Hoping for a brighter tomorrow: mother and child join thousands waiting to hear democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon’s Thingangyun Township. (Photo: Ryan Rosauro)
The dawn of democracy in Myanmar: voters start lining up at daybreak at poll booth in Yangon Central Fire Station; voter lines lengthened across the country as the day advanced, with an estimated 80% of Myanmar’s over 30 million voters queuing up at more than 41,000 polling stations. (Photo: Ryan Rosauro)
The world is waiting for the big moment: a Yangon police officer requests news photographers and TV journalists, many foreign, to make way for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, expected any moment at her poll booth in Bahhan township. (Photo: Ryan Rosauro)
“We were hit by an NLD tsunami.”
This is how Sai Nyunt Lwin, secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), one of the 59 ethnic political parties that contested the November 8 national elections in Myanmar, felt after the poll results were announced.
It was shock and awe for the SNLD and other ethnic political parties, which were routed by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Myanmar’s world famous democracy champion Aung Saan Suu Kyi.
As Sai Nyunt explained in an interview to the local news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), few even among the media expected such a decisive defeat for the political parties representing the many ethnic groups who comprise about 30% of Myanmar’s population.
The SNLD, the largest ethnic party in Shan state in eastern Burma bordering Thailand, won only a third of the seats it expected to win.
The ethnic parties together won only 36 out of 117 Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House of Parliament) seats in Myanmar’s bicameral parliament, representing townships in the country’s seven ethnic states.
The NLD also dominated the race for the state legislatures, which was earlier widely expected to go in favour of the ethnic parties. Of the 256 seats in the seven ethnic state parliaments, only 83 seats were captured by the ethnic parties.
Yangon-based analysts had predicted a strong performance by the ethnic parties based on the wide-held view that decades of mistrust of the central government would make ethnic people vote along nationality lines. Media projections had shown ethnic political parties winning as much as 30% of the elective1 seats in national parliament.
Although the ethnic political parties were disappointed with their poor performance, they welcomed the NLD win.
Indeed, they see the NLD win as their own win. Despite its big loss, the SNLD welcomed the NLD triumph. Reflecting the sentiment, the Kokang Democracy and Unity Party, which won a seat each in the national parliament and the state legislature, said the NLD victory was a democratic triumph for all ethnic groups.
Paul Hawi Ying of the Chin Progressive Party said “we are happy about the NLD landslide victory as people show the desire for change.”
The ethnic armed rebel groups fighting Myanmar’s government for greater autonomy for the past six decades too were happy with the NLD victory. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) representing 11 of Myanmar’s 18 ethnic armed groups said: “We recognise, take pride (in the NLD’s win) and are delighted for the NLD.”
The UNFC statement also urged an NLD government to give priority to ending the civil war, promoting national reconciliation, amending the 2008 constitution, and “establishing democracy and a federal union with full guarantee for national equality and self-determination.”
The Karen National Union (KNU), the internationally best known among the ethnic rebel armies, congratulated the NLD. In a media statement, Naw Zipporah Sein, KNU Vice Chairperson expressed satisfaction at the NLD victory. “I believe that the NLD will bring changes in three main areas: national peace and reconciliation, constitutional change and the rule of law,” he said.
A Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) press statement said: “We welcome this victory and we expect the NLD will realise the formation of a federal union and the peaceful coexistence of ethnic minorities and all the people of Burma.”
The NLD poll manifesto has committed the government it is scheduled to form in April 2016, to the core ethnic aspirations for the establishment of a federal democratic union and the guarantee of ethnic rights.
Democracy and peace go hand in hand
While peace and self-determination were major issues for the ethnic groups, the establishment of real democracy was always high among their priorities.
The armed groups fighting the government are based in the country’s seven ethnic states. The oldest of these, the KNU was established in 1949. An estimated about 50,000 ethnic fighters have been engaged in on-off battles with government security forces since Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The civil war has displaced tens of thousands of families from the ethnic areas.
