It should have been an opportunity to build trust between the media and the military. But Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s first press conference has, if anything, cast more suspicion on the military’s commitment to democracy, with journalists being barred from the event and state-controlled media given special treatment.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing speaks during the ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Informal Meeting on March 5 in Nay Pyi Taw. (Pyae Thet Phyo/The Myanmar Times)Senior General Min Aung Hlaing speaks during the ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Informal Meeting on March 5 in Nay Pyi Taw. (Pyae Thet Phyo/The Myanmar Times)

“The worst ASEAN-related press conference I’ve ever experienced” was how one journalist, who has covered ASEAN meetings in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia since 2009, described the March 5 question-and-answer session following the 11th ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Informal Meeting.

More than 10 reporters, including those from Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima and Trade Times, were not allowed to enter, even though they had registered to attend.

A colonel told them it was because of “seating difficulties” in the press room, said Ko Pyae Thet Phyo, a reporter with The Myanmar Times who was also blocked from entering.

“We were all really angry,” he said. “We asked how there could be a shortage when we had all pre-registered. Then we saw the state media guys walk into the press room. We asked, why can they enter and not us? The colonel said it was because they are the state media.”

Reporters were told on March 3 that they had to register that evening. By the time many found out about the press conference they had already missed the deadline. One of those who registered the form described it as like “answering questions to enlist for cadet training”.

Journalists were also told that they could only ask questions related to the ASEAN meeting and were ordered to submit them in advance.

A reporter allowed into the press conference who asked not to be named said the Senior General spoke for barely five minutes. He answered five questions, all of which came from state media: Myawady, MRTV and New Light of Myanmar.

“Myawady asked the first question, then handed the microphone to MRTV. When MRTV was done, it was handed to New Light of Myanmar,” the reporter said.

The event also highlighted the government’s failure to introduce proper journalism standards at state newspapers, which churned out pieces about the press conference lauding the military’s achievements.

State-run New Light of Myanmar reported on March 6 that more than 40 local and foreign journalists attended the press conference. “The Senior General who chaired the 11th ACDFIM answered the questions raised by media persons,” it said.

The Senior General said “sweeping reforms of the new government brought about by democratisation process which was initiated by Tatmadaw won political achievements in the country and international plaudits”, according to the New Light of Myanmar.

“Myanmar formed with different ethnic minorities is progressing towards a lasting peace,” he was quoted as saying.

Observers said the press conference highlighted the military’s continued reluctance to adhere to international standards of transparency.

“We want transparency in every sector of the country and for that it is important that the public have access to news,” said U Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy.

Ko Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, co-founder of Yangon School of Political Science, said the press conference showed the military’s “arrogance”.

“It’s like they don’t need to make any effort to build relations with other [stakeholders] or the public,” he said. “They think that they don’t need to reform because there are no consequences from not reforming.”