Freedom of Opinion and Expression



Everybody knows that the Burmese still can not enjoy freedom of expression, although a free press existed before Ne Win's coup in 1962. SLORC censors the critical statements of poets, novelists and short-story writers. SLORC historically allowed criticism of corrupt civil servants and rising prices. Recently, when he was in Kachin State’s capital, Myitkyina, on an official visit to inspect a new train, Transportation Minister Win Sein offered freedom of expression to Burmese magazine journalists. He told them that they were free to write whatever they wanted to write about the train. There is a new saying on the streets of Rangoon, “If you want to write or criticise freely you can only discuss the ‘train’.” [Burmese magazines]


Five years after the introduction of martial law by SLORC, the military junta is still in power ruling the country. Only the official media are authorised: people caught listening to a foreign radio station or reading an underground newspaper are severely punished. Censorship laws require all publications, movie scripts – even song lyrics – to be reviewed. Minority languages find themselves systematically blocked from print or media by these SLORC boards. Political thought is also suppressed; those political parties which have not been “deregistered” by SLORC, must have permission from the military to hold meetings, even in private. Public gatherings of more than four people are still prohibited. Representatives in the “national convention” may not use any words that may damage loyalty to the state, or disrupt ethnic peoples. In addition, delegates can only discuss SLORC-devised agenda and principals for the national convention (547 out of 702 delegates were hand-picked by SLORC). Those challenging these restrictions have become officially “ill”, disappeared or resigned their MP-elect posts. When Aung Khin Sint and Tin Tun Aung distributed leaflets about the national convention to delegates, they were arrested and imprisoned by SLORC.




State radio and television and the Working People's Daily, official organ of the SLORC, have an effective monopoly on information in Myanmar. Only one cosmetic change occurred in 1993: in April the Working People's Daily acquired a new look and was renamed Myanmar Alin (The New Light of Myanmar). The original Myanmar Alin, founded in 1914, was closed down by the junta in 1988 along with the rest of the country's newspapers except the Working People's Daily. By reviving the old name the authorities hope to give the daily a politically neutral image. In fact its editorial line has not changed at all.


Myanmar also has 20 or so nongovernment literary magazines which publish poems, drawings and many short stories recounting the details and problems of daily life. These magazines have no freedom about what they publish: officials of the state-run Press Scrutiny Board go through every item with a fine-tooth comb, especially the short stories. Certain subjects cannot be mentioned such as democracy, human rights, the events of 1988 and the SLORC leaders, and there is a blacklist of authors whose work must not be used. Pressure is so strong that the magazine editors actually use self-censorship.


Since mid-1991 another sort of publication has appeared in the country and has proved extremely popular. Magazines such as Guide to Prosperity, of poor technical quality, offer a selection of carefully censored features from Newsweek and Time alongside reports by local journalists. Myet-hkin-thit publishes stories discrediting opposition movements operating abroad and vividly detailed accounts of crimes committed in countries that have criticised the SLORC s exactions.


Reporteurs Sans Frontieres reported that at least six journalists were still being held in Myanmar jails on 1 January 1994. At least five of journalists are being held in Insein prison where 14,000 people are kept 200 to a cell. One former inmate said political prisoners were guarded by common law prisoners with whips. Beatings and torture are said to be commonplace.




The following are some of the people who have been imprisoned for no reason other than the peaceful expression of their views. The list is not comprehensive, and was originally compiled by PEN.


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a children's book author and General Secretary of the NLD. She has been held under house arrest in Rangoon since 20 July 1989. She has written three children's books on Burma, Nepal and Bhutan and a biography of her father, and a scholarly book entitled Burma and India: Some Aspects of Intellectual Life Under Colonialism. She has also written numerous papers on intellectual and political life in Burma, a collection of which was published in English by Penguin in December 1991 under the title Freedom from Fear.


Tin Moe is a well-known poet, essayist, and editor of the banned literary magazine, Palm Leaf Manuscript, which was closed down by the government one month after he became editor. He was a National Literature Award winner, a literary consultant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and was active in the NLD. He was arrested in December 1991 and, seven months later, was sentenced, on charges that are unclear, to four years in prison.