Eight rebel groups signed a peace deal with the government on 15 October 2015 but sporadic fighting has continued in areas controlled by key groups that did not sign the mid-October Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
For decades, the country’s military rulers have justified their iron grip as needed to hold the country together against the perceived separatist goal of the rebel armies. However, the election results and the congratulatory messages from the ethnic political parties and armed groups have challenged this perception.
In a 2012 statement, which they also sent to US President Barack Obama, the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), a 25-year-old umbrella grouping of eight ethnic political parties said: “We always want and have been fighting for genuine federal union in which rule of law, equality, self-determination and human rights are restored and prevail for all ethnic nationalities of Burma.”
A 2013 UNFC white paper also articulated the aspiration for a genuine federal union. “As the Union of Burma/Myanmar is based on mutual respect, equality, democratic principles, and full autonomy in internal administration as agreed in the (1947) Panglong Agreement, there should be no reason for anyone to secede from the nation,” the UNFC said. The overall aim of the peace process, according to the rebels is “to find a sustainable and just solution for the long-term needs of the people of Burma/Myanmar”.
In a rare coming together two years ago, the UNA and the UNFC initiated a process to draft a federal constitution in keeping with their stated goals.
All this has reflected positions articulated earlier by civil society organizations and armed groups over the last two decades.
Media coverage of the ethnic issue
The media is expected to play a key role in the process of strengthening Myanmar’s fledgling democracy and promoting public awareness of the ethnic groups’ aspirations.
In the 2013 white paper, the UNFC said it expected the media to contribute to broadening public understanding about the peace process that began with a dialogue with the government in 2012.
The UNFC’s proposed framework for political dialogue includes a section on the role of media which states: “Throughout the peace processes, all media has to provide accurate and balanced information on the peace and dialogue process.”
Its white paper asked that media, whether state-run or privately owned, “collaborate and promote responsible coverage in the spirit of creating a new vision for the country.”
Pad Saw Kwe Htoo Win, KNU Joint Secretary says the role of the media is crucial in making people understand the nitty-gritty of the peace process. The KNU is among the parties to the NCA signed with the Thein Sein government.
During a telephone interview, the KNU official explained the nuances of the peace deal and indicated that these were not adequately reported by the media which instead focused heavily on the military aspect of the NCA.
Despite its name, the NCA is much more than a cessation of armed hostilities, he said. It also covers a political dialogue and humanitarian assistance in the conflict areas, including resettlement of internally displaced persons, restoration and start of education, social and health services, and the rebuilding of conflict-shattered local livelihoods.
“You (go and) study the NCA,” he admonished me.
Although the ethnic conflict is always in the news in Myanmar because of the unending fighting, the peace process was not a media focus issue in its coverage of the elections, says Rast’o Kuzel of Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a Germany-based non-governmental international media development organization working in Myanmar.
The KNU representative’s exasperation with the media’s inadequate understanding of the ethnic conflict finds resonance in the views of a senior Yangon-based journalist. Sithu Aung Myint, Chief Editor of the Burmese language weekly The Sun says that most Yangon-based journalists are of majority Burman ethnicity and have “not enough knowledge of ethnic issues.”
Peace and gender activist May Sabe Phyu, who won the United States Department of State’s 2015 International Woman of Courage award, noted that ethnic issues are usually reported in mainstream media only for events like “a new school or bridge is opened, or there is more fighting somewhere.”
“There is very rare analysis about what are the problems (of the ethnic peoples) and the root causes; what are their feelings, their expectations, and how the ethnic people hope to contribute to addressing these problems,” Sabe Phyu pointed out.
Only a few Yangon-based media organizations consistently report on ethnic issues, following every twist and turn of the peace process, including in the ethnic areas. Mizzima, The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Myanmar Times stand out. Burma News International (BNI), a network of news organizations, also runs the Myanmar Peace Monitor, a detailed ground-based resource centre for journalists covering the peace process.
