Burmese Media Revolution: Shouts for freedom from exile

by Silvia Duarte    /  July 27, 2010  / No comments

Unable to catch his breath as the torturer pummelled his chest, Aung Thwin was becoming lightheaded. The interrogator asked him for the tenth time: “Do you work for Democratic Voice of Burma?” “No, I don’t,” Aung Thwin hoarsely repeated. Images of the interrogator flickered before his eyes, reminding him of 1990, when he was arrested and tortured until his blood-soaked shirt stuck to his body—the reason why his posture is altered to this day.

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) is a multimedia organization based in Norway that has a website—in English and Burmese—and a radio and a tv station that broadcasts into Burma. Answering “Yes, I work for DVB” could mean a minimum of 20 years in prison for Aung Thwin. And if that happened, all the risks Aung Thwin took in the past would have been wasted. Since 2006 he has walked Rangoon’s streets trying to appear calm while smuggling in his pockets devices that to the Burmese government were as dangerous as a bomb: a USB with forbidden information and a camera with his images.

In 2006 he secretly filmed a documentary about children dying in the hospital during a dengue epidemic and, as a result, the government forbade the use of cameras in the hospitals. Through his images, he also exposed one of the most corrupt businesses of the Burmese generals: the Highway Express Bus Company—the Burmese equivalent of Greyhound. During the military’s crackdown on monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, his footage captured four soldiers carrying the body of Kenji Nagai, a 50-year- old Japanese photojournalist murdered by Burmese troops.

Aung Thwin sent that image to the DVB and they shared it with the world. The Burmese government couldn’t deny its crime and the Japanese government couldn’t deny its anger.

However the Intelligence Police wasn’t able to find any evidence against Aung Thwin, and, as a result, he was only sentenced to two years. In jail he met a fellow journalist of DVB who had been sentenced to 17 years and tortured until his body was unrecognizable. Some of these video journalist’s stories and videos were shown in the film documentary Burma VJ—nominated for an Academy Award in 2009.

From London, where Aung Thwin was granted asylum, he talked by phone with Sampsonia Way, telling his story for the first time since his release. One thing he repeats again and again in defiance is “Yes I did. I worked for DVB.” He adds, “Media in exile is our voice to wake up the world about the tragic situation in Burma.”

The only uncensored news about Burma comes from outside the country, created and published by journalists in exile. With the help of undercover reporters such as Aung Thwin, they are free to provide news on the pro–democracy movement inside the country and to expose the brutality of the military regime. They cover news that the regime would prefer to hide, such as the Saffron Revolution and the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2009. Members of the media in exile also cover ongoing issues that affect the population on a daily basis including forced labor, land confiscation, and extortion.

According to Htet Aung Kyaw, a Norway-based journalist, there are three main types of media run by the Burmese exile community: broadcast media (radio and TV), Internet news agencies, and blogs. Sampsonia Way presents the stories of three leaders in each type of media. These are men who spend their lives transmitting Burma’s news inside their country and to the world. They are proud to say that, thanks to the images and articles they edit, some Western governments have imposed sanctions on the Burmese government. After Aung Thwin’s images of Kenji Nagai’s body surfaced, Japan withdrew $4.7 million in aid to Burma. (Following Cyclone Nargis, Japan resumed their support.)

Than Win Htut and Democratic Voice of Burma

The government began to persecute Than Win Htut in 1991, when he and some of his colleagues published a book without the “blessing” of the censorship committee. That year the police arrested two of his friends involved and weeks after came to the house where Than Win Htut was hidden. He hid on the roof, trembling as he watched the security forces handcuff his friends.

At the end of 2002 Than Win Htut travelled to Cambodia to attend a journalism training program organized by the New York Times. “As a result of the training I realized that I could still write in exile and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of the censorship. So I decided not to go back to Burma,” he said from Norway via Skype.

After the training, he went to Thailand and wrote for English and Burmese newspapers. In 2004 the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) offered him a job as a senior radio reporter. DVB is a non-profit media organization that began in Norway in 1991 after the Burmese government barred Aung San Suu Kyi from traveling there to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Now DVB is the best example of what the Burmese foreign–based broadcast media can do.

