NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — There was an elegant determination to her walk as Aung San Suu Kyi led an entourage of advisers and loyal followers of her National League for Democracy into a hotel ballroom on a steamy, rain-swept hillside overlooking this newly built capital.
Coming straight from the opening of a fateful parliamentary session where constitutional reform and press freedom laws topped the agenda, the pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate spoke Thursday to a group of 20 top young journalists brought together by GlobalPost in partnership with the Open Hands Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to public diplomacy.
“The Lady,” as she is commonly referred to here, viewed some of the work of the 20 journalists — eleven from Myanmar and nine from the United States — who have set out together as one team on a reporting journey through a changing Myanmar. She spoke on the importance of press freedom, and the need for the young reporters to recognize the opportunity — and the responsibility — they have covering a country trying to find its way along a path toward democracy.
“Greater freedom means greater responsibility, greater challenges and so we need greater wisdom to deal with the new opportunities that are open to us,” Aung San Suu Kyi told the group, citing “integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling” as four pillars that support great journalism.
“I think high ideals are very good in journalism and you need them. But you also need to be extremely down to earth, if what you write or what you say or what you video and show to other people is to make a difference to our lives,” she added.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s words were inspiring to the young journalists, but to some they also seemed to gloss over profound concerns about precisely where the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is headed with its broader political reforms, and specifically regarding press freedoms.
Through 60 years of military dictatorship, the previous government imposed strict censorship, brutal intimidation and quite often imprisonment upon any journalist who dared to criticize the ruling junta.
Since taking office in 2011, the new Burmese President Thein Sein has been commended by the US and the international community for implementing broad reforms. In return, Thein Sein was invited to the White House for an historic visit in May and the US has suspended economic sanctions, promoted private investment and opened the way for loans from the World Bank.
Specifically, Thein Sein’s reform-minded government has ordered the release of journalists jailed under the previous military regime, effectively ended pre-publication censorship of the local press, lifted most blocks imposed on the Internet including criminal laws against accessing opposition news sites published in exile in Thailand and India and elsewhere.
Indeed, the partnership between GlobalPost and Open Hands Initiative to train young journalists and get permission for them to work independently in many corners of the country would probably not have been possible just one year ago. The tide is turning. But the government has also shown a resistance to change on some key aspects of press freedom.
For example, in February the Ministry of Information unveiled a Draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law that seemed to backtrack on censorship by erecting new layers of review in a maze of a bureaucracy that, in the end, was trying to hold onto control of who would print what. The draft also maintained an Orwellian law against media criticism of any of the existing laws.
The Ministry of Information tried to push the law through quickly, but it was blocked by a growing lobby of press freedom groups and independent press associations. Now the proposed laws are back up for deliberations and expected to be reintroduced into parliament this month.
Before she came to address the full group of young journalists, a smaller contingent of American and Burmese reporters attended the session in parliament and watched Aung San Suu Kyi in her quest to push for genuine reform. She will no doubt play an active and important role in securing genuine reforms that favor press freedom.
Throughout June, the young reporters have been across the country documenting a growing impatience with a lack of change. They say they have heard a rising, albeit muted questioning of Aung San Suu Kyi over how effective she can truly be against the imposing wall of power behind which the military still stands. She certainly retains her title as a global icon for supporting human rights and for her courage in standing up to the regime, but recently some critics question her commitment to standing up for religious and ethnic minorities while she pursues a political career with aspirations to be elected president.
A reporter asked Aung San Suu Kyi about this criticism on behalf of GlobalPost, and she hastened to defend her record. She cited many instances of supporting ethnic minorities that have occurred throughout her life as a pro-democracy advocate. At one point she asked the reporter, “Why don’t you ask the president that question?”
Under the current constitution, the military is guaranteed 25 percent of the 664 seats in parliament. (Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party holds just under 7 percent.) The military sits together in one bloc on one side of the parliament, a solid patch of green military uniforms for officers shoulder-to-shoulder at their parliamentary desks. Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, sits in the front row in the opposite side. She stood out against the sea of green uniforms with a cobalt blue outfit accented by an orange scarf and the signature flower in her hair. (That is a tradition she has kept to honor her father General Aung San, who fought for Burmese independence, as he put a flower in her hair when she was a child on the morning he was assassinated.)
The rest of the parliamentarians seated behind her and in the middle sections revealed an interesting array of modern and traditional dress in a country made of more than 130 ethnic tribes, including eight major ethnic minority groups and a minority Muslim and Christian presence.
Aung San Suu Kyi — elected in an April 2012 by-election widely regarded as the first free and fair voting after 60 years of military rule — and other members of parliament were reconvening Thursday. Among the items on the agenda was reforming the constitution.
The document will have to be rewritten for the country to secure the freedoms inherent to a democracy, political observers here say, including press freedoms. But perhaps the most intensely watched proposal will be the specific move to amend a law preventing anyone whose spouse is not Burmese from running for president. That will have to be changed for Aung San Suu Kyi to be eligible to run for the highest office as she has said she intends to in the 2015 elections. Her late husband was British, and most historians and political observers say the legislation was written specifically to block her from taking power.
The media is keeping a watchful eye on these constitutional changes and specifically on press freedoms as a litmus test of how genuine the government is about democratic reforms.
Myanmar is changing for sure, but not as fast as many hoped and the media law is a perfect example of that. Still, ‘The Lady’ encouraged the journalists to persevere and to remember there is a long path ahead. It will not be easy to implement real and lasting change in Myanmar, she explained.
“I would like our young journalists to remember that the path is very, very long and that they will have to have the stamina and the will to carry on until our country is truly safe. Safe because we are deeply rooted in the best values of democracy and freedom,” she added.
Along the journey, these young journalists, most with about three to five years experience, have learned about the craft of journalism, about their respective cultures and about each other. Creating a young team that works together as equals is an idea at the heart of the public diplomacy mission of Open Hands Initiative, a New York-based non-profit organization, which funded the project. The work the journalists have produced under the guidance of a team of veteran journalists in the region will be published next month as a GlobalPost Special Report.
At several points in her speech Aung San Suu Kyi praised the training program and specifically cited her support for GlobalPost’s effort to promote the highest standards and practices of journalism as spelled out in its field guide called “GroundTruth.”
“I was struck by what has been said about GlobalPost, that they are trying to promote the enduring qualities of great journalism. That is integrity, accuracy, independence and great storytelling,” she said.
She added, “I think GlobalPost used the word ‘old fashioned’ with regard to their ideals, their motto. I have to say I am old fashioned in the same way. … So what we would like are great journalists, but their greatness should be firmly rooted in integrity and the desire to make our world a better place to live in. That is a very old fashioned idea, but I don’t think this is an idea that will ever really go out of fashion. We need to make the world that we live in a better one.”
(GlobalPost co-founder and Editor-at-Large Charles M. Sennott headed up the field training program in Myanmar along with award-winning photographer and Visual Editor Gary Knight. Sennott and Knight are overseeing a 20-part GlobalPost Special Report on Myanmar which is scheduled to be published July 15. A series of audio and video segments will also be broadcast in partnership with Radio Free Asia’s Burmese language broadcast and other publishing partners in the US and in Myanmar.)