Media crackdown a bad sign for Myanmar

Media crackdown a bad sign for Myanmar

Last year, Myanmar’s civilian government disappointed many with its inaction on the Rohingya crisis. But another related concern is its crackdown on media freedom. Although confidence in Myanmar remains strong, continued targeting of journalists will compromise the government’s political legitimacy and create greater reputational risks for foreign investors.

Two Reuters journalists were arrested in Myanmar this past December, for allegedly illegally acquiring government documents pertaining to the site of a mass grave in Rakhine State. They are to be charged under Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act (OSA), and likely face lengthy prison spells. These arrests are not an isolated incident. Over 80 citizens have been prosecuted under various free speech offences since the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power, in March 2016.

Such backsliding is surprising under the country’s first civilian government – even under the previous administration, only seven prosecutions were made. Given that the handling of the Rohingya crisis continues to attract sharp media criticism, this problem is unlikely to abate over the coming year. If it significantly escalates, the government’s political legitimacy may be weakened and businesses must reassess the reputational risk of investing in this struggling transitioning economy.

Protests in Myanmar in 2007, before the country’s liberalization.

Arrests growing

Since the opening up of the country in 2011, the general media environment has substantially improved. The junta no longer retain absolute control of the press. In 2014 they passed a number of media laws enshrining greater freedoms and rights of the press, which were important to Myanmar’s democratic transition. Just months after Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counsellor the legislation that had been used to keep her under house arrest was finally scrapped.

Nevertheless, the government still has at its disposal a range of draconian colonial-era legislation to curb political dissent, from the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act used to detain three reporters in June 2017, to the OSA used to hold these Reuters journalists.

Arrests are growing under the new government. Journalists risk imprisonment for reporting on sensitive issues like the situation in Rakhine State. Few expected this under the leadership of freedom fighter Suu Kyi, whose cabinet is constituted from scores of former detainees and activists who had fought against the oppressive military regime. As a result, these actions have dampened citizens’ hopes for a swift transition from authoritarian rule.

A slow process was to be expected, in terms of the repeal of junta-era laws. The NLD must make trade-offs to persuade the junta to accept proposed reforms. More surprising is its tacit or sometimes overt support of oppressive measures, which suggest complicity in the muting of free speech and press freedom. To be sure, some in the NLD are fighting for change and seeking to revoke these laws. But factions of the party, and even Suu Kyi herself, appear at ease with the current status quo. Many of the NLD’s cabinet are older politicians, possibly out-of-touch with the party’s younger support base. This ‘old guard’ dominates the party’s Central Executive Committee which holds the decision-making power.

A free press is important to help Myanmar’s embryonic democracy develop both economically and politically. Yet, an increasing number of observers, critics and former supporters, acknowledge that Suu Kyi has not made an effort to influence policymaking or steer the debate towards improvements in media freedoms. Over the next year these same groups of people will ask questions as to her suitability to take Myanmar forward. The disappointing April 2017 by-election results show she is already losing the support of ethnic minority groups.

The chambers of the lower house of Myanmar’s Parliament.

Future direction

Myanmar’s recent political and economic development has been based on substantial consensus on the benefits of reform and opening up between the country’s key power brokers: President Htin Kyaw, military chief Min Aung Hlaing and State Counsellor Suu Kyi.

Consequently, significant regression remains unlikely under the new regime. The military has been largely supportive of political reforms, voting en masse for progressive legislation.

The population will also resist significant political regression. It has witnessed the arrival of long-awaited political and economic reforms and will not be willing to relinquish these freedoms. Civil society is increasingly strong and assertive in Myanmar, and has organized against oppressive free speech legislation. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) coordinated a well-attended rally in Yangon last June, although the subsequent government response was anemic.

Although Myanmar faces significant development challenges, more people are becoming politically empowered and achieving a better standard of living than under military rule. Granted, there are still problems, particularly with infrastructure. But overall, Myanmar and its citizens remain optimistic over the long-term.

Only if civil freedoms are progressively reversed will there be a greater risk of civil unrest. Newfound optimism among the population will encourage it to use its collective power as a bargaining tool with the government. This remains unlikely: significant legislative changes would require consensus among lawmakers, and no faction likely has the power to reverse the progress already made.

Political legitimacy and reputational risk

The NLD’s unwillingness to handle criticism of its administration has surprised many. It is contrary to the progressive values cherished by those who voted it overwhelmingly into office in November 2015.

Should the government fail to heed these warnings from civil society and remain unresponsive to external pressures – particularly from the grassroots – the democratic process risks being undone and the government will compromise its reputation and political legitimacy.

In such a scenario, investors should think carefully about the reputational risk of supporting and working with this nominally democratic regime. As it stands, the NLD’s pro-investment platform remains the strongest option to help the country move forward, and positive engagement is important. Uncertainties over Myanmar’s political future should not necessarily serve as a deterrent for further inward investment.

The international community will continue to pragmatically support Suu Kyi’s administration in checking the power of the junta and helping to eradicate the culture of corruption that once dominated the political system. Suu Kyi remains a vital actor moving forward, her cautious disposition essential for this gradual and delicate transition. This does not mean that western governments will refrain pressure Myanmar into releasing its political prisoners. Extended pressure on the civilian government is important now and in the future.

Overall, the risk of political instability in Myanmar is low so long as political and economic reforms are (gradually) pushed through. Nevertheless, early signs under the NLD have been negative for the media, particularly when reporting on politically sensitive issues like the Rohingya conflict. Although confidence in Suu Kyi remains strong, she will know her party will eventually need to demonstrate responsiveness to criticism and better manage the discord from pressure groups, in order to justify continued international support.

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at