The question on most Burmese minds now is whether these democratic reforms are real and irreversible. There are encouraging signs as the governing party broke ranks recently and joined with the opposition to impeach the justices of the Constitutional Court, a united front of all the civilian parties. It was a stunning loss for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi secretly rushed to see President Thein to assure him this was not the first step in a revolt whose next act would be to impeach him.
A litmus test of democratic reforms will be the regime’s commitment to a free and open media. For decades, information from inside Myanmar came from journalists operating underground who smuggled their tapes and stories to the international media. Most people inside Myanmar lived in total information darkness. Then in August, the government stunned journalists with an announcement that it was putting an end to press censorship. Cautiously at first, journalists began to test the limits of official tolerance, but are apparently finding no resistance. The information ministry even asked a newly formed independent press council to draft the country’s new media law.
I asked Ahr Mahn, the 30-year-old executive editor of 7 Day News, the largest independent news weekly in the country, what the new limits were. “There are no red lines,” he said.
Two weeks ago Mr. Ahr Mahn asked President Thein the opening question at Myanmar’s first-ever presidential news conference. “Do you plan to tell parliament how much you are spending on the Kachin conflict?” he asked. The question, relating to an ethnic separatist conflict in northern Myanmar, would have been unthinkable in the past. The press conference was broadcast on Up To Date, Myanmar’s first independent television news channel.
Still, the limits of Myanmar’s new-found media freedoms have yet to be strenuously tested for an extended period. There will be plenty of opportunity in the near future, as the thornier aspects of peacemaking, constitutional changes, and the promise of a new media law take center stage. The media must be allowed to cover these in full and to represent all ethnic voices in the process.