Cablegate: Burning for Books in Burma: High Success

Published: Tue 29 Jul 2003 09:14 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. SUMMARY: American Center publications and
library programs are currently enjoying new highs of
popularity. The military government of Burma
censors the press, dictates radio and television
broadcasts, limits access to the internet, and
controls every educational institution across Burma,
creating a hunger for unbiased and free information.
Public Affairs Rangoon's strategy to promote
American values relies on old-school information
delivery techniques: paper products in the form of
books, magazines, and pamphlets. Despite lean
economic times and less disposable family income for
most Burmese, the past months have seen a steady
increase in new library memberships and in
subscriptions to post publications. While the trend
predates the May 30 ambush of democracy leaders, PAS
experienced a large uptick in attendance in June
when populations were particularly hungry for
uncensored information from abroad about events in
their own country. End summary.
2. During the month of June, Four hundred and fifty
new members enrolled in the Library/IRC and 6,724
patrons walked through its doors and checked out
4,108 books, cassettes, and videotapes. The
Library's patrons are overwhelmingly young adults.
Nearly 60 percent of those visiting in June were
university students. Another 25 percent were
students of English and high school graduates
waiting for places to open at Rangoon's
universities. The remaining patrons included
medical doctors, government bureaucrats, teachers,
lawyers, and other professionals.
3. Public and university libraries are only poorly
stocked and maintained. Government restrictions
limit content and little funding means most books
are dated, if not worm-eaten. Only the libraries
run by the American Center and the British Council
offer anything close to a modern, comprehensive
library. Even with the American Center's modest
collection of 8,000 volumes and 70 periodicals, the
demand for our services is strong and continues to
rise. At just 500 kyat (about 50 cents) a year,
most any Burmese can afford to join the American
Center Library. New memberships have averaged 370 a
month, and are climbing, since December 2002. One
recent Saturday in July, 173 new members joined.
The Library now has nearly 11,000 active members.
4. The demand for library services is not limited to
Burmese living in Rangoon. Just prior to the May 30
crackdown on democracy activists, the American
Center Library went on the road to participate for
the first time in the book fairs of two universities
outside of Rangoon, the Bago Degree College and Pyay
University. The universities were enthusiastic
about collaboration with the American Center. They
assisted us in gaining permission from the Ministry
of Education and the Ministry of Information to
display our books on their campuses and even
rescheduled their fairs for our benefit when the
Ministry of Information delayed granting approval.
(The Ministry granted its permission after
physically inspecting all sixty books intended for
our display.)
5. At the book fairs, the American Center displayed
about 60 titles covering environmental science,
globalization, HIV/AIDS, and drug abuse. Professors
and students alike browsed our traveling collection,
some stopping to read intently. Many teachers wrote
down the titles and authors and requested IRC
assistance in acquiring these books for use in their
courses. Good dictionaries and titles on the
environment were in particular demand on both
6. We took the rare opportunity of being on campus
to distribute free copies of post produced
publications. At Pyay, pandemonium ensued when word
spread that the American Center was giving books
away, and the line to receive them soon snaked out
the door of the exhibit hall. In total, more than
1,800 copies of American Center produced magazines
were distributed along with nearly 1,000 books from
the American Center book translation program.
Titles distributed included "Democracy in America"
by De Tocqueville, "My American Journey" by Colin
Powell, and other biographies and works of fiction.
7. Bago Degree College has about 1500 full time
students while another 10,000 attend as distance-
learners. All are undergraduate students. Pyay
University boasts a student population of roughly
5,000 (of which three quarters are undergraduate
students) with another 20,000 enrolled in their
distance learning courses. The DPAO and the
American Center Library team, accompanied by the
Bangkok Regional Librarian Officer, feel confident
they greeted a high percentage of both student
bodies. Both Bago Degree College and Pyay
University invited American Center participation in
their 2004 book fairs.
8. Following a makeover and a subscription drive
that closed recently, paid subscriptions to post-
produced publications in English and Burmese (see
para 10) rose more than 27 percent over last year.