In “Strategies of an Exile Media Organization,” DVB deputy director Khin Maung Win explains how DVB uses a variety of strategies to get their signal into Burma. The first strategy is to broadcast via shortwave radio, which can reach everywhere in the country and is highly effective because the regime cannot block the signal. Among the other well-known radio stations broadcasting from outside of the country are the Burmese services of the British Broadcasting Cooperation, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia.

Another strategy of DVB is to use satellite TV. It is estimated that about 10 million Burmese have access to satellite TV. “Millions of Burmese nowadays are tuning into many foreign TV channels via satellite dishes. During the 1990s, people started putting up satellite dishes, and the government allowed it because it gets revenue from each registration fee,” Khin Maung Win wrote.

DVB launched its television news service in May 2005. According to Khin Maung Win, this is the only independent Burmese TV channel that millions of people inside Burma can rely on. However, he added that analysts believe that as many as 95 percent of the dishes in the country are unregistered and technically illegal. These can be removed at any time.

In May 2005 Than Win Htut left his radio position and joined the TV team. Since 2006 he has been producing the evening news program and coordinating two networks of reporters: one of exiled correspondents throughout Thailand, India, and China, and another of undercover reporters inside Burma.

Than Win Htut explained that undercover reporters working for DVB include both citizen journalists, who are volunteers, and paid members of the staff. When the volunteers learn about abuses by the local authorities—if they see police taking a person to jail or they witness forced labor—they want the exiled media to know about it. “Just like the people on whom they report, these citizen journalists are themselves victims of political persecution, poverty, and suffering. They want to change their lives, and they trust in the exiled media to do it. So they have become citizen journalists,” Than Win Htut said.

In rural communities, where only one person has a phone, Than Win Htut explained that people will line up 20 to 30 deep to use it. They are not waiting to talk with their family or their friends; they are waiting to talk with DVB or other media outlets. The news services pay for phone calls, but don’t compensate these people or their time.

In 2009, the 2,300-year-old Danok pagoda mysteriously collapsed during renovation. One of the volunteers reported to DVB: “There are about 60 to 70 soldiers in the pagoda’s premises, and they are telling people to say that no one was killed or hurt when someone asks. About fifty people are still trapped underneath the debris.”

Unlike the volunteers who report news as it is happening, the staff reporters are paid to do investigative reporting on assignment. Than Win Htut explained that these reporters don’t use an office as a way to avoid persecution. And their fear has a solid basis: police in Burma seem to be omnipresent.

Many times when Than Win Htut is in the middle of a very serious conversation with a volunteer, the phone call gets cut. “Other times we can hear interference, noises, and most of the cases that means that someone from the Intelligence Department of the government is listening to us to send his report. Some reporters have already been arrested in that way,” Than Win Htut added.

Because some of the staff and volunteers have small cameras, they are always under police surveillance. “Sometimes the reporters are caught filming and they must pretend to be doing something else. They say ‘I’m just trying out this camera’ or ‘this is my uncle’s and I’m just playing with it.’ But most of the time that doesn’t work and they are arrested,” Than Win Htut said.

Many DVB journalists have been arrested in the past two years, and at least ten have received prison terms of up to 50 years. That illustrates why the protection of sources—both volunteers and reporters—is an obsession for editors and coordinators of Burmese media in exile. Failure to protect sources will result in imprisonments that will lead to loss of trust and inability to keep the in-country network alive.

And when a reporter is arrested, Than Win Htut and the other editors must be very careful. The reporters often deny that they were working with DVB during interrogation, so a wrong word from the editors could mean a longer sentence. “Sometimes organizations like Reporters without Borders call us and ask: ‘Is he or she [a person in jail] your reporter?’ We can’t say yes or no. Anyway, in some cases the family of the prisoner ask us to say his name to gain the attention of the international media,” Than Win Htut said.

