NAYPYITAW • Hiding from Myanmar’s police, journalist Aung Marm Oo refuses to conceal his anger with the civilian government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as his country prepares for an election later this year.
“Democracy is already dead,” the 37-year-old editor-in-chief of Development Media Group (DMG) told Reuters from a secret location. “They blocked media, restrict media agencies, banned news, punish journalists. Media is the lifeblood of democracy in the country. Without media, how can democracy survive?”
When Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest by a military junta in 2011, Mr Aung Marm Oo was a student activist living in exile. Her release helped persuade him to return home and enter journalism.
The 2016 election that brought Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to power ended half a century of military rule.
But the generals retain strong influence under a Constitution that reserves sweeping powers for the military, and 25 per cent of seats in Parliament for its appointees.
The Interior Ministry is controlled by the armed forces, and the freedom of civil society and the media remains restricted in a country plagued by ethnic conflicts.
Before she came to power, Ms Suu Kyi spoke of the need for the law to protect reporters. But her administration has brought charges against 31 journalists, and in recent months, the civilian-led Information Ministry has blocked dozens of news websites, including DMG, accusing them of distributing “fake news” and “fearmongering”.
Many are reporting on regions beset by insurgencies. Mr Aung Marm Oo is wanted on “unlawful association” charges after interviewing militants in his native Rakhine state.
If caught, he faces a maximum three-year prison sentence.
Rakhine is where a 2017 military crackdown saw 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar. A new conflict has erupted there, between government forces and Arakan Army insurgents recruited from the mostly Buddhist Rakhine majority.
Independent journalists who survived years under the junta’s Orwellian constraints had hoped pen names, safe houses and smuggled footage would no longer be needed, but for some, they have once again become the safest way to operate.
The safest place for journalists to write impartially, without fear, is in exile, said Mr Lawi Weng, a reporter for news website The Irrawaddy who moved back to Myanmar in 2013 after a decade in Thailand. “There is a conflict happening in front of our eyes. But we cannot really report on it,” he said.