Theater of Cruelty

Editor with life as effort

How free is the press in the former military dictatorship? Ny Tid spoke with Myanmar's perhaps most independent newspaper editor who is also critical of Norwegian support. 


Traveling in Myanmar (Burma), Ny Tid meets the head of the Myanmar weekly newspaper Irrawaddy in Yangon. The newspaper has been running for 25 years and is probably editorially the most independent publication in this country. Earlier during the military dictatorship, one could get seven years in prison if one was caught reading the newspaper, which was then sent over from exile in Thailand's Bangkok.

Irrawaddy founder, owner and editor-in-chief Aung Zaw tells us that the editorial staff moved back in the autumn of 2012, when the country's laws relaxed control and censorship. He had then almost lived in exile for 25 years. He was first imprisoned as a demonstrative student activist when he was 17 years old. He was released again, but was later arrested when he as a young man participated in the underground environment of some well-known writers and politicians. However, Zaw managed to escape to Bangkok in 1988. There he established the newspaper Irrawaddy – the name is taken from the large river that flows through Myanmar. From consisting of three to four people without pay, the editorial staff currently has 60 employees, and is published in both English and Burmese in a circulation of 15–000 newspapers.
The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Foreign Affairs) supported the newspaper for several years until 2010, when the situation improved for the media in Myanmar. This resumed the UD against the democratization process and the choice to support Irrawaddy with around 400 000.

Screen Shot at 2016 02-17-16.35.33The role of Norway. Editor Zaw enjoys great respect for his independence and investigative journalism. Despite the support from Norway, Irrawaddy has criticized Telenor's investment in Myanmar. As Zaw tells Ny Tid: “Two or three years ago, we criticized Norwegian foreign policy for being naive and biased. The previous Norwegian ambassador here in Myanmar and Thailand, Katja Nordgaard, became Executive Vice President of Telenor, and then Telenor received its major license. We criticized her for possibly mediating between the military regime and Telenor. Probably she did. Isn't there a conflict of interest there? "
I ask if Telenor's involvement has not done a lot of positive things for the country, for example that their now 14 millions of users were given cheap access to SIM cards on their mobile phones and an expanded network. At a gathering in Norway's embassy residence, Telenor's community contact had told me that they had invested around NOK 4 billion in development. "There is nothing wrong with establishing a broadcast tower in our country. But I do not necessarily mean that Nordgaard as Telenor boss contributed positively – she is naive and knows very little about our country, ”says Zaw. When asked whether he suspected that Telenor's granted license (a further NOK 4 billion for the 15 agreement from 2014) could have meant corruption from Norway and Telenor, he replies: "Probably it was bribes, we will see if we can find out more if it."
Telenor looks to Asia to reach a target of 200 million users, according to Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke. Here in Yangon you can see the blue Telenor signs everywhere. Telenor has around 600 employees in the country, of which just over ten are Norwegian. With a turnover of up to four billion in 2015 from over 14 million users, and an operating profit already in the second operating year of well over a billion, the company probably within a few years will have made the investment.

"This country's economy is based on two main revenues – drugs and jewels."

What about Norwegian Statoil, which works down here now – another confusion between politics and business? After all, Statoil's former press officer Bård Glad Pedersen was State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2013, before he again became Statoil's Director of Communications. The leader of the Norwegian Burma Committee, Audun Aagre, questions whether the commercial comes before human rights – then the controversy would be "Norway has long been a strong supporter of Myanmar's democratic opposition," according to him. Aagre told Ny Tid in Yangon that the Burma Committee does not have the same support as before from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But is it not a win-win situation for Norway to bring technology and get something back from this country with the many opportunities? Zaw replies: "It is not possible to stop the influx of foreign investors here. But this country's leadership, Aung San Suu Kyi and the new government, should be very careful about dividends. Irrawaddy's task is to inform, things cannot remain in the dark as they have been before. Agreements with international companies, including the Norwegian ones, should be transparent, and especially for the local areas concerned. For example, the northern state of Kachin is rich in gas and oil, and the people there are entitled to participate in the negotiation of agreements. We are a country rich in resources, but most people are poor. Something must be wrong when most of the country's 50 millions are poor. Unless Lady Suu Kyi's government wants to do something about it, people will react. "

Aung Zaw on the left. © All photos from Myanmar: Truls Lie
Aung Zaw on the left. © All photos from Myanmar: Truls Lie

Corruption. Looking at Myanmar's economy, a year ago the country had invested just over 35 billion from abroad. After all, they extract 90 percent of the world's rubies and 80 percent of the world's teak timber. The corruption has been devastating, according to Zaw. Myanmar's economic growth of around eight per cent is also weakened by inflation of over eleven per cent. What can be done, I ask him. “We write about inflation, about who sits with certain properties, and also reveal some urban development scandals, such as high-rise developments.

"UNICEF rented its offices in Yangon for 700 000 a month – to help the children in this country. The building belonged to a former military, he is among the richest of the rich. "

It is also interesting to see how naive some aid organizations are: UNICEF rented its offices in Yangon for the 700 000 month (!) Month – to help the children in this country. The building belonged to a former military, he is among the richest of the rich. We reveal such stories. ”
Corruption here in Myanmar is being exploited by a small elite of families linked to the military, who control the rich natural resources. They are probably more cynical than politicians, and one should not ignore the fact that civil war conditions also keep the local population away from wealth. Criticizing this elite can be far more dangerous than criticizing politicians, according to Zaw: "This country's economy is based on two main sources of income – drugs and jewels, especially jade and rubies. We have dollar billionaires here. These are not on any lists, but hide in the dark. If you expose them, you are endangering your own life. "
I ask if he uses security guards, since they have experienced death threats. "We write about them, take the risk. We have the courage to do it. And you don't necessarily protect yourself with a bulletproof vest in this country. We expect protection now to come from the authorities, where laws are used to protect journalists. Lady Suu Kyi is committed to using the laws. ”
But Myanmar is so far known for not implementing the laws. “In this country, you see leaders say one thing in the media, but do something else in practice. We'll see, "Zaw says.

