Published on Friday, 21 June 2013 18:25
To many outsiders, Myanmar is not exactly a shining example of press freedom. Even as the government embarks on a series of reforms, granting new licenses to a once heavily censored media, freedom of speech seems like a recent phenomenon. But the story of one local newsman reveals a cultural tradition of free speech that harks back to a bygone era.
At the heart of this tradition is Po Wazira, a 19th Century journalist for the Yatanarporn Naypyitaw, an independent weekly published under the reign of King Mindon.
Regarded as one of the most popular and revered kings of Burma, Mindon came to power at an unstable time. Myanmar, once known as Burma, had just suffered defeat during the second Anglo-Burmese war in 1852 leading to the annexation of Lower Burma by the British Empire. After overthrowing his half-brother King Pagan, Mindon quickly realised the importance of modernising his kingdom and army if he was to defend the upper portion of his country from British encroachments. But his reforms went much further. Mindon and his younger brother Kanaung set about creating a modern administration, introducing a salary system for workers, comprehensive penal laws and a professional judiciary as well as enacting the Seventeen Articles; one of Southeast Asia's first indigenous press freedom laws.
Enter the Yatanarpon Naypyitaw, the first indigenous language weekly that saw print for the first time on 20 March, 1875. Under the editorship of U Ahee, fluent in six foreign languages, the 9x11 inch paper began publishing telegraphic news in Burmese as well as reporting on the affairs of the royal court. In its early days, the news team of Yatanarpon Naypyitaw boasted two reporters. They were responsible for both reporting and hawking copies of the paper which cost one kyat per four dozen copies. The front page carried, among other things, the list of yearly subscribers - mostly royal officials. Although firmly under the patronage of the royal court, King Mindon himself was credited with making a famous statement that endorsed the paper an unusual freedom for its time:
“Write about me if I am not good; write about my consort if she is not good; write about my children if they are not good.”
Enter Po Wazira. Born Maung Lwin, son of a cleric under the former King Bagan, he received the title Shin Wazira as a Buddhist novice at the age of 16. In 1874 he shed his saffron robes to serve an apprenticeship as a stenographer under the tutelage of his uncle Judge U Nu and became so good that he was soon recommended as an assistant editor for the Yatanarpon Naypyitaw.
Wazira loved perfecting his syntax and morphology so much that he was referred to as a gifted writer. Together with U Ahee’s telegraphed news, Wazira helped expand Yatanarpon’s coverage beyond the local and social news surrounding the court and started covering the diplomatic affairs between the Kingdom and its border outposts. Wazira’s writing style was distinct with its use of rhyme, which won him wide recognition.
His day started at 9am with an editorial routine that included the editing of invitation cards for social purposes, advertisements and treatises. He usually wrapped things up at 3pm and headed home by horse-drawn carriage courtesy of his editor. Call it the perks of the trade. During his time with the weekly, Wazira shared a house with his elder businessman brother and two friends – a book trader and an English teacher – together forming a literary circle of friends and intellectuals.
Through the years Wazira became widely acclaimed as a trustworthy reporter. One day the parliament clerk U Thaut turned up at the office, unable to find the right spellings for some terms. Wazira assured him of credible references, and the man was so pleased that he recommended his promotion to the King. This resulted in a huge pay raise to 60 kyats, up from 15 kyats a month, to be paid in coins embossed with a peacock image.
When the King's consort, Satkyar Dawi died on 12 November 1876, Wazira made his mark with a tribute titled “Beginning of a time of crisis” which struck a chord among the reading public for its artistic and melancholy style. The obituary was said to calm the bereaved King Mindon so much so that he decided to award the writer for his eloquence.
While Wazira may not fit the Western stereotype of the muckraking hack, he exemplified a gift for words and wisdom that touched the public heart and reflected the liberal sentiment of his time. At a time of great uncertainty and social change, perhaps similar to present times, Wazira sowed the seed of a tradition in which many writers would follow.
Wazira gave up his career in 1878 due to a physical condition. In his twilight years, he dabbled in fortune-telling. Wazira died on 7 March, 1936, aged 87. Sadly enough, he was survived by his illiterate daughter.
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