The generals who have run Burma with an iron hand since 1988 tried to soften the image of their authoritarian regime in November when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was given the kinder, gentler appellation of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). But a junta is still a junta, and the name change did nothing to ease the deplorable state of the press and other forms of free expression.

There are no independent newspapers or broadcast outlets in Burma. It is illegal to own a photocopy or fax machine, computer modems are contraband items, and only a handful of foreign companies, embassies and government agencies maintain legal access to the Internet. Local stringers for foreign news agencies face harassment and are frequently constrained in their reporting. Foreign reporters are often denied visas to the country, especially those whom the generals deem unsympathetic to their rule.

A tiny number of opposition leaflets and newsletters are produced by hand in Burma using silk-screen printing. These publications, seldom numbering more than 1,000 copies, are sometimes distributed on college campuses at great risk to their publishers. Even this activity has been sharply limited by the continuing closure of nearly all universities and colleges following student demonstrations in late 1996. A tiny underground short-wave radio station, the Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB, operates in the jungles near the Thai-Burma border and carries news of ongoing military campaigns against ethnic insurgents, jailings, and other banned topics. The only other non-official media come from Burmese-language services operated by the Voice of America, British Broadcasting Corporation, and the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Asia.

The SPDC frequently has continued a long-standing practice of barring visiting journalists from meeting with opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) is virtually the only independent political voice in the country. They also continue to disrupt her phone service, impeding her ability to communicate with journalists outside the country. On the eve of the NLD's party congress in May, the SPDC detained hundreds of NLD aides and party members. Eventually, the two-day event went forward at Suu Kyi's residence, but the military controlled access and barred the press from covering the meeting.

Also in May, the junta asked the government of Thailand to prevent Thai reporters covering a state visit to Rangoon by then-prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh from speaking to Suu Kyi. CPJ joined protests by Thai press groups by writing letters to the governments of both Thailand and Burma denouncing the action. On June 13, five NLD workers were arrested following the release abroad of a videotaped appeal for democracy by Suu Kyi. The five were later given lengthy prison terms and accused by junta member Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt of having collaborated with "overseas anti-government activists and advocates of destruction within the country."

In July, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ignored international protests and an abysmal human rights record and lent legitimacy to one of the world's most repressive regimes by admitting Burma as a member of the association on the strong urging of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

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