Kina What about China, which Myanmar borders in the northeast? A number of ethnic Chinese live in the aforementioned state of Kachin, where armed revolts are still ongoing. Certain rumors in Yangon also suggest that China may occupy parts of this highly resource-rich border area with China. "China is a major problem, which is constantly mentioned in the news," Zaw says. "The Chinese are quite integrated in this country, also far into the military. We have to work with them. But because Chinese companies and governments are trying to exploit our country, we must highlight that enough is enough. ”
The Chinese are historically far back in this area, and make up three percent of the population today. They have also established two gas pipelines into China, possibly their largest investment in Myanmar ever. Will they be able to keep their fingers out of the barrel, or will they create more instability in the region? "This is why the protracted peace process is so important to these border areas. China provides weapons, ammunition and supplies to the rebel groups – they receive a lot of support from neighboring countries, ”Zaw comments.

“The State Information Department consists of a propaganda machine with several thousand workers. They pollute people's consciousness almost daily. ”

Independence. I return to running a newspaper in such a corrupt country. How independent is it and where does Irrawaddy's income come from? "We are critical, not affiliated with the regime here, and as very independent, we dare to criticize. This regime has also been the subject of international contacts. Our goal is to promote democracy and human rights, but also to educate people. We are one of the most important publications in Asia. ”
Unlike the conservative magazine Frontier, the daily newspaper Myanmar Times which was formerly a propaganda machine for the military, and the New Light of Myanmar, which is today's propaganda machine, Irrawady seems independent. The newspaper has in recent years been published in both Burmese and English on paper, but will in future only be published digitally. "Print media is still strong here, but Myanmar is a mobile telephony now. People use smartphones to read information online. And Irrawaddy has over four million followers! ”
Something Telenor may have contributed to, with all the broadcasters, I think. 60 percent of the population in this country uses smartphones to gather information. The access to the northern province, like in Kachin, is very expensive and takes a long time, as the country has poorly developed traffic and road systems. Just a stroll from downtown Yangon to the airport can bump out over punchy dirt roads. But who pays Aung Zaw to work with the newspaper, to keep critical Irrawady going? "Of the up to 20 000 newspapers we print, we have sold 10 000 weekly. Our annual budget has been at 13 – 14 million. Of this, 30 – 35 comprises percent of sales revenue, while the rest has been from donations. For example, from George Soros' Open Society Foundations. Norway also contributes a small sum. When switching to being digital only now in 2016, we have to be careful, cutting down to under 10 million. Of this, we count 80 percent from donations, the rest from ads. ”

Screen Shot at 2016 02-17-16.38.40
Freedom of speech.
When it comes to Aung San Suu Kyi's new government, Zaw gives them three months to enjoy the honeymoon days they currently have with the country's positive media. Then they have to deliver. The change in the country has come because the people gave them 80 percent of the vote and they want change, Zaw points out. He is currently questioning Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) winning party. For example, they printed it 7. in January a caricature of Aung San Suu Kyi, which caused the famous cartoonist Maung Maung Fountain to block his Facebook page. He had, in his own words, practiced his right to create satire (see picture) over the NLD – where Suu Kyi holds a royal crown away from a couple of little boys who are dressed in the green garment they have in parliament, while they say «we did what you wanted, what about what vi not everyone liked the joke, but the Facebook page was reopened later. As Zaw says: “We take the press job seriously. I hope the new government will inspire us all. They talk about freedom of speech, democratic values ​​and human rights. But they have to clean up a lot of mess in the media sector. The State Information Ministry consists of a propaganda machine with several thousand workers. They pollute people's consciousness almost daily, ”says Zaw.

"The conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims are really sad here – rather, ethnic diversity should have made us strong."

Ethnic differences. According to Zaw, the two most important issues for Suu Kyi's government are now addressing education and health, as well as resolving the peace process and the economy: "The level of education here is completely ruined because the country is ruined by the thieves of the military. As seen from the election, the people now want change. And democracy and military rule cannot live together – the problem is that the elite connected to the military are so rich. ”
I end the conversation in this Buddhist inspired country by addressing the Muslim minority Rohingya people (see also this month's case on the stateless Rohingya). NLD and Suu Kyi excluded them from voting in the November elections. "Our newspaper was threatened because we covered that matter thoroughly and for a long time," Zaw says. “The problem with the Rohingya people goes way back and has far from arisen with the NLD's rejection of them. Some believe that this case has weakened the NLD. I am most concerned that we let go of religious riots in the election. It is really sad about the conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims here – rather, ethnic diversity should have made us strong. Some politically motivated elements, both here and from abroad, speculate on setting the groups against each other. The Rohingya case has international dimensions, much to Washington DC. The Rohingya are also sponsored from the Middle East. It's a conflict we're very nervous about. "
On the way out of the door in downtown Yangon, I ask the editor with his 25 year-long speed what he thinks about a new female leadership, and women's rights in his homeland. "Myanmar women are strong, they must not be underestimated. I believe that women should play an important role in the new government of Lady Suu Kyi. Many women have spent time in prison because of their convictions. It is the women who should lead this country now, ”replies Aung Zaw.

We tip about the movie This Kind of Love and subsequent conversation "Is there democracy in Myanmar now?" including Audun Aagre, on Thursday 18 February Human Rights Human Wrongs-festivalen at the Cinemateket in Oslo.

Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp: /
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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