Winds of change

''Thein Sein must facilitate the return of Rohingyas.''

Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has taken another step forwards in democratising the country. It has ended censorship of local publications. For much of the last 50 years, Myanmar’s media was strangled. Severe restrictions were in place on what could be published.  In fact, newspapers and magazines were expected to submit articles to government censors for scrutiny.  That will now change.  Over the past year, the Thein Sein regime has initiated a series of steps to democratise the country. A large number of political prisoners were released, talks were initiated with popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi and so on.  Although censorship remained in place, newspapers were hesitantly testing the waters over the past year.  Debates on issues appeared in publications. It was fraught with risk. Indeed, two publications were suspended recently for publishing reports on a rumoured cabinet reshuffle. Journalists, however, did what was again unthinkable previously -  they went on a protest against the suspension.

Thus, Myanmar is changing and the government’s decision to end censorship will end secrecy and provide space for informed debate and discussion.  It needs to take this forward by allowing private publications too. The question now on everyone’s mind is whether the government will take criticism in its stride. Journalists will need to overcome fear of punishment for speaking their minds. The government needs to go beyond lifting censorship to ending the culture of fear that continues to envelope Myanmar.

The international community should support and encourage President Thein Sein for persevering with reforms, despite opposition from hardliners in the military.  It is alleged these hardliners triggered the violence against Muslim Rohingyas, forcing thousands to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh.  Thein Sein must facilitate the return of Rohingyas to their homes. His failure to do so will be a blot in his democratising achievements.  It is a pity that Suu Kyi has been silent on the persecution of the Rohingyas. Unwilling to alienate support of the Burman majority, she has not raised her voice in defence of the Rohingyas. Thein Sein and Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement must realise that democracy is not just about elections. It is about inclusion and ensuring rights and justice to all. Failure to speak out on behalf of the Rohingyas will keep the nascent democracy stunted.

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