By Stephen Brookes in Yangon
for Asia Times
After a year of almost constant attack by the international press, is Myanmar's much-maligned military junta on a new campaign to change its image?
To judge by recent events, a serious public relations strategy is well underway. An official information committee has been revived, government officials are being made available for the first time in years, regular press conferences are being held, and there's a new sense of openness and even cordiality toward the media -- a phenomenon that bewildered journalists in Yangon are still trying to absorb.
Suu Kyi meets the press Stephen Brookes"They just called me up out of the blue and told me I could have a visa," said one well-known reporter in Yangon a few weeks ago. "I have no idea why -- they've been blacklisting me for years."
The policy is a dramatic shift from a year ago, when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on July 10, 1995. The event quickly became the summer's top international mediafest. More than a hundred and twenty journalists descended on Yangon for her first public appearance, and for the next week there was an almost non-stop schedule of interviews, press conferences, photo opportunities -- even a massive tea party for the media at her home. It was a smart strategy, and it paid off: Her face was on the cover of most of the world's newsmagazines, and on global television every night.
The military junta which had released her, meanwhile, maintained a stony silence, issuing no statements and refusing all requests for interviews.
"This is bizarre," said one television correspondent at the time. "It's the government's first chance to tell the world that they're not so bad after all -- and they won't even answer the phone."
And that, more or less, has been the pattern for how Suu Kyi and the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council have managed their media relations ever since. Deeply mistrustful of the press, the SLORC has kept it at arms length, letting journalists in but rarely meeting with them. It had no official spokesman, and to get the goverment's views on even the most harmless topic, reporters had to submit a request in writing -- which might or might not eventually result in an interview. Meanwhile, some reporters found themselves blacklisted, and others continued to come in on tourist visas.
Suu Kyi, meanwhile -- articulate, photogenic, and available -- maintained her position as the darling of the international press, keeping her door open to everyone from Cable Network News to an obscure children's magazine called Shambala Sun. She began writing a regular column for the Japanese paper Mainichi Shimbun, and there was always a camera crew or two at the weekend speeches outside her Yangon home.
The SLORC uneasily tolerated the situation. But everything changed suddenly in May, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy announced it intended to draw up a new constitution. Tensions shot up dramatically as the goverment rounded up hundreds of NLD delegates -- and journalists who might otherwise have ignored the NLD convention poured into the country as the government, too late to stem the tide, hastily stopped issuing new visas.
The arrests, not surprisingly, created another mediafest, and no one understood that better than Suu Kyi herself. "How many of you would have come here if it weren't for all the arrests?" she asked journalists gleefully at a press conference during the convention. "We sometimes think we have a secret friend in the government."
The government responded by launching a war of bitter and sometimes comical invective in the state-run press. Calling Suu Kyi a "puppet princess" of neo-colonialists, the press attacked her incessantly as the "royal mother of the West" and the "democracy sorceress". The top two officials of the NLD, Tin Oo and Kyi Maung, were dubbed "the two clowns", while the NLD itself was renamed the "Flat Earth Society Dance Troupe".
Moreover, the SLORC adopted an even more hostile attitude toward the foreign press, instituting tight new restrictions on journalist visas. And at the Asean Regional Forum in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw admitted that certain journalists were blacklisted. "If there is no goodwill, then why should they come and write bad things?" he asked, defending the policy as "simple human relations."
In contrast to the SLORC's blunt tactics, meanwhile, Suu Kyi's international supporters had been pursuing a sophisticated, high-tech public relations strategy. Through Burmanet, an internet information service that reaches about 5,000 subscribers, the pro-democracy movement was able to link up sympathizers around the world and cooordinate their actions. And in Washington, the Burma Project of George Soros' Open Society Institute was publishing Burma Debate, a well-written, expensively-produced magazine that came out every two months with mostly pro-NLD articles.
The campign was effective. Students on campuses around the world were able to organize consumer boycotts against Pepsi and other consumer products, and sanctions legislation was pushed forward in Washington and Europe.
"American policy toward Myanmar is completely in the hands of a small group of activists," said a diplomat in Yangon recently. "And it's because they're so well organized and know how to deal with the media."
But in July, it suddenly seemed as if Suu Kyi's honeymoon with the press was ending. Journalists were starting to grumble that interviews with Suu Kyi never produced anything but the same platitudes they had been hearing for the past year.
"You ask her questions, and as you're writing down the answers you think, 'this is great'", said a reporter for one Asian newsmagazine recently. "But then when you look at your notes later, you realize there's really nothing there."
For her part, Suu Kyi began publicly complaining about the press, saying in one of her weekend speeches that they always asked the same questions, and that it was a chore to meet with them.
But some analysts say that was partly her own fault.
"She doesn't tolerate criticism any better than the SLORC," said a former NLD member. "And she was a bit spoiled by all the positive press she got last summer." Publications which have written critically about the NLD or suggested that economic sanctions were a counterproductive strategy have found themselves labeled as "SLORC propagandists" by Suu Kyi and blacklisted. (The list, incidentally, includes Asia Times, and both Time Magazine and the Far Eastern Economic Review have also been refused interviews in recent weeks, reportedly for similar reasons).
But even as Suu Kyi's relations with the press were getting more strained, the SLORC was starting to realize that its attacks on her were backfiring. The daily diatribes in the official New Light of Myanmar kept her in the public eye, and the personal attacks on her won her sympathy within the country from people who might previously have ignored her.
Moreover, members of the international business community had quietly been urging the government to rethink its information strategy. "This government is doing all the right things, but not getting any of the credit," said one foreign businessman in Yangon. "The country is far more peaceful and stable than the world thinks from reading the press. If they would just hire a good Madison Avenue public relations company, half their problems would be over."
No Madison Avenue companies have been hired, but in July the attacks on Suu Kyi stopped in the English language press, and the government announced that it would start holding regular monthly press conferences to report on what it called the "real situation" in the country, including economic development and foreign investment.
A revived Information Committee would "help those who would like the world to see the other side of the coin [and] not only the side Myanmar-bashers want others to see" by making officials more accessible to both local and foreign media, a report in the state press said. "In the absence of such briefings or proper sourcing," it added, "journalists wander around, getting whatever they could, forming opinion on whatever is told them by those they could easily meet."
Will the SLORC be able to turn its image around? It's obviously too soon to tell. But in "The Agenda," his book on the Clinton Administration, Bob Woodward quotes a public relations professional who offers some hard-headed advice on handling reporters that both the SLORC and Suu Kyi might be wise to heed.
"Manufacture a steady stream of doggie biscuits for the press," the professional advised, and they would "gleefully lick the hand that fed them." But run out of news biscuits, he warned, and the press "would eat your arm and try for more."
(Asia Times, August 29, 1996)
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