Mr Saurabh Kumar, Ambassador of India to Myanmar, address to the Press Freedom Seminar

25 July 2019
Mr Saurabh Kumar, Ambassador of India to Myanmar, address to the Press Freedom Seminar
Ambassador of India to Myanmar Mr Saurabh Kumar. Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

Mizzima TV and Voice of America (VOA) jointly organized a seminar under the title ‘Myanmar Press Freedom and Democracy Level’ at Wyndham Hotel in Yangon on June 29.

Ambassador of India to Myanmar Mr Saurabh Kumar delivered one of the opening addresses. The following is the complete text of that speech:

“India is a nation of 1.3 billion people. We have a mainstream national media but also regional media, which has grown phenomenally in the last few decades and has a tremendous reach. People in India are very politically aware and a lot of it is due to the media particularly the regional media.

There used to be a debate in India as to how important is literacy for democracy, and literacy was usually seen in its traditional sense. Now, this has been overtaken by the performance of the electorate in the democratic exercise. Irrespective of literacy, Indian electorate has and castes its ballot with due care showing great political awareness.  This awareness has manifested in different forms. We have elections at the national level and state level. People vote in a particular manner at the state level, for certain parties, and when it comes to national elections, the same people vote for different parties because there is a difference as far as priorities are concerned.

I have been in your country only for five months, so I would not venture into any suggestions. As I also said during my earlier interview in Mizzima Weekly magazine, I am nobody to give any advice. However, I do follow English language Myanmar press. I think you have a good number of local language dailies and magazines but unfortunately, I do not read and understand Myanmar language, but would have loved to. Thus, I do not fully know about the level and depth of all debates on various issues, but I am sure that these have grown over the years and I am confident that these will continue to grow as Myanmar moves ahead with its democratization process.

Federalism is something towards which everybody in Myanmar wants the country to move.  I am sure several debates must be happening on the nature of federalism and their pros and cons, but it would be good, if these are covered in greater depth and detail in the media. There are typical challenges such as the division of power, where the centre wants to keep more authority to itself because of obvious reasons while the constituent units want more delegation of power or autonomy.   Where does one strike a balance? This is something not new and not unique to Myanmar only and has been debated and continues to be debated.  I think it is for Myanmar to find for itself the right balance as to where it draws the line, and I think media can contribute towards this debate.

There are different models available. India’s constitution was not a great innovation. When we became independent, we formed a constituent assembly and they examined all the constitutions around the world, looked at our realities, and came up with a set of provisions which constituted the Constitution of India. However, the debate on the division of powers between Union Government and State Governments is something which is ongoing.  Some of the amendments to the constitution are reflective of this.

I think all of us know the revolutions that we have had - may it be of the printing press when information reached to the masses through the print medium; be it the radio or television or internet and now the social media. I think this is the first time in history when any individual living wherever in the world, can be in touch with any other or others easily.

When the press revolution happened, we had people who decided on what we call censorship today - that what was the right thing to go out. So, people had to restrict themselves. Today, there are no restrictions. While social media has the advantage, that there is greater difficulty in curbing news and information, it also has the concurrent challenge that people can propagate false news. What needs to happen to regulate the social media or whether it would be self-regulation is an issue which is still being debated and will continue to be debated, but it is definitely a challenge before us.

I will just give one example. In the south of India, in Bengaluru, which is the IT hub of the country, several years ago, a news spread that people who have come to Bengaluru to work are being targeted. This was false news which spread like wildfire through the social media and led to a mass exodus of people. These were people from the northeast of India.  The government had to step-in to contain what was happening. So, we do have these challenges. Here again, we need to see where is the balance, where does one draw the line. I think, this is still an open question and it is for the press to develop greater awareness about these issues and a debate needs to build. Even in Myanmar debates are happening as to how some issues are to be dealt with. These tend to be sensitive issues when the government steps in; it is often felt that the government has overreached, has taken more measures than it ought to have but if a government does not do something then there are consequences too.  My short point is that we need to look at this issue carefully.

Mizzima TV telecasting Voice of America bulletins will contribute in a positive manner to the media in Myanmar.  As far as India is concerned, we have several understandings with Myanmar, including between the Press Council of India and the Myanmar Press Council. Mizzima has an understanding with another Indian body, Prasar Bharati.   I will be happy if there is more news from Myanmar in India. I think this is important and I can’t emphasize this more. Equally, I would like to see more Indian news, more regional news, more news about ASEAN and SAARC in the Indian and Myanmar press, so that there is greater awareness. This will build cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN between countries of BIMSTEC, and between India and Myanmar. I think this region as such is very important and news about things which are happening in our region need to reach the people. I will be very happy if all of you, as senior representatives of the media, can contribute towards this effort.”