(A total of 24,200 subscriptions in 2003, over
19,013 subscriptions for 2002.) Our press and
publications staff injected a more vital feel to our
venerable publications, with more articles meant to
appeal to youth and the use of vibrant colors and
tag lines to make features stand out. In addition
to increased subscriptions, positive reader feedback
has also surged.
9. The American Center's printing press publishes
over 700,000 pages of material every month.
Contractors translate some materials, exchange
participants and other Center contacts write
original articles, and American Center staff edits
the whole. Then in-house staff, led by a
professional graphic artist, designs each
publication, does the camera work, plate-making, and
four color printing. By running a printing press
inhouse, PAS eliminates one avenue of pressure the
Burmese government could use to delay our
10. Description of periodical publications:
a. American News & Views (circulation: fewer than
100) is the Post's daily newsletter, based entirely
on Washington File's EPF section. It is edited in-
house for substance and clarity. ANV is aimed at
laying the groundwork for future media placement.
By limiting distribution to fewer than 100, the
American Center may circumvent the Press Scrutiny
Board (government censor board) review of content.
b. News & Features USA (circulation: 6,975) is a
biweekly containing backgrounders from the
Washington File, Electronic Journals, etc.
c. American Mosaic (circulation: 8,757) is a
monthly publication containing articles from the VOA
Special English program. Written in simple English,
the publication is targeted to young Burmese
students of English.
d. Lin Yaung Chi USA (circulation: 8,468) is a
bimonthly Burmese-language publication providing
information and knowledge about various aspects of
the United States. Targeted readers are the general
Burmese public.
e. Enduring Freedom (circulation: 10,000) a monthly
Burmese-language publication published in support of
the global war on terrorism. It is distributed free
at the IRC, as an insert in other publications and
by embassy personnel. Entire issues have been
reprinted in the progressive bimonthly journal,
Light of Islam (circulation 6,000). In the months
following September 11, 2001, the newsletter was
published monthly. Leading up to and during the
recent conflict in Iraq, EF was published weekly.
One entire issue of Enduring Freedom detailed Saddam
Hussein's crimes against the Iraqi people.
11. PAS Rangoon also runs an active book translation
program. In FY 2002, two books were translated into
Burmese: Katherine Graham's "Personal History" and
Secretary Powell's "My American Journey." The
Secretary's autobiography passed the censor board in
record time and was a swift seller, popular with
both democratic opposition and military government
types. (The embassy hopes it conveyed positive
images of healthy military-civilian relations and
roles, but has yet to see any manifestation of such
influence in the Burmese military rulers.) Thomas
Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" will head
to press in September and Paul Krugman's "The
Accidental Theorist" in December. Henry Hazlitt's
"Economics in One Lesson" is already in process for
2004 publication.
12. Comment: There is a hunger for information
across Burma. Because the media is not free and the
education system is failing, many people look to the
American Center to help fill in gaps created by the
regime. The crowds visiting the American Center in
Rangoon daily testify to that. And whenever
American Center staff are able to travel, we see
firsthand the hunger for information and contact in
places like Pyay or Bago or Mandalay. Although a
particularly conservative military commander governs
the second largest city, Mandalay, the people of
that city come to our programs in larger than
expected numbers.
13. In their own effort to extend beyond the
capital, the British Council made a one-time
endowment with year 2000 funds to create ten
Millennium Centers (similar to our American Corners
concept but focused exclusively on English language
education) housed at community civil society
organizations -- often the local YMCA or a church-
based learning center -- in secondary cities across
the country. The British Council also opened a
satellite office/reading room in Mandalay. The
American Center actively supports the Millenium
Centers with English teaching materials donations
and by conducting English teacher training courses
for their personnel.
14. In a country where the communication
infrastructure is archaic and the government
controls the media, the American Center relies on
tried and true public diplomacy tools. In other
countries, what Edward R. Murrow called "the last
three feet" might be closed by a modem or by a
televised interview. But not in Burma. In Burma,
"old-school" brick and mortar and "low-tech" paper
and ink consistently reach our hungry young audience
with a high degree of success. Only with more of
each will we reach farther. End Comment. MCMULLEN
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