This webinar presented insider views on how mainstream and new media in Myanmar report on issues that are deemed important in the country’s transition. Panellists at this webinar addressed the question of whether or how media reporting in an election year informs and influences voters’ views and attitudes, especially those of young (and first-time) voters.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Tuesday, 6 October 2020 – In this webinar convened in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Regional Political Dialogue Asia Programme, ISEAS Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, Ms Moe Thuzar, moderated a conversation with three well-known Myanmar media personalities: Mr Swe Win, Chief Editor of Myanmar Now and a 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee; Mr Sein Win, Editor-in-Chief of Mizzima News and head of the Myanmar Centre for Investigative Journalism; and Miss Thinzar Shunlei Yi, youth advocate host of the “Under 30 Dialogue” TV show and an inaugural #ObamaLeader.
The webinar was the third in the series of panel discussions organised by the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme on the topic of the media in Myanmar’s transition. Previous discussions looked at the changes and challenges in Myanmar’s media landscape after the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office. The webinar panel on 6 October focused on the media in the context of the upcoming general elections scheduled for November 8 in Myanmar. The three panelists candidly shared their views and insights on the following topics.
Election campaigning and coverage amidst a Covid-19 second wave
Election campaigning officially started on 8 September, two months prior to the election date of 8 November. The first week of campaigning started off strong with high energy from both the political parties and their various support-bases. This has now quietened down with the stricter lockdown measures amidst rising Covid-19 cases and casualties. Campaigning has moved online, with many political party leaders, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, using Facebook as their main platform for communication. The NLD has differentiated itself from other parties by instituting a campaign policy not to use Facebook advertisements. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected smaller political parties the most, however, as they lack the financial and technical resources to conduct online campaigns.
Media workers, who are also subject to movement restrictions, face the challenge of monitoring these diverse online campaign messages with no opportunity to gauge on-the-ground sentiment. Existing media biases and the Union Election Commission’s censoring of televised political party speeches constitute added challenges. The Covid-19 movement restrictions have also affected how broadcast media conducts interviews and conversations with candidates and stakeholders, particularly those from rural areas or remote states. Internet connectivity is patchy across the country, with people in Rakhine State still under very limited connectivity at best. Media in Myanmar are all operating under circumscribed freedom of expression.
Social media in the 2020 elections
In such a scenario, Facebook has become the “go-to” information provider; at least 45% of the population are Facebook users and many learn of official announcements and statements via Facebook updates. Facebook has thus become a useful source of information for media, especially in monitoring social media trends, but it also has its dark side as many social media posts my be tend towards the provocative or sensational to attract views. To minimise the impact of mob-driven consumption and demand, some six or seven fact-checking entities have emerged from media houses and as independent initiatives. Political parties are also aware of the power of social media; for example, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) started preparing its online campaign since the previous year and is also using Facebook advertisements for its messaging.
When campaigning moved online due to the Covid-19 exigencies, media outlets also experienced a huge surge in online readership mainly from the 24-35 year-old age group. Still, voter attitudes and views remain largely entrenched; information and social media messaging will likely not be able to sway voting behaviour in Myanmar’s present political situation. Additionally, social media remains a “luxury” at the grassroots level, where the focus continues to be on daily survival needs. It is still important, however, for social media monitoring and fact-checking entities to counter mis- or dis-information and hate speech online.
Youth concerns and election manifestos
Youth in Myanmar are the demographic group that uses and relies on social media the most. Many political parties have factored this into their election campaigns and seek to woo young candidates and voters to join the respective party platforms. Young voters are likely to vote for young candidates, although voting in Myanmar is still largely based on whether individual candidates’ capabilities, personality and principles appeal to voters. Young people across various sectors and regions in Myanmar (particularly in the ethnic regions) are now more interested in governance and accountability issues, including holding members of parliament accountable for their election promises. There were heightened expectations for parliament’s “check-and-balance” role after the NLD government took office in 2016, and dissatisfaction seemed to grow when members of parliament did not exercise that role as much as they had under the USDP administration.
Overall, however, young voters across the country, whether in urban or rural, Bamar or ethnic settings, tend to share the same attitude of moving forward with developing the country. Their enthusiasm and interest in the country’s political process, however, may need to be balanced against the inevitable peer pressure regarding trends on social media. This might lead to more swing votes coming from the young first-time voters.
Centre-stage issues and topics for voters
There is in fact a likelihood of more swing votes based on how online and social media coverage and discussion of centre-stage issues for the 2020 elections. Voters in 2020 may be attracted to newly established political parties which subscribe to the same ideals of democratic change as the NLD but which offer different approaches towards accomplishing this goal. The leaders of these newer political parties have credentials in the democracy movement and their own support-bases.
Broadcast media also has a role in discussing important election issues and concerns to wider audiences who cannot access information via the internet. These audiences constitute housewives, senior citizens, as well as those in areas where internet connectivity is either restricted or barred. News packages as well as expert panels on topical matters can present these audiences with relevant information on election-related issues. However, it is imperative for reporters and journalists to be impartial, and not bring partisan bias into the newsroom.
Across these diverse audiences in Myanmar, it is important to note that national and global-level concerns may not always find traction at the local level. Local elections, which will take place some months after the general elections in November, thus provide a better gauge for assessing local administrators’ ability to engage with their voter base and the concerns of these voters.
A question-and-answer session followed the moderated discussion, where participant sought further insights from the speakers, including on topics such narratives and drivers of hate speech, the “No Vote” online campaign launched on 8 August by the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, the possibility of a low voter turn-out due to Covid-19 concerns and restrictions, and the potential apathy towards electoral democracy in ethnic regions where there is ongoing conflict with the Myanmar armed forces.
The webinar attracted interest and attendance from 70 participants representing various policy, business and academic/research entities in Singapore, Myanmar, and the wider Asia-Pacific region.