Myanmar would work hard to uphold religious freedom, he told an MP who had asked what the government was doing to be removed from the list, compiled annually by the State Department on the recommendation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Myanmar’s inclusion on the US list since 1999 as “a country of particularly concern” has long rankled the government, which has long strived to deny that religious discrimination exists. I know that because of censorship. When I began working as a journalist in Myanmar in 2001 pre-publication censorship was still the curse of the media community. Pre-publication censorship was introduced in August 1964 and its lifting on August 20, 2012 (oh frabjous day!) was one of the significant early reforms of the U Thein Sein government. I was no stranger to censorship when I joined the Myanmar Times in 2001 because I had worked for the English service of what was then called Radio Beijing, under an exchange program with Radio Australia. Having worked under one censorship regime made it easier to adjust to another, but it was a constant, exasperating irritant. I was often astonished by how petty and personal it could be. For example, a report about a ceremony at a Yangon hotel on September 11, 2012, to mark the first anniversary of the terror attacks in the US, had mentioned that those in attendance included “the leader of the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”. The truth of a name was too much to bear, apparently. The red pen struck and the sentence was changed to read: “Executive committee members of the NLD were among the audience”. The red pen had been wielded more ruthlessly the previous year against a report about the death on December 5, 2011, of the ageing former dictator, Ne Win. The entire report was rejected for publication. I was flabbergasted that no mention could be made of the man who had run the country for more than 25 years, even if, as some would agree, he had run it into the ground. It was during the xenophobic Ne Win’s dictatorship that the 1982 Citizenship Law was introduced. Which brings me back to the issue of religious freedom.
On November 2, 2001, the stories faxed to the Military Intelligence censor’s office from Myanmar Times (one of a handful of publications censored by MI rather than the Information Ministry’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division), included a report about the government’s response to its inclusion on that year’s State Department list as a country of particular concern for violating religious freedom. The story began by saying that the government rejected the criticism and it quoted a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying Myanmar had been singled out “for reasons other than religion”. Myanmar should be regarded as a model society when it came to religious tolerance and freedom, the official said. The story said other countries on the State Department list that year included China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Then came the red pen. The following sentences were excised from the story:
The report accused the Myanmar government of restricting some religious activities, including the building of churches and mosques.
It said the government “infiltrated or monitored the meetings and activities of virtually all organisations, including religious organisations”.
Censorship has gone and I look forward to the day when Myanmar is regarded as a model for religious tolerance and freedom.
This Article first appeared in the February 26, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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