By Any Other Name

Pseudonyms endure amid government pressure on journalists in Myanmar

Bertil Lintner was blacklisted in the 1980s, for travelling through areas under rebel control. courtesy bertil lintner
01 September, 2015

Bertil Lintner started writing about Myanmar in the early 1980s—when the country, ruled by a military junta since 1962 and riddled with long-standing but obscure ethnic insurgencies, was still called Burma. From Thailand, the Swedish journalist crossed into rebel-held areas in Myanmar illegally and often. Concerned for his safety, he adopted a Thai pen name. As P Vichit-thong, over the next two years he wrote articles for the Thai magazine Focus, including one on the Communist Party of Burma, or CPB. Later, under his real name, Lintner wrote a long story about the CPB for the Far Eastern Economic Review. A former CIA analyst, whose book Lintner had earlier panned, dismissed the piece in an academic journal, citing for contrast an “excellent article” in Focus by a P Vichit-thong. When I interviewed him recently over email, Lintner recalled that he sent the analyst a message to say, “I am P Vichit-thong.”

Nowadays, Lintner is revered by foreign correspondents covering Myanmar. In April, when he told an interviewer that a general election due later this year had a “75–25” chance of not going ahead as planned, his comment was repeated in news stories and on social media as something akin to gospel. His books and articles traverse the last three decades of the country’s history, yet for most of the time since 1985, a few years after he started publishing under his real name, he was officially barred from Myanmar for trekking in rebel territory. The only exceptions, he told me, were two visits in 1989, on invitations from a former intelligence official who “wanted to find out who my sources were.” Lintner retired P Vichit-thong in 1983 and later eschewed pen names, but, with other foreign correspondents afraid of being blacklisted and local journalists fearing persecution, pseudonyms remained de riguer for many writers.

In 2012, Lintner was granted a visa to return to Myanmar. The year before, in 2011, the regime adopted reforms to allow a democratic election, permit broader political opposition and bring in foreign investment. It was a watershed time for the media too. Pre-publication censorship, dating to 1962, ended. Dissident outlets working from outside the country—including The Irrawaddy, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Mizzima—were called back in. Several new publications rolled off the presses. More freelancers arrived. The government started issuing six-month journalist visas and published lists of media figures and activists, such as Lintner, who were no longer blacklisted. Pen names no longer felt as crucial.

Three years on, though, and with a general election due in November, they are still common among Burmese journalists, and, to a lesser extent, foreigners—a sign of how pen names are a cherished part of the local culture, and of concern that the government and the military haven’t completely given up their old ways. The military commands, by constitutional privilege, a quarter of all seats in parliament, and is still firmly a part of the ruling elite. In June, lawmakers shot down an amendment that would have lowered the percentage of votes needed to change the constitution, which currently gives veto power to military MPs. Last month, Shwe Mann, the popular chairman of the ruling party and a rival of the current president, was sacked overnight—with, many believe, the support of powerful members of the military. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international advocacy group, Myanmar remains among the world’s most censored countries.

A recent report by the human-rights group Amnesty International lists one journalist killed in military custody in October, and at least 11 people arrested in 2014 for carrying out “peaceful journalistic activities.” Also in 2014, five staffers of the newspaper Unity, which ran a story accusing the military of running a secret factory producing chemical weapons, were each sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour (the government denied the allegations). Numerous other publications are battling lawsuits filed by the government. Amnesty International has also criticised as “overly broad” a package of regulations passed in 2014 to establish a code of conduct for the media, citing a provision that journalists must avoid “a writing style which deliberately affects the reputation of a specific person or/and organization,” and “ways of writing which may inflame conflicts regarding nationality, religion and race.” Violators risk maximum fines of $1,000.

“We still allow some reporters to use their pen names if they have a good reason,” Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition, told me at the magazine’s offices in downtown Yangon one afternoon in May. We spoke in a small conference area next to the newsroom, in a converted third-floor apartment. Reporters sat side by side at a line of messy desks snaking around a wall. Editorial cartoons hung from concrete columns, next to admonitions on journalistic ethics.

