Without a doubt, the current military regime has crippled the country in various aspects. Some things like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) are measurable, but others like self-censorship are harder to see. Human rights defenders raise concerns that any sort of rights, expression and freedom has been taken away from the people of Myanmar in the past two years. But how bad has it been? This month, we talked to Ma Thida (Sanchaung), a renowned writer to get insights on the current status of freedom of expression, as well as the return of state-imposed, self and peer censorship among artists.
MM: How can you analyze the current situation of freedom of expression in post-coup Myanmar?
MT: The situation is extremely terrible. Since the coup, the regime has taken away the people’s freedom of expression systematically. By amending Cyber Security Laws and Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, any legal changes have contributed to oppressing the people’s freedom. Even the recent amendment of the National Education Law in late 2022 limited the freedom to learn languages, and the amendment of the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law also further worsened the current publishing sector than the previous regimes. The worst thing is that even ordinary people, who are not journalists or writers or bloggers, are now afraid to react to social media posts, let alone express their opinions. The public has to think twice before they react or express their feelings on social media. So that’s the current situation which is very, very terrible, I must say.
MM: You lived through tight censorship during the previous military regimes. What is the difference between oppression against freedom of expression in the last regime and the current regime?
MT: To be frank, the oppression is a lot worse now. In the past, the censorship board was there, but individuals were able to speak their minds more freely, and they had conversations at tea shops. These days, people use social media the way they converse in teashops. They write on their Facebook as if they talk to their friends casually, not like criticising something or someone intentionally, but even doing so is no longer safe. The majority of the people refrain from expressing their opinions, except for some people who say or do whatever the regime likes. This time around, there is zero tolerance for criticism.
MM: Myanmar public experienced the freedom of expression (although limited) in the past decade, the democratization process. In your opinion, how did this brief period of freedom change people’s understanding and perspectives towards their freedom and rights?
MT: In that period, censorship was lifted, and associations were able to form under the Registration of Associations Law. So, the space for civil societies expanded, and training sessions on human rights were given to the public across the country. At PEN Myanmar, we provided training to people from all walks of life, including parliamentarians, journalists, students from students’ unions, and the public. Through these training and workshops, the capacity of the fifth column was proliferated in addition to gaining legal warranty. Despite the red tape processes like having to request permissions from General Administrative Department to organize literature lectures or workshops, we reached out to more people and were able to educate them. In retrospect, the public did gain knowledge of human rights during that period, and they eventually practised them. There was a time when we thought we did not see any substantial improvement in society. But looking back at a decade of the “democratization process”, the space for open dialogues was expanded but the public dared not practice free speech and human rights in the first half because there were a few cases where people got penalized. In post-2015, the public became more confident to express their opinions. But since the number of people who practised free expression increased, the number of legal cases also built up relatively, which should not happen though. Despite all these, after the Spring Revolution, we can easily see how much the public understood their role, and how much they learned about their rights in the past decade. In the past, these improvements were not visible, but to me, this revolution is proof. During the Covid pandemic outbreak, the public understood their role as the fifth column and learned to cooperate with the state to tackle critical situations. The public applied this knowledge in the Spring Revolution. They know their power and become confident to bring change by putting in the effort. This kind of resilience and perseverance can be seen among the Myanmar public to this day.
MM: Did you notice any difference in the way the public in 2021 reacted to the regime’s oppression compared to the previous regime’s?
MT: Of course. It is so encouraging to see the public’s reaction to the coup this time around. The public has shown that they understand their role and refuse military rule. Now we are at a point, let’s say even if the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) decided not to fight anymore, it is not the end of the revolution. This afternoon I saw a video clip in which an old lady from Anyar (central plain regions) said and I quote, “Come and kill me, even when I’m dead, my spirit will continue to resist”. This is too bold. You can feel that she is determined not to be ruled by the military. That sentiment has become too strong. Looking back at the 1988 military coup, the public was living in total isolation, so they did not know their role, and did not understand how effective their role was. There was no alternative except to accept military rule. The Civil Disobedience Movement was initiated but did not take off because they had to depend on the state for their livelihood. This time around, they have alternatives for their livelihood. Again if you look at people like this old lady I mentioned before, this group of people used to live in fear and did not have awareness, so the reaction in the past wasn’t as strong.
Communication was an issue in the past. We couldn’t communicate strategically even among ourselves so the resistance could not grow further. Now, even in areas where the internet was shut down, pamphlets and newsletters were distributed. The public tried to communicate with each other. The public is very confident and they know their impact. They are not resisting emotionally, they are resisting for their rights.
MM: Let’s turn to your experience as a writer and artist. In the past, artists and writers worked creatively to avoid state-imposed censorship. As an artist who lived through that period, did you ever notice self-censorship in your works or in your peers’ works?
