One of the most surreal experiences about spending time in a country that is at its core still a military dictatorship is sitting down to read the morning paper. While a few news outlets across Burma have taken advantage of the recent loosening of censorship laws, there is one paper that continues to set the standard for astonishingly banal propaganda peddling. The New Light of Myanmar, established in 1914 and published by that oh-so-Orwellian faction of the government, the Ministry of Information, still serves as the junta’s mouthpiece, a bizarre depository for updates on various generals’ bowel movements coupled with bland appeals for patriotism. A fixed banner headline sits at the top of the daily paper to remind Burmese citizens of the Three National Causes: 1) Non-disintegration of the Union. 2) Non-disintegration of National Solidarity. 3) Perpetuation of Sovereignty.
It’s shocking what news reads like when you strip away the negativity. It brings to mind a scene from the Simpsons’ early years. Homer, saddled with a DUI, finds himself sober at a baseball game. After watching a few scoreless innings, he comes to a startling conclusion: “I never realized how boring this game is.” Yes, news without death and famine is like baseball without beer. Taco Bell without a fire hydrant of hot sauce. Midnight HBO without a little T & A.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a sampling of the biggest stories to hit the pages of the Light while we were in the country:
12/3: “Outstanding Matriculation Students Honored”. Exactly what it sounds like, only ten paragraphs long.
12/4: “Belarusian Prime Minsiter and Spouse Visit Gems Museum”, where, we’re informed, “they viewed sales booths.” Keep in mind this was a day after Hillary Clinton met with Aung San Suu Kyi, capping a diplomatic mission that is likely to have a deep impact on the economic future of the country. Her visit with the opposition leader garnered a two-paragraph mention on page 5 of the paper. At the same time, the visit from Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich generated 11 articles, effectively consuming 60% of the newspaper.
12/5: “Talks on Traffic Rules Given”, a white-knuckled meeting in which, we’re told, “Police Captain Myint Kyi gave education talks on traffic rules to chairmen of bus lines.”
12/6: “Blood analyzer donated to Yangon General Hospital”
12/7: “To Ensure Livelihood, Economic and Religious Affairs of the People and Prevalence of Law in Their Respective Regions, Administrators to Coordinate with All Organizations Keeping Balance While Doing Their Bit in Setting Up Economic and Social Development of the State”. Yes, this is the actual headline. If anyone has the slightest clue as to what this means, plus be so kind as to leave a translation for us in the comments section.
The overwhelming majority of domestic articles in the New Light fall into one of three categories : 1) Visiting ambassadors from around the world being received by various military personnel (to remind citizens that Burma is indeed a place the rest of the world’s governments love and respect ). 2) Various military personnel visiting bustling regional factories (to remind citizens that Burma is a powerful economic player in the region). 3) Updates on the sacred Buddha tooth relic currently on display in Rangoon (no pithy commentary to offer besides general shock over the fervor caused by the Enlightened One’s supposed tooth).
There are a few areas where the editors of the New Light aren’t afraid to splash around some blood. The first involves anything pertaining to rebel factions around the country. These headlines are often deeply disturbing and invariably depict the rebels as savage groups of troublemakers in a country otherwise at peace. A brief excerpt: “A KIA group made of 15 members abducted a shop owner…He was brutally tortured by the KIA group in a chair with his legs tied and his hands in a knot.” This one ran while Nathan was a guest of the Kachin Independent Army in Myitkyina.
The other part of the paper that reads suspiciously like real news? The international section, where stories on floods, murders, and credit default swaps are cut and pasted directly from the Internet.