Thein Sein administration, which is generally associated with reform and democratization, also cemented the Tatmadaw’s power into the nation’s “democratic” future under the guise of liberalization.
The chapter also traces how the legalized censorship of media extends far beyond the text of law, as Myanmar’s courts are subordinated to the military and government. The authors convincingly argue that the end of pre-publication censorship was largely “change without reform” and that a substantial shift in the nation’s courts and legal system must come alongside a change in laws that inhibit a free press in Myanmar.
Part 1 continues by detailing the role of international aid in media development, the future of print media, and the emerging privacy risks that follow increasing potentials for digital surveillance.
Part 2: Journalism in Transition
Part 2 highlights the risks and opportunities for journalistic production within the post-transition state of Myanmar. Chapter 6, “Silencing a Snakehead Fish: A Case Study in Local Media, Rural-Based Activism, and Defamation Litigation in Southern Myanmar,” contains one of the collection’s most compelling narratives. In the article, Jennifer Leehey tells the story of Aung Lwin, an environmental activist from Southern Myanmar who was sued by Delco, a mining company, for writing an article from the perspective of a fish dying in a stream polluted by waste as a result of corporate resource exploitation. The story’s underlying theme was that local authorities collude with corporations who profit from both human and environmental destruction.
Unsurprisingly, the courts ruled in favor of Delco three times. Despite the verdict and the costs of Aung Lwin’s persecution, Leehey finds that the trial spurred political action from villagers, as the case received wide attention and triggered rural collective action. Synthesizing the power of story-telling and collective action, the “Snakehead Fish” ends on a cautiously optimistic note. Despite the risks involved, Aung Lwin’s story demonstrates that critical media practice matters, by amplifying public awareness of resource exploitation and collusion between corporations and the state.
While creative writers, artists, and activists may use media as a receptacle for critique and activism, news reporters are typically held to a standard of impartiality—although that impartiality may be relative. In Chapter 10, “Covering Rakhine: Journalism, Conflict and Identity,” journalist Eaint Thiri Thu describes the challenges that she faces navigating the truth about violence in the Rakhine as a Myanmar citizen. This is one of the most strikingly personal yet revealing stories in the collection, as the author critically reflects on the relationship between her journalistic practice and multiplex of identities.
Raised as a Bamar Buddhist woman with the “double majority status” of religious and ethnic privilege, Eaint Thiri Thu reflects on the influence of her state education, which discouraged critical thinking while enforcing propaganda. Her textbooks preached about the “greatness of the Burmese empire,” while naturalizing stagnant constructions of state-recognized ethnic groups. Her experience as a journalist forced her to think deeply about this background, and to empathize with victims of state violence like the Rohingya, who spent “their lives falling asleep to the sounds of bullets and explosions.” Although military violence is asymmetrically distributed across spacetime, religion and ethnicity, she reaches across identities to argue that people across Myanmar’s ethnic groups are united by a common experience of oppression: “we all share an education system that has been systematically destroyed, poverty and, on a deeper level, fear, mistrust and ignorance.”
Part 3: Creative Expression
This particularly engaging section focuses on the political economy of artistic production, extending the scope of the collection beyond journalism and legal structure. Chapter 16, “Films for Dignity,” by Mon Mon Myat, describes the trajectory of the Yangon Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival. The author helped found the festival in 2013 out of skepticism of Thein Sein’s “democratic” reforms. Film distribution is still an active site of censorship in Myanmar, as films must still be reviewed and approved by the Myanmar Film Classification Board before release.
Mon Mon Myat argues that the classification board promotes self-censorship among film curators who may choose to avoid showing overly controversial films. But the complex dynamics of censorship reach beyond state action. She recalls conflict over a screening of The Open Sky, a film that highlights inter-religious cooperation between Buddhist and Muslim neighbors. This message threatened far-right Buddhist nationalists, and someone anonymously made a bomb threat to the theater where it was to be screened. Out of concern for safety, organizers decided to cancel the screening.
Mon Mon Myat insightfully points out that this conflict reveals two kinds of external censorship: state censorship and community censorship of prevailing ethno-religious nationalism. Despite the challenges, the festival continues with traveling festivals showing screenings across the country. In cities and villages alike, the festival hosts discussions after screenings to open up community conversations. In these discussions, the films and festival become a receptacle for open and critical thought. With guarded optimism, the author finds that films, and community screenings in particular, make space for critical discussion within censorship structures that discourage this kind of thinking.
Chapter 17, “A ‘Fierce’ Fear: Literature and Loathing After the Junta,” continues to explore the sociopolitical potentials of media and its presentation. The author, Ma Thida, discusses Pen Myanmar’s “Literature for Everyone” programming. Ma Thida finds that, like film festivals, literature talks are “helpful in treating the scars left on the collective psyche of Myanmar’s people,” as many forms of public critique continue to be criminalized.
