I discover censorship defines life at the Myanmar Times and depletes the buzz and excitement that’s generally a feature of good newspaper offices where ground-breaking stories are regularly broken. Censorship at the Times is absolute and total, but the system itself is quite simple. All articles selected for possible publication are faxed to Military Intelligence and are either accepted in their totality, completely rejected, or partly censored, with words, paragraphs and sections removed. Such information is relayed to the editor, Goddard, usually by an officer named Wai Lin. Sometimes the Brigadier General himself rolls up his sleeves and pitches in, and if big issues, especially political issues, are discussed in an article, Wai Lin will pass the material to him for ‘instruction and guidance’.
Inside page layouts and story placements are mostly left to the staff to determine, but the front-page layout is carefully scrutinised and stories approved for publication might not be approved for front-page publication, or the emphasis of such stories might be downplayed.
At times, there can be dialogue about decisions. I am told a story about breakdancing becoming a fad among trendy Yangon youth was axed by MI because they only want to promote traditional dancing. A query, asking if there was any way the story could be saved, resulted in a new ruling that it could be used if breakdancing were not defined as a dance but instead as an American fitness regime.
I discover that Myanmar has a mind-numbing myriad of rules regarding publications. New laws, new variations to new laws, and new amendments to old laws relentlessly emerge.
I don’t even try to grapple with this complexity because I am told that ultimately only one law applies–the law of the day as detennined by the Brigadier General and his boys at Military Intelligence. If they say no it means no, and there is no burrowing through laws and statutes to find precedents or technicalities to present to lawyers. If the Brigadier General rules it out, it’s out and anyone who publishes against his will could well be on the road to Insein prison–which, incidentally, is appropriately pronounced ‘Insane’ prison.
But the most stultifying aspect of the insidious, all-pervading censorship is that the paper is denied an entity or a voice. All aspects giving a Western paper its character, personality and identity–editorials, letters to the editor, causes and crusades, opinion and analysis–are no-go zones. The term ‘political analysis’ does not exist in the Myanmar Times lexicon.