Ex-Political Prisoner Claims Press Can’t Share Freedom in Myanmar

Ex-Political Prisoner Claims Press Can’t Share Freedom in Myanmar

My Dad, Eddy (2nd from right) and his childhood friend Smitty (far right) were inseparable Korea War Era Rakkasan’s

By Daniel Opacki

Over the years I’ve known hundreds of ex-political prisoners (XPP’s) in Burma/Myanmar, and I’ve met hundreds more. During uncountable conversations and interviews, I have never run across a single of Myanmar’s thousands and thousands of XPP’s who took pride in their sacrifice, or claimed that their sacrifice meant significantly more than that of another. They all considered their sacrifice was a part of Myanmar’s long and troubled history, along with the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of others, to win freedom and justice, civilian rule (which isn’t the case just yet) and an opening towards Democracy.

For one XPP, Minister U Phyo Min Thein, who’s a government official from the National League for Democracy no less, to make the unfortunate remark that his sacrifice brought freedom to Myanmar and that journalists haven’t earned the right to question authority, is absurd. It’s like saying he gave freedom to his country and now he get’s to decide who can have some of that not-enough-to-go-around freedom.

It sounds eerily similar to a tiny but vocal minority of military veterans in the United States that claim their service and sacrifice makes them more Patriotic than non-veterans. It’s common to hear some say to others who didn’t serve to “shut up” or to discourage them from questioning authority. Criticize the invasion of Iraq, will you? Shut up! Have you served in the military? Then keep your opinions to yourself! Even worse, mainstream media entertainers and chickenhawks in the government push this piddly narrative way more than those few veterans do on occasion.

The so-called Main Stream Media in the United States is one of the greatest perpetrators of curbing the freedoms of Americans by perpetuating the “Thank you for your service” here’s your free M&M. It’s nothing more than a carefully constructed method of silencing dissent. Some people believe in it sincerely and at times, they may feel it’s the only way to acknowledge military service. That’s fine. But, it’s also a marketing tool. Some would call it propaganda. On the other hand, there are many, many ways to appreciate military service of veterans than to corporatise appreciation for them with profitable advertisements that promote subservience and silence dissent.

My Dad, who spent 18 months in Korea, longer than he should have since he and his best friend took an extended leave on Okinawa, spent most of his time as a forward observer during his war. He was in the 101st Airborn 187th Infantry Regiment, truly a loyal Rakkasan to his last breath. A day before he passed, I stayed with him for the ride home from the hospital. When the ambulance medics were strapping him into a gurney to take him to where he wanted to be when he died, Dad could barely move though he was awake and alert. I said to him, “Dad, they’re packing your chute for your last combat jump.” He lifted his head up high and looked at me with a big smile and his eyes watered. Dad nodded in agreement, still smiling, and gave me a thumbs up.

Over my years with him, Dad never spoke to me much about his war. Except on occasion, at times he’d just start talking about something that happened. He did tell me about his combat jumps a long time ago. But During his final months, Dad shared with my brothers and me a great deal of his wartime experience. He told each of us different stories, which we found peculiar and we reasoned that it was so based our various relationships with him.

But Dad was the kind of guy who never wanted parades or recognition. He fervently supported dissenting views of anyone who questioned the government, and he supported free speech and hated bullshit politicians. Which, was just about all of them. To my Dad, one needn’t have served in the military to be Patriotic – that’s about as genuine an Americanism as I can think of these days. And unfortunately, it’s one that barely exists in the minds of many of the people in the United States.

One day when at a breakfast diner, a counter clerk asked him if he was a veteran. I thought to myself, oh no, here it comes, and I smiled at the sweet lady. Dad replied, “Yes, why?” His tone told me what I already knew was coming.  The clerk said, “Thank you for your service. You get ten percent off your bill today.” Dad replied, “I don’t want ten percent off. Cut the bullshit and just give me my change.” Then he chuckled and said to the lady because he was an honest to goodness good guy and never meant her any harm, I don’t go for that stuff.

The damn clerk insisted in saying it again, though much more pleasantly, “Well my husband’s a Vietnam veteran, and I’m proud of him, so I’m gonna tell you anyway. Thank you for your service.” My Dad said, “Oh so he got shafted too.” And they both laughed and started yapping away. I laughed too and said, “I’ll wait outside.” They talked a few minutes. I knew my Dad well; he was a proud guy, and also he held very conflicted feelings about that whole “Thank you for your service” campaign. He was a true old time veteran who never talked about his service to civilians and he never used it as a discursive tool on other’s who disagreed with his politics.

Dad’s objectivity and willingness to let others speak their mind taught me to appreciate Democracy. Not shy away from it. Because of my Dad, I support my country in all its beautiful, far from perfect, and ugly forms, rather than risk the rule of despotism or dictatorship. Yet, the struggle to keep and make Democracy flourish is never-ending. And the honest, objective journalists are the forward observers in the war against Democracy. American’s need to become United Citizens and we need to respect our differences in culture, ethnicities, religion, status, and opinions, in order to preserve our freedoms. Or, we could become more like Myanmar.

Myanmar is a very different place than the United States. Many people from outside Myanmar, I believe, have the wrong idea about the National League for Democracy. Politics is a struggle for power and the NLD, while generally considered by many to be a fervent upholder of Democratic principle, has as much potential to be an oppressive institution as almost any other that’s existed in Myanmar’s history. Time will tell but so far, the NLD’s blemishes are beginning to show and they tell a different story than the one everyone was wishing to have.