Under these difficult circumstances, DVB—and other media outlets that work with undercover volunteers and reporters—also face another big problem: the verification of their information. “Verifying if what people are saying is the truth is difficult. Sometimes other volunteers help us to do it, but we have to be careful because the military regime has infiltrators in all levels of society,” Than Win Htut explained.

Even though this journalist and the rest of DVB staff are aware of the consequences, they often try to verify information with officers, ministers, or other official sources. “The problem is that they refuse to talk with us. If they know we are from DVB, they don’t answer or they drop the phone. When they answer, it’s because they don’t know that the call is from DVB.”

Throughout this interview, Than Win Htut spoke fluent English until he was asked about the situation of his family in Burma. He answered that they are not at risk, but his words were almost unintelligible. To share thoughts about highly charged emotions is difficult for a non-native speaker and his unclear words expressed his fear: no one with relatives who are exiled journalist can be completely safe in Burma.

Kyaw Zwa and the Irrawaddy magazine

When Kyaw Zwa Moe was in high school, it was easy for him to grab a book from his home library of more than two thousand volumes. He was especially attracted to books about Burmese history, politics, and literature. Thanks to that, he said, the idea of democracy was foremost in his mind. When the pro-democracy movement began, he became a leading member of the student union in his school.

On September 18, 1988, the now-ruling junta staged a bloody coup and the military authorities launched a crackdown against all political organizations. Kyaw Zwa’s union went underground. He and his fellows continued their political activities until their arrests in 1991. Kyaw Zwa was sentenced to 10 years in the Insein Prison, notorious for inhumane and dirty conditions, prisoner abuse, and use of mental and physical torture. He was there for eight years.

In prison he improved his English. Prison guards who were sympathetic to jailed activists, smuggled American magazines into his cell. “I unintentionally learned journalistic writing when I read stories published in Time and Newsweek. I never wanted to be a politician; I wanted to be independent, and I thought that writing for a journal or magazine could be my way,” he said via email.

One year after his release, Kyaw Zwa fled to Thailand and joined Irrawaddy magazine as a reporter and researcher. Irrawaddy magazine is publication of the Irrawaddy Publishing Group (IPG), founded in 1992 by Kyaw Zwa’s brother Aung Zaw. Published online in both Burmese and English, it is regarded as one of the leading publications on political, social, economic, and cultural issues in Burma.

In addition to news, the magazine features in-depth political analysis and interviews with a wide range of Burma experts and other influential figures. International media outlets frequently cite it as a source of reliable information. Other Internet news services based in exile are Mizzima, The New Era Journal, and Network Media Group.

In 2005 Kyaw Zwa received a scholarship to attend University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism as a visiting scholar. “After having studied and worked as a journalist, I fell in love with this profession,” Kyaw Zwa added. Now, as a managing editor of the Irrawaddy, his concerns are the accuracy and balance of the articles they publish and “to provide regular training to our staff reporters and to recruit good journalists.”

Kya Zwa’s biggest preoccupation is the safety of his undercover correspondents. Some Irrawaddy’s reporters are also inside Burma and they work in a very risky environment. However, he doesn’t know exactly how many readers  have access to Irrawaddy inside Burma: the magazine is banned in his country, as are other Internet news services based in exile.

People who want to read Irrawaddy have to use proxy servers, which is as difficult as it is dangerous. According to Reporters without Borders, just 0.5 percent of the Burmese population has access to the Internet, thus individual subscriptions are very expensive and subject to the government authorization. Internet cafés are under strict surveillance: their owners are required to take screen shots of each computer every five minutes and must be prepared to provide every user’s ID and telephone number when the police request them.

Irrawaddy, Mizzima, and DVB have all been targets of cyber attacks. Kyaw Zwa is sure that the government is going to be more aggressive this year because of the coming elections. Even though government sources say they will guarantee a fair, multiparty election, the strongest leaders of the opposition parties cannot participate because they are under arrest. The pro-democracy movements claim that the election is just a farce of the junta, and Burmese news services in exile report this election represents a challenge in terms of coverage. Irrawaddy has built a new website just to publish content about the elections.