During a two-week stay in Myanmar while covering the election, one noted that many news stories on the ethnic issue focused only on the fighting and allegations that the renewed military offensives in some ethnic areas were meant to force other rebel groups to sign the NCA. Some stories analysed the evolving dynamics between the ethnic armed groups which had signed the agreement and those who had not.
The reports by Yangon-based journalists did not explain the roles of other stakeholders such as civil society, political parties and international agencies providing humanitarian assistance and supporting mediation between the government and the rebels.
Non-combat issues like forced cultural assimilation through compulsory use of the Burman language in schools and the protection and preservation of cultural and heritage sites in the conflict areas were not touched upon.
As a Filipino journalist based in the insurgency-affected southern Philippines for the past 15 years, one is struck by the absence of media coverage of this aspect of the peace process in Myanmar.
“The people, the civilians are the ones who suffered a lot from this conflict. (Hence) they should be able to monitor the implementation of the agreement,” says KNU’s Htoo Win.
These aspects are better covered by media organizations based in the ethnic areas. According to Myint Kyaw, former general secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN) and former member of the interim Myanmar Press Council, ethnic issues are adequately covered by local ethnic media themselves. There are at least two newspapers in each ethnic state.
However, the ethnic media voices do not permeate the mainstream media. Sabe Phyu pointed out that while the reporting by local media based in the ethnic areas is good with vibrant discussion of ethnic issues, the reach of these media organizations is limited to the ethnic areas.
Their voice must be picked up by Yangon-based media so it reaches the ears of national policymakers. “Media should talk about diversity and inclusiveness,” Sabe Phyu said, calling for a better understanding of ethnic issues by national media. She pointed out that ethnic media had a clear understanding of national issues and said Yangon-based media likewise must try to properly understand ethnic issues.
As Kuzel of DRI notes, media based in the ethnic areas are “key sources of information in the ethnic communities.”
Constraints to media coverage of the ethnic issue
While the big Yangon-based media organizations are able to ensure coverage from the ethnic areas, mainly through local stringers, others are unable to sustain their reporting on the ethnic issue. On the other hand, media organizations based in the ethnic areas do not have national reach.
The military’s cold attitude towards the media is the principal constraint to effective coverage of the armed conflict and related issues in the ethnic areas.
According to Nan Lwin, political editor of Yangon-based weekly Kumudra and Modern Journal, it is difficult for national media to obtain access to military officials and get information about the army’s operations in the conflict areas. “They don’t respond to requests for interviews.”
This is even more difficult for ethnic media.
Nan Paw Gay, Chief Editor of The Karen News published both online and in print from Hpa-an in Karen State, said the inaccessibility of the military to the media makes it difficult to report on alleged military abuses against civilians in the ethnic areas.
Paw Gay cited many cases of land confiscation in rebel-controlled Karen areas for development projects that allegedly involved military forces. She added that media coverage of instances of land confiscation had spiked as many dam and mining projects were underway in Karen state after the October 2015 peace agreement.
“For example, you have to get a military commander’s phone number officially, before you can use it to call him,” Paw Gay explained, adding that in most cases, such requests are refused, making journalists unable to “get the other side” of the story.
It is also not easy for journalists to contact the ethnic rebels, said Nan Lwin. “The Commander-in-Chief (of the defence forces) often meets members of the Myanmar Press Council, but they are not guaranteeing the safety of journalists reporting from the war zones,” she said.
The Unlawful Association Act is “the biggest threat to gaining access to information from the ethnic rebels,” she added. The law is used by the military to intimidate journalists. Army Chief, Lieutenant-General Mya Tun Oo has warned journalists that under Section 17 of the law, it is a crime to contact an illegal organization. “(It is) as if (the military is) telling us to reconsider making phone calls to rebel leaders,” Nan Lwin said.
This was not the case before the start of peace talks in 2012 between the government and ethnic armed organizations. Nan Lwin recalls that journalists were then able to report from the frontlines of the civil war because the military wanted to know and understand the thinking of the ethnic armed groups.