Freedom in Myanmar is new, and to some in the NLD, it’s unusual to be challenged or criticized, especially now that they have some power. If there will be Democracy in Myanmar, it will arrive following many years of struggle yet to come. The young Myanmar people today may never know about the thousands of XPP’s and what life was like for them and their families when under a severe Dictatorship there was only oppression. But in a free society that’s the way it is. That change will come to Myanmar and indeed is in motion, is inevitable. Some XPP’s who have sacrificed many years of a life may feel resentment for being largely unknown and forgotten. There will be no mention of them in the history that’s not taught in schools. Not yet anyway.

Perhaps the business community in Myanmar should begin to placate and patronize the XPP’s with a “Thank you for your imprisonment” advertising campaign.  They can dole out discount movie tickets, a free bottle of soda, and some free minutes on their SIM cards. Maybe a good advertising campaign from Coca-Cola will help to make some former political prisoners who are now in government compliant enough to buy into the stupid idea that journalists ask questions. That in a Democracy it’s a politician’s job to answer unwanted questions as obtusely as possible. Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing Lee Kwan Yew, he said Democracy just doesn’t work in Asia. I know for sure many people in Myanmar disagree. As do many in South Korea. One time during his last days Dad wondered aloud if his service in Korea was worth it. I told him to look at North Korea for evidence. Dad’s message today for those journalists on the front lines who sacrifice for Democracy in Myanmar would be to never be quiet and never be complacent. Ask questions.

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Calling Media ‘Crows’ is Insulting

By KYAW PHYO THA 13 June 2017

YANGON — Last week was a time of mixed feelings for local journalists. They were saddened by the news of a military plane crash with 122 people on board, and both insulted and bemused by comments made by members of the country’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Let’s start with the comedy.

During a Q&A session at a three-hour press conference at the Yangon Division government office, Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein lectured reporters and took credit for freedom of the press as it stands today (doubtful!) instead of answering questions about reforms his government has undertaken in the city. To the amusement of the reporters, he said:

“You journalists should not project your anger. We are the ones who went prison to make way for the strong press you enjoy today. At that time, no paper dared to write about politics. We paid a big price for the current situation,” referring to his 14 years as a political prisoner.

As far as I know, the chief minister is the first person, among the hundreds of political prisoners across the country, who publicly took credit for his sacrifice. Even the late veteran journalist Hanthawaddy U Win Tin, who spent 19 years in prison for his political activism, never uttered a word about his jail time contributing to media freedom in the country. I wonder what Uncle Win Tin’s reaction would have been if he were alive today.

Nobody can deny the fact that the changes seen in Myanmar today are a result of collective popular movements since 1988. But those involved in the activities have not come out to say: “We did this.” It was a labor of love and the participants had no need for self-praise.

Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she felt embarrassed to say that she had sacrificed [for the country] when choosing what she wanted to do.

What journalists found even more entertaining was that U Phyo Min Thein’s comments came while the controversial Article 66(d) of the country’s Telecommunications Law threatens Myanmar’s media. Ironically, as the chief minister praised his sacrifices, the editor and a contributor to The Voice Daily were both in detention after the military filed a lawsuit against them for a satirical piece it claimed was defamatory.

On the same day, Myanmar’s media industry was insulted by the NLD’s spokesperson.

NLD spokesman U Win Htein called journalists “crows” when asked for why the party refused to allow a party lawmaker to question the government over Article 66(d) in Parliament last week.

“This issue is not big enough to damage the country. Don’t have a crow mentality,” the party’s spokesperson said, seemingly teasing the reporters about flocking to campaign against 66(d) now that the law had affected journalists.

But this wasn’t a joke. It was the third attempt by U Win Htein to verbally abuse journalists in two consecutive years. The first and second attacks were toward individuals, while this one was directed at the entire media industry.

Since the arrest of The Voice Daily’s editor and columnist, journalists across the country have embarked on a campaign condemning the government and military for using Article 66(d) to sue the media when they are not happy with its reports. The journalists went to U Win Htein to do their job – to ask questions – which the party blocked.

But the solidarity of the journalists seems to upset U Win Htein. In his eyes, they are “crows,” campaigning against 66(d) because their colleagues are in distress. He lectured reporters about the failings of this mentality without commenting on the rise of politically motivated cases filed under 66(d).

It was an insult to call local journalists crows. It was the local media that followed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the then-NLD leader, throughout her campaigns in the 2012 by-election and the 2015 general election. They stood by the NLD to the extent that onlookers wondered whether they would have the guts to criticize the party when it came to power.

It is okay that U Win Htein does not acknowledge the journalists’ long-standing party support. But he does not have the right to call them crows, comparing them to animals. Even the former junta did not insult journalists in this way. It is shameful for the NLD and its government that the party’s spokesperson fails to respect the media and in turn, the democratic norms that the party champions.

At the same time, it is also disappointing to see Myanmar’s ruling party spokesperson behave like a man on the street. Last month, he recklessly commented that some military organizations might be behind spreading rumors of President U Htin Kyaw’s resignation. When the military condemned this, he retreated by saying it was just ‘a slip of tongue.’ Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should either temper him or replace him for the sake of the party’s reputation. Either action could save her from future embarrassment.

Topics: Human Rights, Media, Politics

Kyaw Phyo Tha
The Irrawaddy
Kyaw Phyo Tha is the News Editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy.

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