His office was once the site of an interrogation centre run by Japan’s feared military police during World War II. And that is how U Tint Swe got his nickname: the literary torturer.
“We didn’t arrest or torture anyone, but we had to torture their writing,” Tint Swe said, his serious expression yielding to a faint smile.
Tint Swe was Myanmar’s last censor in chief, the powerful arbiter of what the public would read – and what was deleted from official history.
For nearly five decades, military governments here examined every book, every article, each illustration, photo or poem before printing. It was a crucial exercise for the military, which sought control over nearly every facet of citizens’ lives.
The censorship office, known by the Orwellian title of Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, infuriated generations of authors. Censors returned manuscripts with red lines through entire passages. Often they banned books or articles altogether. Any whiff of dissent toward the military or suggestion of government corruption was removed. Burma, the old name of the country, was deleted in favour of Myanmar, the name preferred by the military junta.
Even the yellow pages of the phone book passed through the censorship office.
About 100 censors, most of them women, sat on old cane chairs and laboured at old teak desks. Some of the work was done on computers, but many censors still have red pens in their pencil holders. The offices are so cluttered with stacks of moldy books, newspapers and manuscripts that staff members say they spray insecticide regularly to kill bookworms.
The office these days is decidedly quiet. A month ago Tint Swe summoned the country’s leading editors and publishers here and made a grand announcement: after 48 years and 14 days, censorship was bound for the junkyard of history.
To the outside world, the political changes in Myanmar – the release of dissidents from prison, the creation of a Parliament where lively debates are now taking place and the new media freedoms, to name just a few – have been both sudden and baffling. There are few examples in recent history of military dictatorships relinquishing power without violence or bloodshed.
Tint Swe’s own story tracks the changes inside the government, the gradual realisation by many bureaucrats that military rule was not sustainable. He and other officials in the Ministry of Information set a timetable for the abolition of censorship last year, a few months after the civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power.
“The work I was doing was not compatible with the world, not in harmony with reality,” Tint Swe said in his office, where government propaganda slogans hang on nearly every wall.
“We could not avoid change,” he said, “the whole country wanted to change.”
OFFICIALLY Tint Swe, 47, was a major force behind the military’s formidable propaganda machine. But in a telling sign of how the regime’s authority was crumbling in its waning years, the censor in chief had a double life. He confessed in a rare interview to being an avid writer himself. On weekends, Tint Swe composed long articles on military history, weapons and other topics. One of his favourite books is on American military history.
He posted his writings to Facebook, which prompted journalists to joke sardonically that even the chief censor knew how to skirt the censorship board.
The technological innovations that were challenging the government – cellphones, satellite television and the digital world of publishing that was beyond the reach of the censors – were not abstract realities for officials like Tint Swe. They and their families were living the changes, too.
Journalists in Myanmar say Tint Swe, a former military officer, underwent a gradual transition during his five and a half years as the so-called literary torturer.
Journalists in Myanmar say Tint Swe, a former military officer, underwent a gradual transition during his five and a half years as the so-called literary torturer. (Physical torture in Myanmar, routinely used against political prisoners, was handled by other branches of government.)
Initially a dour, rude and unbending apparatchik – the very cutout of a military officer in a dictatorial regime – Tint Swe became more amicable and lenient, realising that censorship was unsustainable in the age of the Internet. This year, he went as far as to help editors organise a conference on the future of journalism in the country.
Saw Lynn Aung, editor of The Naypyitaw Times, a weekly newspaper, remembers Tint Swe’s unrestrained ire five years ago when ordering that a passage alleging corruption at a ministry be deleted.
“You know the rules!” he remembers Tint Swe’s yelling. “I can shut you down!”
Tint Swe held the job of chief censor during some of the most trying times of military rule – the uprising led by Buddhist monks in the fall of 2007 and the government’s bungled response to Cyclone Nargis, the storm that killed at least 130,000 people in May 2008. He says censorship was necessary in those days to maintain order and stability.
It was after those tumultuous events that he showed signs of more flexibility, journalists say.
“He would say, ‘Please be patient and wait – changes will come,’ ” Saw Lynn Aung said. “In my opinion, he was a little ahead of the changes.”
Tint Swe said he watched carefully for cues from the top leadership like everyone else. He closely read Thein Sein’s inaugural address last year that focused on national reconciliation and reducing poverty.
“The speech gave me the feeling that genuine change was coming,” Tint Swe said.
Three months after the president took office – well before outside observers were convinced that the reform process was real – he and other officials took the first steps to dismantle the censorship system. In June 2011, articles dealing with entertainment, health, children and sports were exempted from censorship. Other topics followed, culminating last month with politics and religion – the final two areas where censorship was rescinded.
AS the legacy of dictatorship fades into the past, there are constant fears of backsliding. Will business tycoons who made their money from monopolies and contracts awarded by the military regime now slow down economic liberalisation? Will hard-liners rein in reformers?
On the question of censorship, Tint Swe is unequivocal.
“There is no U-turn,” he said.
Yet some questions remain about press freedoms in the country. Newspapers and magazines must still obtain a license to publish.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor of The Voice Weekly, a crusading newspaper that was temporarily suspended from publication by the government six times, says abolishing censorship is not enough. The entire Ministry of Information must be abolished, he argued.
“A Ministry of Information is mostly for dictatorships,” Kyaw Min Swe said.
The fate of the former censorship office and its employees is still being decided, Tint Swe said. The 100 censors confess to having a lot of time on their hands and will soon have even fewer tasks: the responsibility for registering publications is being left to individual states.
Tint Swe looked around his office and said he felt a personal sense of loss.
“I’m proud that I’m the one who stopped it,” he said, referring to censorship. “But I am a human being. My office used to be filled with writers and publishers.”
“Now my office feels like a ghost town,” he said.