The situation has changed since the signing of the NCA between the government and eight ethnic armed rebel groups – the Chin National Front, Pa-o National Liberation Organization, Karen National Union, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Restoration Council of Shan State, All-Burma Students Democratic Front, Arakan Liberation Party, and Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council.
These groups have since been removed from the list of unlawful associations, opening the way for an increase in media contacts with them.
On the other hand, the Army has reopened its offensive against groups that are not parties to the NCA like the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Shan State Army. While media organizations are keen to report the renewed engagement between security forces and some rebel groups, they are wary of the army’s reaction. “Many are anxious about possible adverse action by the military,” said Nan Lwin.
Still, some journalists are mustering courage to report from the frontlines “because these (stories) need to be told to the public,” said Khaing Mrat Kyaw, Reporter for the Burmese Section of BBC World Service and Chief Editor of weekly Narinjara News based in Sittwie.
Mrat Kyaw is confident that if many journalists travel to cover the story together in the conflict areas, this will give second thoughts to the Army.
“Who will the Tatmadaw (as the armed forces are known in Burmese) run after, when there are many of us covering and reporting about the situation?” he asked jokingly.
However, the military has so far not gone after journalists who wrote about the ‘blacklisted’ rebel groups, according to Sithu of The Sun. “But, of course, the law is always there,” he added.
Still, media coverage of the ethnic issue is complicated by the many different accounts of incidents by military-controlled news organizations, which are mostly, sharply at variance with the reports of independent journalists, said Nan Lwin.
Logistics is a common challenge that faces both the Yangon-based journalists and ethnic media organizations.
According to Nan Lwin, not many among Yangon-based news organizations are financially capable of sending reporters in the ethnic states and have to rely on stringers and local correspondents who are paid way below the salaries in Yangon, which affects the quality of the reporting.
Paw Gay of The Karen News said her under-staffed publication has only seven reporters and has to rely on non-government groups to gather information. The Karen News covers issues concerning people of Karen ethnicity who live in the Ayeyarwaddy, Yangon, Bago, Thinantharyi and Karen regions of Myanmar.
NLD poll tsunami raises media and rebel hopes
The NLD’s dramatic win in the election has come as a shot in the arm to the prospects of both enhanced media freedom and an end to decades of ethnic conflict, political observers in the country feel.
Although the armed forces will remain in charge of key security ministries under the 2008 Constitution, the military’s graceful acceptance of the NLD win has raised hopes that the NLD-led government will be able to set Myanmar firmly on the road to real democracy.
The country’s ethnic population has already expressed – through the ballot box – its confidence in an NLD-led peace process.
In a Democratic Voice of Burma debate before the election, Shan leader Sai Nyunt said that the Shan political party SNLD would “join only with democratic groups” in the new parliament.
Interviewed on the eve of elections, prominent Burmese human rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung said he expected an NLD-led government to do away with laws and policies that continued to suppress press freedom in the country.
Nerdah Bo Mya, head of the Karen National Defence Organisation, an armed rebel group, hailed the NLD victory. “The people of Burma have rejected the military backed government and its policies by voting them out,” he said in a media statement.
“Under a democratic government, it will be easier for (the) ethnic people to achieve our goals,” Bo Mya added.
Hopes are high among media and ethnic groups in the country that the deluge of national popular support for the NLD that has swept away decades of entrenched military-controlled rule will also remove the obstacles to press freedom and lasting peace in Myanmar.
Election Performance of Ethnic Political Parties
Type of Parliament
No. of Elective Seats Contested
No. of Seats Won
Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House; national parliament)
Amyotha Hluttaw (Uppher House; national parliament
Note: this is based on 1,160 of 1,171 seats confirmed by the Union Election Commission (UEC).
*) This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program raising a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Ryan Rosauro is a Filipino independent journalist writing news articles for several mainstream media in the Philippines.
1 Under the 2008 Constitution, 25% seats in the national parliament and state legislatures are reserved for nominated military representatives