09/14/2011 06:26 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011

Burma and Reform: All Talk and no Walk?

BANGKOK - It isn't easy working as a journalist under Burma's military rulers. The army has run the country since 1962, and although there were elections in November 2010 - the first in two decades - the army's party won easily and the new Government is headed by Thein Sein, a former General and Prime Minister under the ancien regime.

On the face of it, the new man in charge is trying to 'do reform'. He recently met with Aung San Suu Kyi - the extra-parliamentary opposition leader and now subject of a Luc Besson-directed film 'The Lady' - who in turn praised Thein Sein. To some, the new President is cautious 'reformist', apparently battling against 'hardliners' elsewhere in the Burmese Government. Still others, however, see this apparent contest as theatre, more control freakery by the military strongman behind the scenes, Than Shwe. A Senior-General in the army, he took power in 1992, and ccording to US diplomatic cables from the Rangoon embassy, 'all roads lead to Than Shwe' when it comes to figuring out Burma's opaque power structures.

Reform talk aside, Burma still holds almost 2000 political prisoners, which the Government describes as mere criminals. Among their number are hundreds of Buddhist monks, and over 20 journalists. Just before Thein Sein's April speech lauding the '4th estate', a correspondent for Democratic Voice of Burma was sentenced to 13 years in jail, the seventeenth DVB reporter to be locked up.

Burma has a growing private-owned media sector, but it must run content by Government (read army) censors, who can cut and reject content as they see fit. In another token-looking gesture, the Burmese authorities loosened the censor rules a bit, removing non-news, non-political content from their workload.

According to Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the 'relaxations' are meaningless. "If the new regime was serious about press freedom, it would dissolve its censorship department altogether and allow the private media to play the watchdog role it does in real democracies."

In a hint at who is really running the show in the 'new' Burma, Crispin concluded that "I doubt Thein Sein's military minders have the stomach for that."

CPJ will publish an assessment of Burma's media landscape in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, see