The country “is not safe yet,” Kyaw Zwa continued, “especially in the media sector. Many journalists and reporters are harassed by the authorities and by the local people.” The Irrawaddy, which publishes both in English and Burmese, was started in Thailand by Kyaw Zwa’s older brother, Aung Zaw, in 1993, two years after Kyaw Zwa was arrested for distributing anti-government leaflets. When he got out, in 1999, he headed to Thailand too, but came back to pilot the magazine’s Yangon operations.

The use of pseudonyms is still widespread, but “it’s changed a lot,” Kyaw Zwa said. “I’ve been seeing a lot of reporters using their own names. And, personally, I myself encourage the reporters to use their real name, instead of the pen name.” Foreign correspondents now have more leeway, he said, but “I think local reporters, they are more careful about what they write and what they report.”

Still, even among foreigners, visa restrictions and a number of recent deportations have raised old fears. The prized six-month journalism visas are almost never issued to foreigners not working for high-profile media organisations. Multiple-entry business visas, valid for up to a year, were until recently an option, but heightened scrutiny on reporters working without proper documents has forced many to consider renewable “j-visas” that last between 28 days and three months. In the last year, at least five foreign journalists and photographers without the right papers have been deported or “asked to leave.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, recently told me that the current atmosphere could prompt many foreign journalists to take up nom de plumes. “As access for foreign reporters eased in recent years, many dropped their cover and reported more openly under the real names,” he wrote over email. “Now, with the new wave of media repression, including recent instances of harassment and violence against foreign reporters, I suspect the practice will soon again be en vogue.”

Pseudonyms have a storied history in Myanmar, and proliferated during the movement against British colonial rule. But altering one’s name isn’t always a precautionary measure. There are no surnames in Burmese culture, and many names are so alike that people play with them to distinguish themselves. It’s quite common, Lintner told me, “that people take a new name once or a couple of times during their lifetimes to mark some fundamental change in their lives.” He cited the example of the independence hero Aung San, who was the father of the current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He was born as Htein Lin, took the name Aung San at university, and then became Bo Tayza—General Flames—when he went to Japan for military training.

There are any number of approaches to a new moniker. The historian Andrew Selth, in a 2013 essay on pseudonyms in Myanmar, notes that some people add the name of their workplace to their own. Among journalists, examples include Guardian U Sein Win—a legendary reporter who started out with a local publication called The Guardian—and Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay—a novelist and short-story writer who helped found Journal Kyaw in the 1930s.

Some foreigners take a more tongue-in-cheek approach. Piers Benatar, a 46-year-old British photographer, told me he adopted a pseudonym in 2007, while covering the mass protests of the Saffron Revolution. He called himself Alayung Thaksin—Burmese, a friend told him, for “master of light.” Sebastian Strangio, a Phnom Penh-based journalist, went looking for a pseudonym after his first reporting trip to Myanmar, in 2010. He searched the web for people who shared his birthday, and found someone with the last name “Osterman.” Surname done, he added “Gary” pretty much at random. “It wasn’t very well considered, on a whole number of levels,” he admitted. To date, Gary Osterman has written exactly one story about Myanmar. One former contributor to The Irrawaddy published as William Boot, borrowing the name of the protagonist in Scoop, the English writer Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel about journalism.

Not everyone I spoke to was eager to go on the record with both their given and assumed names. One writer, who has published two highly regarded books on Myanmar under the pseudonym Emma Larkin, did not volunteer her real identity. Via email from Thailand, she told me she borrowed the name from a street in San Francisco. Larkin came to Myanmar in the mid 1990s with “no particular idea to write anything.” Back then, there was very little to read on the country, and yet it was filled with “hidden histories and unspoken stories.” Under the junta, she said, “many of these narratives were disappearing—there was a sense of history being erased and personal memory being whittled away. And so I set about collecting some of those untold tales, and writing them down.

“I used a pen name to protect my sources and enable me to return to the country,” she continued. “I also wanted to protect my landlord and his family ... Had my real name appeared on the cover of the book I suspect he would have been first on the list for a visit and interrogation from the authorities.”

Larkin does not plan on reverting to her original name. She lives in Thailand, where, following a coup last year, the government has imposed uncomfortable controls on the media. She’s writing a book about the country that covers some sensitive topics, she told me, “so the pen name may still prove useful.”

Joe Freeman Joe Freeman is a Yangon-based journalist whose work has appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review, the Washington Post, Global Post and Foreign Policy. He co-edits the hyper-local website Coconuts Yangon.