Crimes in the Golden Land
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2018 - 12:00am

When you land in Myanmar, you have to adjust your watch an hour back if you’re coming from this corner of the world, much less if you’re from another Southeast Asian country.

But while Myanmar’s time zone is behind by just a little compared to its neighbors in the region, in reality, the country is stuck in the dark ages.

The government’s decision to sentence two Reuters journalists to seven years in jail for writing about a Rohingya massacre is a reflection of this. It is clear now that despite its once-celebrated transition to democracy, Myanmar is back to the time when the Burmese military dictatorship ruled and people found themselves in Myanmar’s rotting prison cells.

What exists is a hybrid of democracy and authoritarian rule, a mob rule of sorts where the military still controls institutions, journalists, and minorities.

Democracy and economic growth

There’s a lesson to be learned here. Governments — whether it’s Myanmar’s or ours — should realize that democracy and economic growth could go hand in hand. Many will disagree with me, especially believers of authoritarian regimes.

But I argue that democracy has a positive impact on economic growth. Theoretically, in a democracy, when the government is functioning, as it should be, the citizens are better educated and healthy.  As a result, the people are able to take part in economic activities and these, in turn, translate to growth. And investors are not afraid to pour in money.

I am not imagining this. Democracy has had positive impact on economic reforms by encouraging private investments and as a result, social conflicts are reduced. All of these are examples by which democracy can increase economic growth.

A study authored by economists including MIT professor Daron Acemoglu “Democracy Does Cause Growth,” showed that a panel of countries between 1960 and 2010, exhibited economic growth as a result of democracy.

“Our central estimates suggest that a country that switches from non-democracy to democracy achieves about 20 percent higher GDP per capita in the long run.”

Journalism is not a crime

And essential for democracy to work and eventually mature is a free press. The press, considered as the Fourth Estate, provides the necessary checks and balances.

And so I say it again and again: journalism is not a crime. And when a government considers it a crime, it is a sign of dangerous times for its citizens and its future as a nation.

Whatever gains Myanmar achieved in the past have all been wiped out as it hesitates to embrace true democratic values that allow for civil liberties to exist.

People call it many names — the Garden of the East, the Golden Land or Asia Lost in Time, but it might as well be called the authoritarian land.

Unfortunately, the era of tyrannical rulers seems to be making a comeback and many governments are now pulling all stops for real democracy to flourish.  And it’s not just in Myanmar.

There’s a litany of things wrong with journalism, but it is not and it should never be a crime.

As Katharine Graham said: “News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot.”

Simply put, those who are not informed can believe anything the government tells them. The real crime is deceiving the people.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were doing their jobs. They were arrested in a restaurant in Yangon after they were found in illegal possession of official documents which moments before, according to their testimony, were handed to them by the police. They were found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act, created by the British colonial government in 1923.

I met Wa Lone during a visit to Myanmar a few years ago for a journalism workshop on ASEAN integration. On the side, I met with local journalists including him. He struck me as a kind man and a passionate journalist. It is utterly wrong for him and Kyaw Soe Oo to spend time in jail for doing their work.

We will remember their names and we will remember their story of the 10 Rohingya men massacred by Myanmar troops.

And this is what the Myanmar government failed to see — for every journalist that it puts in jail, there are others — thousands and thousands more — who will tell their story.

It’s a lesson every tyrannical ruler should know — from Manila to Myanmar and anywhere in between —  the truth can never be buried, or imprisoned; and neither can it be washed away by cursing tongues and dirty old jokes.

Iris Gonzales’ e-mail address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com

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