U Win Tin, a former editor of Hanthawati newspaper, served as secretary of the executive council of the NLD, and vice-chairman of Sarpay Thamagga (the writers' association). He was active in the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, and a key advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was arrested on 4 July 1989, and sentenced in October 1989, to three years' imprisonment with hard labour on charges of harbouring a woman who had had an abortion (abortion is illegal in Burma). However, his colleagues believe that the true reason for his arrest lies in his opposition activities. In September 1992, he reportedly was in poor health and denied medical attention. His sentence was reduced from eleven to ten years in a 1993 amnesty.


U Ohn Kyaing, also known as Aung Wint, was editor of Bohtataung Daily also worked with U Win Tin  on Hanthawati before retiring in 1988 to become a member of the NLD's Central Committee and a Member of Parliament for Mandalay South East. He was arrested on 6 September 1990, and, a month later, was sentenced to seven years' hard labour because of his participation in demonstrations in Mandalay in August 1990.


Nyi Pu Lay is a satirical writer and artist. He was arrested with six others on 25 December 1990, and was later sentenced to ten years' imprisonment on charges of being in contact with illegal organisations. The sole evidence brought against him was the authorities' allegation that, in 1984, he had once sold a ring that originally belonged to a member of the Burmese Communist Party. He was initially held in Insein Prison in Rangoon, but, in December 1991, he was moved to Thayet-Prison in Central Burma.


Myo Myint Nyein is the publisher and editor of the banned cultural magazine What's Happening? which was critical of SLORC. He and his colleague Sein Hlaing were both arrested on 24 September 1990, and both were sentenced to seven year's imprisonment because of their publishing activities. What's Happening? featured articles about culture and short stories, and contained a poem by a well-known writer, Min Lu, which lamented the killing of innocent civilians and deplored the brutality of the military (Min Lu was also arrested but has subsequently been released).


Aung Khin Sint is a doctor, a writer on health issues, and a member of the NLD. On 15 October 1993, he was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment on charges of distributing "threatening literature". The charges reportedly stem from letters he is thought to have written to other members of the NLD which were distributed at Burma's January 1993 National Convention and which advocated no collaboration with the military government in drafting a new constitution.


Ma Thida is a doctor and a short-story writer. She was arrested with ten other opposition activists on 7 August 1993. After a closed trial the following October, she was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment for "contact with illegal organisations, endangering public peace, and distributing banned literature to foreign-based opposition groups."


San San Nweh, her daughter, and a journalist name U Sein Hla Oo, were arrested around 5 August 1994. San San Nweh is the author of over five hundred short stories, twelve novels, and over a hundred poems. She has also worked as a journalist on several national newspapers. She was a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee and was previously detained between July 1989 and April 1990.


On 8 July, the Solidarity for National Democratic Students’ Alliance (SNDSA) distributed the leaflets and posters to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 Noble Peace Laureate in Rangoon. Because of this, Chit Shwe Press in Mayangone Township, Rangoon, was closed down by force under orders of SLORC on 11 July 1994. On 18 July, Burmese students, youth leaders of SNDSA, were arrested at their homes by MIS. The list of the arrested students are the following:


No       Name                    Education                                           Address

1.         Myint Oo              1st year, Burmese Major                  Dagon Township

2.         Lin Aung              1st year, Burmese Major                  Botataung Township

3.         Aung Naing         1st year, Burmese Major                  Hlaing Township

4.         Cho Oo                 1st year, Economics Major               Mayangone Township

5.         Khin Win             1st year, Burmese Major                  Kamarynot Township

6.         Than Lwin            1st year, Burmese Major                  Thingankyun Township


Twelve Burmese students also were arrested on 8 August 1988 when they went to Pyitharyarkawe in Thingankyune Township to salute students who were killed during the pro-democracy 8888 Uprising by the military. The following three students were arrested on this occasion:


No       Name                    Education                                           Address

1.         Saw Shwe             2nd year, Burmese Major                 Dagon Township

2.         Htoo Ko                2nd year, Economic Major              Tamwe Township

3.         Aung Htwe           1st year, Burmese Major                  Tamwe Township


These students were arrested in their homes at night by MIS on 8 August 1994. They were members of the SNDSA, which is not a political party but primarily an underground students’ organisation against the military regime. [source: ABSU]


[see also under “Eye-witness Accounts”, interview 141]