Bertil Lintner started writing about Myanmar in the early 1980s—when the country, ruled by a military junta since 1962 and riddled with long-standing but obscure ethnic insurgencies, was still called Burma. From Thailand, the Swedish journalist crossed into rebel-held areas in Myanmar illegally and often. Concerned for his safety, he adopted a Thai pen name. As P Vichit-thong, over the next two years he wrote articles for the Thai magazine Focus, including one on the Communist Party of Burma, or CPB. Later, under his real name, Lintner wrote a long story about the CPB for the Far Eastern Economic Review. A former CIA analyst, whose book Lintner had earlier panned, dismissed the piece in an academic journal, citing for contrast an “excellent article” in Focus by a P Vichit-thong. When I interviewed him recently over email, Lintner recalled that he sent the analyst a message to say, “I am P Vichit-thong.”
Nowadays, Lintner is revered by foreign correspondents covering Myanmar. In April, when he told an interviewer that a general election due later this year had a “75–25” chance of not going ahead as planned, his comment was repeated in news stories and on social media as something akin to gospel. His books and articles traverse the last three decades of the country’s history, yet for most of the time since 1985, a few years after he started publishing under his real name, he was officially barred from Myanmar for trekking in rebel territory. The only exceptions, he told me, were two visits in 1989, on invitations from a former intelligence official who “wanted to find out who my sources were.” Lintner retired P Vichit-thong in 1983 and later eschewed pen names, but, with other foreign correspondents afraid of being blacklisted and local journalists fearing persecution, pseudonyms remained de riguer for many writers.
In 2012, Lintner was granted a visa to return to Myanmar. The year before, in 2011, the regime adopted reforms to allow a democratic election, permit broader political opposition and bring in foreign investment. It was a watershed time for the media too. Pre-publication censorship, dating to 1962, ended. Dissident outlets working from outside the country—including The Irrawaddy, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Mizzima—were called back in. Several new publications rolled off the presses. More freelancers arrived. The government started issuing six-month journalist visas and published lists of media figures and activists, such as Lintner, who were no longer blacklisted. Pen names no longer felt as crucial.
Three years on, though, and with a general election due in November, they are still common among Burmese journalists, and, to a lesser extent, foreigners—a sign of how pen names are a cherished part of the local culture, and of concern that the government and the military haven’t completely given up their old ways. The military commands, by constitutional privilege, a quarter of all seats in parliament, and is still firmly a part of the ruling elite. In June, lawmakers shot down an amendment that would have lowered the percentage of votes needed to change the constitution, which currently gives veto power to military MPs. Last month, Shwe Mann, the popular chairman of the ruling party and a rival of the current president, was sacked overnight—with, many believe, the support of powerful members of the military. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international advocacy group, Myanmar remains among the world’s most censored countries.
Joe Freeman is a Yangon-based journalist whose work has appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review, the Washington Post, Global Post and Foreign Policy. He co-edits the hyper-local website Coconuts Yangon.