Dr Ma Thida

Asian Geographic - - Profile -

Myan­mar’s Na­tional Con­ven­tion process – which was set up to ne­go­ti­ate a demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion – took 14 years to be re­alised. Af­ter the 1990 elec­tion (vot­ing in the Na­tional League of Democ­racy) was ig­nored, sev­eral ac­tivist groups cam­paigned against the mil­i­tary regime in se­cret. In 1993, one such ac­tivist, sur­geon and writer Dr Ma Thida, was ar­rested on ac­cu­sa­tions of four charges: en­dan­ger­ing pub­lic seren­ity, con­tact­ing an il­le­gal or­gan­i­sa­tion, and print­ing and dis­tribut­ing il­le­gal ma­te­ri­als. She was sen­tenced to 20 years’ im­pris­on­ment.

Re­leased five-and-a-half years later, she pub­lished her prison me­moir Prisonerof­con­science: Mys­tep­sthrough­in­sein, which was re­leased in English last year. She spoke to Asian­geo­graphic about her life, work, and the cur­rent chal­lenges fac­ing Asia’s new­est democ­racy. WITH RESTRIC­TIONS RE­LAXED, HOW HAS THE ME­DIA IM­PACTED PUB­LIC DI­A­LOGUE? Al­though there is no more cen­sor­ship board, self-cen­sor­ship still oc­curs. There are ex­ist­ing laws that limit free­dom of ex­pres­sion, di­rectly and in­di­rectly. Many civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions work hard to ex­pand the bound­ary of free­dom of ex­pres­sion, but it is not easy – even un­der the new gov­ern­ment. Me­dia and in­for­ma­tion lit­er­acy amongst the gen­eral pub­lic is also limited, and me­dia prac­tice through the re­quired me­dia li­cence is con­trolled by the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion. Through­out the last five decades, only gov­ern­ment cronies or pro­gov­ern­ment busi­ness peo­ple could ob­tain a li­cence. Al­though new li­cences were guar­an­teed af­ter 2012, the me­dia land­scape is not chang­ing ef­fec­tively. State-owned me­dia – es­pe­cially print – are still dom­i­nat­ing the mar­ket share, and con­trol­ling ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion.

HOW IS WRIT­ERS AS­SO­CI­A­TION PEN MYAN­MAR CUR­RENTLY PRO­MOT­ING FREE­DOM OF EX­PRES­SION? I am cur­rently a board mem­ber of PEN In­ter­na­tional. PEN Myan­mar has three mis­sions: to pro­mote and pro­tect free­dom of ex­pres­sion, to es­tab­lish a vi­tal lit­er­ary cul­ture, and to cre­ate a bridge be­tween lit­er­a­ture and school ed­u­ca­tion. “Lit­er­a­ture for Ev­ery­one” is a com­mu­nity-based lit­er­a­ture ac­tiv­ity which pro­vides a space for writ­ers and read­ers to ap­pre­ci­ate lit­er­a­ture and dis­cuss their opin­ions. PEN Myan­mar also part­ners with other civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions (CSOS), and our ad­vo­cacy work has proved suc­cess­ful in catalysing law re­form pro­cesses. We have started a road­show which runs work­shops on free­dom of ex­pres­sion with both re­gional and na­tional par­lia­ments, as well as with lo­cal CSOS. We also have plans to or­gan­ise more ac­tiv­i­ties on cul­ti­vat­ing pub­lic opin­ion, and to start a po­etry slam con­test. I reg­u­larly hold pub­lic lit­er­ary talks on why our so­ci­ety needs free­dom of ex­pres­sion, and how we should prac­tise it.

IS THE SPIRIT OF DEMOC­RACY BE­ING TRANS­LATED INTO AC­TION? The spirit of democ­racy is the hard­est thing for the ma­jor­ity of our peo­ple to un­der­stand. Long-term cen­sor­ship, pro­pa­ganda and an in­ef­fec­tive ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem have made our so­ci­ety in­tel­lec­tu­ally blind. It is hard to change peo­ple’s mind­set in terms of their un­der­stand­ing of lead­er­ship and gov­er­nance. I think that the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship is busy with the peace process and other pri­or­i­ties – like ne­go­ti­at­ing its author­ity with the still-pow­er­ful mil­i­tary – and so the spirit of democ­racy is not be­ing trans­lated into ac­tion ef­fec­tively just yet.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE IN MOV­ING MYAN­MAR FOR­WARD? Without so­cial change, po­lit­i­cal change can­not be un­der­stood as ef­fec­tive change. The col­lec­tive dream of a fed­eral demo­cratic so­ci­ety is more or less well-recog­nised, but it is not un­der­stood, nor adopted, by the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple yet, as they can­not vi­su­alise it. Pub­lic and pri­vate en­ti­ties should play a role in help­ing peo­ple share in this col­lec­tive dream. This can be done if the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship guar­an­tees free­dom of ex­pres­sion and opin­ion – in­clud­ing press free­dom. ag

“Long-term cen­sor­ship, pro­pa­ganda and an in­ef­fec­tive ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem have made our so­ci­ety in­tel­lec­tu­ally blind”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.