Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Burma I

I am currently reading a novel by Amy Tan, titled Saving Fish from Drowning, which narrates the (")adventures(") of a group of American tourists in Burma. This post is not about the book, although it is a very enjoyable read - you can listen to an NPR interview with Tan here. No, this post, and the next one, is a collection of pieces on Burma. Everyone that writes of Burma, or Myanmar, refers to it as "little-known," "mysterious," etc. While these references do have obvious Orientalist (under)tones, there is a political dimension/significance to them. I therefore started doing a bit of research on Burma, to make it less "little-known" for myself. There is, of course, lots of information out there if you wish to find it. Perhaps not as much as about "open," "democratic" states, but still enough, at least for the lay person.

This post is a collection of a few articles/reports about the implications of Burma's political status/conditions, in general. The next one will probably be about issues of ethnicity, displacement/migration, and statelessness. Although, obviously, the issues addressed in the two posts are not mutually exclusive.

Note: The picture above is from the Voices for Burma website. This website has some good information on the debate about boycotting tourism to Burma, and the possibilities for responsible, informed tourism.

Burma VJ

There is a documentary, recently released, title Burma VJ, which "celebrates the courage of the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a group of exiled Burmese journalists who secretly film the abuse of peoples in Burma. The film recounts the efforts of a small group of independent video journalists (VJs) who risked their safety, freedom and lives to record popular protests and the military government’s brutal response."

Below is a short trailer for the film, followed by a synopsis. Also, here is an interview with one of the filmmakers. For those interested in the States, here is a list of upcoming screenings:
19-Jul – Santa Fe, NM – CCA
24-Jul – Cleveland, OH – Cleveland Museum of Art
31-Jul – Washington, DC – Landmark E-Street
07-Aug – Salt Lake City, UT – Tower
28-Aug – Seattle, WA – NW Film Forum

Going beyond the occasional news clip from Burma, the acclaimed filmmaker, Anders Østergaard, brings us close to the video journalists who deliver the footage. Though risking torture and life in jail, courageous young citizens of Burma live the essence of journalism as they insist on keeping up the flow of news from their closed country. Armed with small handycams the Burma VJs stop at nothing to make their reportages from the streets of Rangoon. Their material is smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite and offered as free usage for international media. The whole world has witnessed single event clips made by the VJs, but for the very first time, their individual images have been carefully put together and at once, they tell a much bigger story. The film offers a unique insight into high-risk journalism and dissidence in a police state, while at the same time providing a thorough documentation of the historical and dramatic days of September 2007, when the Buddhist monks started marching.

"Joshua”, age 27, is one of the young video journalists, who works undercover to counter the propaganda of the military regime. Joshua is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of his group of reporters, when the monks lead a massive but peaceful uprising against the military regime. After decades of oblivion - Burma returns to the world stage, but at the same time foreign TV crews are banned from entering the country, so it is left to Joshua and his crew to document the events and establish a lifeline to the surrounding world. It is their footage that keeps the revolution alive on TV screens all over.

Amidst marching monks, brutal police agents, and shooting military the reporters embark on their dangerous mission, working around the clock to keep the world informed of events inside the closed country. Their compulsive instinct to shoot what they witness, rather than any deliberate heroism, turns their lives into that of freedom fighters.

The regime quickly understands the power of the camera and the reporters are constantly chased by government intelligence agents who look at the ”media saboteurs” as the biggest prey they can get.

During the turbulent days of September, Joshua finds himself on an emotional rollercoaster between hope and despair, as he frantically tries to keep track of his reporters in the streets while the great uprising unfolds and comes to its tragic end.

With Joshua as the psychological lens, the Burmese condition is made tangible to a global audience so we can understand it, feel it, and smell it.

Burma: Where journalism is a living hell
Tita C. Valderama (Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism - The Manila Times)

It is Southeast Asia’s largest country in terms of land area, yet there is reason why Burma is unfamiliar to many people, even within the region.For one, it has been isolated for the last few decades as a result of both Burmese and international actions. For another, press freedom is unknown in Burma, meaning accurate and up-to-date information is hard to find—and report—even within the country itself.In fact, this was largely why many people in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta were caught by surprise when a Category-3 cyclone (codename: Nargis) rampaged through their communities for about 10 hours last year.