Kyaw Zwa knows that as an exile his risks are less than for those inside Burma. However his responsibilities seem bigger than before. Now he has to try to be objective when he writes about a government that has hurt him in a direct way; he has to deal with more readers, both fans and adversaries; and he is more conscious of the difficulties to defeating the regime.

Maung Yit and MoeMaKa

Maung Yit joined the Burmese democracy movement while studying electrical engineering at Rangoon University. After graduating in 1993, he became a writer and cartoonist for local magazines and journals. During that time he developed his skills as a technology journalist. Five years later, almost totally giving up hope for the struggle for democracy and freedom of the press in Burma, he left to find a job to support his family. In 2002, he arrived in Fairfield, Iowa, to study computer science.

He had wanted move to Silicon Valley and pursue an IT job, but he ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2003, he and his friends founded MoeMaKa Media, an Internet news source, as a way to combine freedom of press and Internet activism and reignite their struggle for democracy.

In 2006 MoeMaKa’s founders decided to diversify their format to get around the government censors inside Burma and started using the blog format to present their content. MoeMaKa’s is one of 800 active Burmese blogs.

According to a survey conducted by the Burma Media Association in August 2009, most of the blogs are hosted by BlogSpot and WordPress. Eighty percent are in Burmese, 8 percent in English, and 10 percent are bilingual. Three-fourths of the bloggers are between the ages 21 and 35 and have a college education.

Over half of these bloggers are living in Burma and began blogging less than two years ago. The majority focus on entertainment-related topics. Only 8 percent discuss news-related subjects—one of those is by Maung Yit.

Over email, Maung Yit remembered some of the news items that MoeMaka published. One was a video in which desperate Burmese parents talk about watching the army take their children to become child soldiers.

The blogger also remembered the May 2010 drought when Burmese people were facing a scarcity of potable water in many areas during a record heat wave. “With the help of community volunteers’ groups and citizen journalists, we could report the news, raise charity from overseas, and help the Burmese community,” he said.

The freedom that the MoeMaKa writers have to publish this kind of news is completely unavailable for the bloggers inside the country. In 2009 the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named the 10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger. Burma leads the dishonor roll. This is because of cases like that of Nay Phone Latt, a blogger who was honored by the 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN American Center.

Nay Phone Latt had a popular blog that offered political commentary and poetry, both expressing the frustrations and hopes of a generation eager to make its mark on society. He was also the owner of two Internet cafés. In 2007 he published news and photographs of the Saffron Revolution. In January 2008 he was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He is currently being held in Pa-an Prison in Karen state, 135 miles from his home in Rangoon, making it difficult for his family to visit.

According to Maung Yit, MoeMaKa includes bloggers from inside Burma. “We have at least 5 to 10 regular contributors inside Burma. We can’t reveal their actual names and identities,” he said. MoeMaKa’s volunteers don’t receive financial compensation. “It is just artists and media people’s passion to work for the same cause for Burma. We raise funds and accept donations to run our operation at minimum cost and to support basic material and tools for our team inside Burma. We are now registered as a nonprofit organization.”

Now MoeMaKa is a well-known website and blog among the Burmese community; most of the Burmese bloggers are willing and happy to publish there. Maung Yit plays different roles: he is a webmaster, editor, writer, reporter, cartoonist, columnist, and jack-of-all-trades. After more than 20 years fighting against the junta’s censorship, he just sighs. He still hopes for a miracle: to be able to walk through Burma’s democratic streets.

Read Silvia’s bio.

About the Author

Silvia Duarte is the managing editor of Sampsonia Way. She received her degree in Communication Sciences from Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala and her masters in Latin American studies from the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain. Duarte was editor of El Periódico de Guatemala’s Sunday magazine from 2001 to 2006 and has written scholarly and journalistic articles in Germany, Spain, and the United States. She came to Pittsburgh in 2007 with her partner writer-in-exile Horacio Castellanos.

View all articles by Silvia Duarte

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