By Stephen Brookes in Rangoon
for Asia Times
Is Koo Stark carrying the Dalai Lama's baby? Ok -- I know it sounds a little far-fetched. The British soft-porn celebrity hooking up with the spiritual leader of Tibet's exile community? But that's the story according to Wun Tha Nu, one of Myanmar's most popular new tabloids, which ran the story -- complete with pix of the alleged lovebirds holding hands and beaming into the camera.
Claudia SchifferWun Tha Nu ("Patriotism") is only one of more than a dozen different papers hawked in the streets of Yangon these days, bringing gossip, wild rumor and pure nonsense from around the world to the people of Myanmar. There's Hmu Khinn ("Crime News Journal"), Yoke Shin ("Movie News") and Hlyat Ta Pyet ("Glimpse") to name just a few. Make no mistake -- this is not some Myanmar version of samizdat. These are tabloids, pure and simple, full of the usual stuff: celebrity scandals, dead bodies, unexplained miracles and, of course, babes in bikinis.
Flip through "Patriotism", for example, and you'll find educational stories about archeological discoveries in Taunggyi, as well as a photo of stern-faced Maggie Thatcher, illustrating an article about "a distinctive woman in Myanmar who is like Thatcher, concentrating on talking about other people's affairs and demanding fairness and rule of law and human rights." But right under the Thatcher story, there's a spectacular woman named Alessandra Rodriguez decked out in a few strategic feathers and not much else. The story: a British fashion show for "strange dresses", with the editors' admonition that they hope Myanmar "will not follow this example."
Turn the page and it gets even juicier. There's Koo (robes, no bikini) and the Dalai Lama, then a big shot of two American women who painted their bodies like leopard skin and paraded naked around Tokyo to protest in favor of animal rights. There's a spread on prostitution in Thailand, news about decadent Western celebrities (a pre-divorce Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie, both in serious eyeliner), and a miracle-survival piece about a nice American family that escaped after their car was crushed by a runaway truck.
But this is just warmup to a full page of Claudia Schiffer dripping wet in (you have to love it) a camouflage bikini. And across the page, more swimsuit shots of what the paper calls "the delectable dozen", from Pamela Anderson to Elle MacPherson -- and a contest inviting readers to vote for their favorite.
So what is this racy stuff doing in olive-drab, no-nonsense Myanmar, where the press is controlled by a notoriously humorless junta? Believe it or not, the tabloids are produced either directly or indirectly by various government departments. Take Crime News Journal, for example. One of the most popular, it's published by the Information Committee for Lowering the Crime Rate and Educating the People, and runs blood-and-guts stories along the basic theme of "crime doesn't pay."
Crime News has dead bodies splashed across most of its pages -- one guy beaten up after a poker game, another who manged to walk into a moving train. There are "true scam" stories, like the character who told a woman he was a judge so she'd marry him. She fell for it, but then the local cops nailed him for a phony, so now she's suing -- and "hoping to find a real judge", according to the paper.
Then there's the spirit medium who, in a fit of possession, poured gasoline over himself at a public performance and lit a match -- promising that the celestial beings would protect him. "Roasted!" quipped the paper.
And in international crime news, there was a full-page splash on Anna Nicole Smith, the alleged actress and former Playboy model who married a millionaire octogenarian a few years ago out of "true, true love," as she avowed. No bikini, but a mug shot from the Texas police after she was busted for drunk driving, and a shot of her kissing her elderly beloved.
I asked a friend in Yangon, a local writer, about this. "It used to be much worse," he said. "They've toned down a lot. No more bloody murder scenes, and not so many bikinis." He looked a little wistful. "The rule is that you can show women in bikinis, but they have to be foreign women."
But still, these papers are out to make money for their sponsors -- which means that different sections of the government are competing against each other in the free market. And since the basic law of competition is to give people what they want, the smarter publishers are using the time-tested formula of celebrities, crime and babes. And to get that, they go directly to the Western press.
Anna Nicole SmithThe Anna Nicole Smith piece, for example, came from the American rag The National Enquirer, and Claudia's bikini from the British paper the Star. Even the Thai press (hated in official circles) is mined for material, with articles lifted word for word from The Bangkok Post and The Nation. Whole stories are taken from Time and Newsweek, with the emphasis on political scandal in the West.
Now, this creates some ideological problems which have yet to be entirely solved, since the Western press is usually portrayed as public enemy number one. Take a recent editorial in one of the official papers. "It is necessary to inform the Myanmar masses of the despicable scheme of the Western nations in using the mass media to enslave the small countries and install their puppet governments," grumbled the writer, Mya U. "A counter offensive against the Western media is necessary. Personnel and technocrats working in the mass media throughout the country are therefore urged to work relentlessly."
Moreover, he complained, some writers had been giving speeches in which they actually entertained their audiences. "The speakers were veterans and the audience was rolling with laughter," he wrote disapprovingly. "One thing I noticed was their ability to make the audience laugh, but there was no reference whatsoever to the cause to crush destructive elements."
Think about it, Mya U.
And while you're at it -- got any pictures of Claudia Schiffer?