This chapter also provides one of the most lucid descriptions to date of the long-term psychological effects of military domination on Myanmar’s political consciousness. Ma Thida connects the post-authoritarian condition with widespread Islamophobia and the anti-Muslim scapegoating of Rohingya victims of state violence. She argues that the conditions of continued censorship and military domination foster a mindset of self-preservation, which has produced publics of “fierce” thinkers: a “thought disorder affecting Myanmar people…Myanmar’s deep and rotten societal wound that breeds intolerance, a desire for revenge, and a diversion of punishment from the powerful guilty to the powerless innocent.” Ma Thida relates state and inter-communal violence directed towards the nation’s Muslim population to a repressed desire for revenge after decades of disempowerment. This anger is misdirected toward scapegoats who are killed with impunity, while avoiding a direct critique of state power. She considers this “culture of dictatorship” to be “infectious as people become dictators themselves when they have the freedom to do so.”
In addition, Part 3 highlights the relationship between pop culture and creative expression, detailing the nation’s pop music and motion picture industries.
Part 4: Society and the Media
Part 4 traces emerging communications technologies’ impact on public discourse and political participation. In Chapter 18, “The Teashop Meets the 8 O’clock News: Facebook, Convergence and Online Public Spaces,” Yan Naung Oak and Lisa Brooten analyze how inherited forms of mass media, particularly formalized state-run TV news, converge with polyphonic public spheres online, which is most often located on the Facebook wall in Myanmar. The study of media and censorship in the nation’s transition is complicated by another variable, the simultaneous mobile revolution that made affordable internet access possible for most people.
The study methodically tracks the social media use of ten prominent politicians in Myanmar, tracing the ways that users engage with their constituents online. One of its most promising aspects is that certain politicians use Facebook to foster political discussion by directly responding to constituents’ comments. Searching for trends across hundreds of posts, the study found that many posts frame Myanmar identity as under internal and external threat. The authors’ highly structured analysis does an excellent job in locating the political potential of social media in the space between utopian and dystopian discourses on social media, highlighting both the dangers of emerging political spaces and the potential to use these platforms for political change.
The authors do not forget that Facebook, both a technology and corporation, “is not a neutral platform,” as they reminds us: “These social networks are also very lightly regulated and do not have significant incentives to invest in monitoring dangerous content and misuse in countries in the global south, which are not their main target markets.” Ultimately, the chapter argues that the test of whether Facebook can foster strong public spheres will depend upon the extent to which people from different backgrounds and political leanings can communicate online.
Chapter 20, “Counter-Narratives: Myanmar’s Digital Media Activists,” by Sarah Oh continues to unravel the potential for political participation over social media. The article highlights the digital labor of activists, like the work of a Muslim woman from Shan state who challenges racist rumors or misinformation in the comments section on Facebook. Another activist posts lotus flowers and Buddhist quotes under Islamophobic hate speech, hoping to make people think twice about the ironies of using Buddhist nationalist discourse to promote violence. One of Oh’s key findings is that graphic imagery of anti-Buddhist violence is used to make Buddhist users fearful of Muslims, as ethno-religious nationalism flows around a selective exposure to violence in media.
It is important that readers consider the postscript at the end the chapter, which discloses that the author of the article—that emphasizes a positive potential for Facebook in making space for activism—now works for Facebook. Although the piece was written before she took the job, and should not be disqualified for this reason alone, it is important to think critically about framing the social network with the branding of positive political participation. I urge readers to consider Facebook’s operations in Myanmar through the lens of neocolonialism: Guided by the pursuit of profit, and not a common good, the author’s current employer empowers a single American tech leader and his corporate board in California with more control over the flow of media across nations than states and international bodies. I hope Sarah Oh, and the hardworking employees at Facebook, keep this in mind as they continue to engage with the difficult task of reforming the company’s policies around fake news and hate speech from within.
In the epilogue, “Media Studies in Myanmar – Where Do We Go From Here?” the editors bring their focus on Myanmar back to a broader context, arguing that media become the target of authoritarian states as the stories they carry frame the way that readers see the world. Censorship today is subtle but still pervasive, even in democratic states (or quasi-democratic ones) that claim to herald a free press. The authors find that mass media in Myanmar tend to act as “agents of stability” while “maintaining the status quo.” Ultimately, the collection finds that large-scale changes in the economy of media production, political thought, and the structures of media law are needed for people in Myanmar to produce and share media that is not limited by state and community censorship on free expression.
Overall, Myanmar Media in Transition is a must-read for people interested in Myanmar and media reforms, as well as those interested in the social and psycho-linguistic impacts of authoritarianism on political thought and participation. As the book points out, critical media studies have yet to become institutionalized in Myanmar, as the nation’s largest academic institutions have yet to recover from the devastation of decades of military rule, which destroyed social structures that foster critical thought. This book, then, not only documents media studies at an exceptionally complex political juncture, but also paves the way for future scholarship in an emerging field.
(Image courtesy of ISEAs)
Dan Wood is a social anthropologist and journalist based in Berlin. He has previously worked with the US Campaign for Burma in Washington DC and Mizzima Media Group in Yangon. Dan’s undergraduate thesis (titled Writing Against the “Bengali Crisis”) was awarded the Evon Z. Vogt Prize for the Best Social Anthropology Thesis at Harvard University in 2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.