MT: Of course. Let’s say the issue of land confiscation. It has happened before, and it is still happening. Knowing that this kind of topic is risky for writers, we did not see any literature on these matters even during the period when censorship was abolished. As a writer, one would think that he/she doesn’t censor his/her writing process, but the mind can already filter out the topics that could potentially put the writer in trouble. That is basically self-censorship. So certain topics become taboos, for instance, religion has become a very sensitive topic. Once the writer has learned these sensitive topics, he/she automatically avoids them. It is not visible at a glance, but self-censorship does exist among us. Also, peer-censorship can also be found in these sensitive topics. When our peers pressure us, we accept it without resisting it. If you go ask any artist, they will say they think freely but a certain degree of self-censorship or peer-censorship exists. That’s why when we talk about freedom of expression, it begins with freedom of opinion. We always remind the public that even before we express ourselves, we tend to limit or censor ourselves in the process of building or forming our opinions.
MM: In the past five years under the NLD administration, what was the status of self-censorship among artists or creators, in your opinion?
MT: In my view, self-censorship did exist to some extent. But I noticed that some writers tried to break this barrier. The difference between news media and literature is that literature takes time to produce. The writer tends to reflect on themselves repetitively before producing the artwork. But news media work ad hoc so journalists have very little time to reflect on their work. In literature, writers probably do not notice self-censorship especially when they are living through a certain event, and writing about it. Only in retrospect, it is more noticeable how much freedom artists had in their works. I am sure artists try to be as free as possible during their progress. Artist’s knowledge is also important here. I define knowledge as the wisdom one develops from the combination of information and lived experience. Artists’ knowledge shaped the selection of contents, forms and formation of opinions, so obviously, we have seen artists become freer in the last decade, but they are not truly free.
MM: It’s been more than two years since the military coup. How will this return of the junta impact our art scene and society as a whole?
MT: The impact is extensive. Art forms take time to produce, so sometimes, artworks may not affect both artists and the audience immediately, but over time and in retrospect, their impact can be more visible, and become meaningful. To be frank, in order to create any sort of art at this time, one has to deceive oneself that everything is normal before producing any art form. Otherwise, it’s difficult to produce art. Self-deceit exists to some extent because artists have to refrain from producing artworks that come from their actual feeling or topic of interest. Artwork that comes out from self-deceit is never truly free. And if the audience sees these artworks repetitively, they shape their opinions. Right now, artists who have the freedom to produce whatever they want experience peer pressure to remain in close proximity to the revolution, and it’s also another important factor. When we talk about authentic freedom, it should be free from any sort of influence. If artists are only creating artworks that are related to revolution, the revolution becomes a limitation which prevents the artist from creating art with true freedom. So the point is if there is no true freedom or if a society cannot guarantee such freedom, self-censorship will exist within any artist whether they are in Myanmar or not, whether a Myanmar citizen or not. So as a society, the return of the regime is a very dangerous thing, in fact.
MM: In the past, we have seen writers taking the lead to shape public opinion such as Min Lu’s political satire poem “What has gone wrong?”. This time around we see such efforts in the online blogosphere, but not in literature. How can you make sense of it?
MT: I noticed that too! Not a lot of contemporary writers pursue literature, and these days, people tend to read more on digital platforms. Some don’t even like long-form writing. So now it is in the hands of bloggers and influencers to shape public opinion, and their impact becomes greater. I am surprised that there are very limited pieces of literature about the revolution. In the beginning, I did see some artistic writings based on certain incidents, but afterwards, I did not see any more. Due to the risk, artists probably keep them to themselves. But we cannot underestimate though. Maybe in some time, a large number of artworks about the revolution might appear out of nowhere.
MM: Since our main audience is international friends, would you like to say anything to them?
MT: Our international friends try to apply knowledge-based logic to Myanmar issues, and I want to say that it’s not the right way. To me, knowledge is the combination of information and experience. They tend to apply their knowledge and logical reasoning to our country’s situation, and it is not going to work. I want them to apply their logic to pure information/data that comes from the ground. For instance, let’s look at the topic of elections. Without a doubt, people might think an election is a good idea because it implies a peaceful transition, and this logic comes from their experience. From our experience, everyone knows that an election is not a solution. We saw what happened at the 1990 Election. And look at other elections afterwards. When did we ever have a free and fair election in Myanmar? Only because the public collectively showed their choice in 2015, the change took place. Before we question the fairness of the 2020 election, we need to look at what happened in the 2010 election or 2012 by-election. There are so many questions. So, the international community must not apply logic and knowledge based on their experiences. They must look at the actual situations on the ground, apply logic based on data and information that comes from the ground, and try to see things from our perspectives.
One thought on “The Perishing Freedom and the Return of Censorship: An Interview with Ma Thida (Sanchaung)”
Thanks for the interview and the insights. Ma Thida, hope to meet you on monday.