President jails brave journalists – and Burma heads back to the bad old days

One recognises precisely the paranoid hand of the generals

Share

It was a scoop any Western journalist would have been proud of: one can easily imagine it running in The New Yorker under Seymour Hersh’s illustrious byline. Four journalists working for Burma’s Unity Journal claimed to have uncovered a secret chemical-weapons factory run by former generals, Chinese technicians and government officials. But instead of winning an award, the four journalists and their boss are now serving 10 years in jail, with hard labour.

The law under which they were charged, the Burma State Secrets Act, was a colonial measure, enacted by the British in 1923. Their arrest was ordered by President Thein Sein – a man eulogised by the outside world as a courageous reformer, who ushered in a new era of freedom and development.

Was the report a sensational discovery, a bold and brilliant job of reporting, or a mere fabrication? We will probably never know: the government said it was “baseless”, but failed to open up the military facility to other reporters. Instead, in the time-honoured manner of Burmese generals, the hedgehog rolled into a ball.

“If media freedom threatens national security,” the President told The Mirror, a state-run daily, “…  we will take effective action under existing laws.”

This is all very dispiriting. And it must be especially so for US Secretary of State John Kerry, heading to Naypyidaw, the Burmese capital, for a regional summit this weekend. Burma was supposed to have changed beyond recognition since Thein Sein, himself a former general, became president in 2011. But in this process of legalised repression and draconian imprisonment, one recognises precisely the regressive, paranoid hand of the generals who held Burma in thrall for 50 years. 

The Asean Regional Forum, as the summit is called, is a feather in President Thein Sein’s cap. It was in order to be considered worthy of the honour of hosting such events, and the kudos of welcoming the likes of Mr Kerry, that he went out on a limb, rolling back press censorship, freeing most political prisoners and enacting other important reforms. First the EU then the US lifted sanctions that had frozen trade relations with the West for decades. Mr Obama welcomed his Burmese counterpart to the Oval Office, and for the first overseas outing of his second term headed straight for the one foreign destination that he could claim as an unblemished success story of his first four years.

Unblemished it is no more. The legalised assault on Unity Journal’s brave journalists was just like the bad old days. Courageous journalism suddenly became very much harder to do. 

Now the sanctions are all gone but the job of reform is only half done. And while the Unity Journal’s staff are paying an outrageous price for doing their jobs, the government is digging in its heels and refusing even to consider further, much-needed reforms. In the past three months, a coalition of opposition forces has been holding rallies to demand radical reform of the constitution, designed to cut back the dominating role of the military – they hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, for example – and remove the arbitrary rule that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

A petition demanding these changes has gathered five million signatures. But Thein Sein and his colleagues have shown no interest whatsoever in even discussing them. President Obama is said to be considering a second visit later in the year to this lonely outpost of presidential achievement. John Kerry should make it amply clear that the visit is not going to happen unless President Thein Sein pays serious attention to reforming the constitution.

READ NEXT:
The triumph of hysteria and misinformation
We all need to have a say in Scotland’s great debate
Don’t be taken in by the buffoonery. Boris is a very serious operator  

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A long-established, technology rich ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This growing digital marketing ...

Recruitment Genius: Electrical Quality Supervisor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Midland's leading Solar Panels provi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dame Maggie Smith stars in Downtown Abbey as Countess Violet  

We need to see Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon on stage again

David Lister
Women in India protest against rape and other attacks on women and girls in the country.  

India is ready for the truth about its shocking state of gender equality — but its politicians aren’t

Manveena Suri
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable