By Teresita Cruz-del Rosario - Special to CNN
Boothie is a photojournalist for The Myanmar Times, the only English newspaper in Burma. Boothie used to be cautious when taking pictures to avoid being hauled in for questioning or arrest for projecting images of Myanmar’s “dark side” - a broad enough charge to cover anything.
These days however, Boothie travels openly with his camera. No longer hidden beneath the folds of his longyi as he surreptitiously shoots photos of a country that until very recently preferred to remain invisible. He brandishes his Canon camera much like Clint Eastwood flaunted his Magnum 44.
His favorite images are of people gathering without fear, talking openly of the forthcoming elections, energized by the reality of political choice long denied them. They have quickly shed the habit of looking over their shoulder, or speaking in hushed tones. All over Yangon, people’s voices are a decibel higher, muted only by the sound of the late afternoon cackling of birds on Inya Lake. Boothie’s sharp eye for composition captures them all.
Many journalists in Burma these days admit to greater freedom of expression. A new press law is being prepared by the Ministry of Information for submission to parliament. The core of the proposed law will remove many of the old media restrictions, including the abolition of the censorship board.
Better still, some 100 journalists participated this month in a UNESCO-funded workshop on the role of journalism in a democratic society. Maung Wuntha, long-time dissident writer, journalist, activist and former political prisoner is one of the workshop’s major speakers. He is also advocating for the formation of a press council as an independent liaison body.
The overhaul of the press law is one of many reforms of recently elected President Sein Thein that has shocked locals and taken the international community by surprise. Wave upon wave of changes melt fossilized practices of repression. The once feared junta is but a shadow of its previous self.
To keep in step with this dizzying pace, magazines and journals are mushrooming into existence. There are now over 30 Burmese-language spreadsheets in circulation, commanding a readership of 1 million of Yangon's 6 million residents. That’s three readers for every ten Burmese, a much better ratio than Cambodia or Laos.
Certain subjects, however, remain taboo. No one writes about the generals that brought the country to ruin the last fifty years. Analysis of military affairs is off limits. So is ethnic conflict beyond the government version - even though the government has concluded ceasefire agreements with various groups.
Without the new Press Law, censorship continues, albeit far more relaxed than it’s ever been. The curiously designated Press Scrutiny and Registration Department retains the right to accept or reject all submissions from journalists. To ward off the censors, journalists play the “word game,” staying away from inflammatory language so that articles can pass muster.
Nonetheless, the Voice Weekly, a leading Burmese newspaper, unearthed a report from the auditor general’s office, containing details of funds misappropriation and graft in several ministries. “Case 51” has been filed in the court in Dagon township where the newspaper is based.
“This is far better than being banned and closed, as we were five times in the past,” says Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of the paper. “Now we can fight it out in the judicial system, and our paper will stay open.”
However brisk the pace of change, tradition remains.
Every morning, hundreds of devotees trek to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in central Yangon for a touch of the sacrosanct. With their bare feet, they follow the circular path of the pagoda. Despite thickening crowds in the cool morning, the only noise one hears is the swish from longyis and the barely audible chants from praying monks.
Men and women of all ages voluntarily form brigades to sweep the dust and debris on the pagoda’s tiled floors. Others quietly pour water to wash away the wax remnants from burnt-out candles. In one corner, young girls come in traditional dress and consecrate themselves during the ritual of “ear punching.”
On Sunday mornings after the pilgrimage, families head off to breakfast at a traditional Burmese tea shop to feast on hot noodle soup and the varieties of spring rolls as they pore over the latest news in one of the many journals that have sprouted all over the country in recent months.
All told, there is much chatter as election day approaches, a buzz that grows louder with each new government announcement about yet another startling change.
The Southeast Asian games will be held in Napyitaw next year. A newly formed Human Rights Commission will accept and hear cases. Labor unions are now legal. A moratorium has been issued on the demolition of buildings in downtown Yangon to allow consultations among architects, businessmen, and the affected neighborhoods on the preservation of colonial-era buildings that give the city its distinctive character.
For the first time in five decades, the Burmese are looking up and ahead, eager to get started with the many possibilities that have lain dormant in their imagination for so long.