The disaster that struck on May 2, 2008, claimed at least 140,000 lives and left 2.3 million homeless.

Burma’s 47-year military government had known about the cyclone several days before, but had failed to warn its citizens. At the height of the cyclone, few people outside of the affected areas had any inkling about the unfolding tragedy, with local television channels showing dancing and other entertainment programs. It was only hours later that the government-run television stations ran a brief news item about a storm that hit Rangoon, the former national capital.

Phillipines, Marcos-era: Filipinos born after the 1980s have no experience of being under what it was like to have a government that controlled and manipulated what its citizens read and heard. But even those who do not know what martial law is or who Ferdinand Marcos was should only look toward Myanmar to see what it is like to have no freedom of the press and little access to information.

Indeed, the Burmese have taken to relying on outside news sources just so they could keep up with what is happening in their country, even though doing so can be costly, and in more ways than one.

Among their favorites are radio broadcasts by the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia, all of which have Burmese-language programs. Since 2005, the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway, has also been beaming television signals via satellite into Burma.

Over the weekend, the intrepid BBC made sure that the world would not forget Nargis and the ruling junta; it ran a series of reports on Burma, including a most daring documentary on how Burmese folk endure hunger, land mines, and military reprisal in villages sympathetic to the Karen guerrillas.

Owning a satellite dish, however, would mean forking over serious money as subscription—as much as one million kyats (Burma’s currency), or the equivalent of $1,000, in a country where the annual per capita income is said to be $280. One Rangoon-based journalist in an interview in Bangkok said: “The regime does not ban them . . . just made it impossible for the people to afford.”

Small market: Burma does have local journalists in both print and broadcast. In major cities across the country, stores and stalls have stacks of daily, weekly, and monthly publications. But there seems to be few, if any, buyers of these.

That may be because everyone knows each piece that appears in any local publication or broadcast has to be vetted by a strict censors board. Some magazines have even come out with entire pages blacked out while others have been forced to cancel certain issues altogether because the censors deemed the content too sensitive. In Myanmar, “sensitive” usually means anything that seems contrary to any official line or policy.

As a result, news coverage in that country is generally devoid of political developments, except for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and official government activities and announcements.Burma has about 400 newspapers, journals, and magazines at the moment, most of them based in Rangoon, the former national capital. Five of the publications are state-owned, including the omnipresent New Light of Myanmar, a tabloid-sized daily.

The rest, which are privately owned, face political and financial struggles every single day. But most of them know how important their work is to the people of Burma. That’s why, says one Burmese journalist, “we try to get around all the rules for our readers.”

That, of course, is easier said than done, especially when journalists are constantly in the crosshairs of the military junta. Said Zin Linn, information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)-East Office, in Bangkok: “They think journalists are key enemies of the military junta, [next to] the dissident politicians . . . so they [are] always catching the journalists.”

In early February 2008, for example, authorities arrested Thet Zin and Sein Win Maung, chief editor and manager respectively of the Rangoon-based weekly Myanmar Nation. Their publication’s offices were also searched.

Exiled media: According to Mizzima News, which is run by exiled Burmese journalists in Delhi, India, the two were later charged of violating section 17/20 of the Printers and Publishers Registration Act because they were in possession of a report by UN Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro on the human-rights situation in Burma, as well as the book Unbreakable Union by ethnic Shan author U Shwe Ohn and video discs of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Other laws that have been thrown at journalists and even bloggers to keep them in check are the Emergency Provision Act, which has a section that criminalizes the spreading of “false news,” and the Penal Code, specifically section 505(b) regarding “Crimes Against Public Tranquility.”

Publications that have refused to run propaganda are closed down, and journalists are harassed and intimidated at every turn. Some have even been detained and arrested simply for covering opposition figures or demonstrations against the junta.

Yet, Burma’s journalists have remained undaunted. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has been banned by the junta from visiting Burma since 1989 because of his unflattering reports about its administration, said that his Burmese colleagues have simply learned the “skillful art of writing in a crazy way,” such as through literary pieces and cartoons that carry political messages.

Aung Zaw, a Burmese journalist now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, agrees. “Cartoons or comic strips are very popular and attractive,” he said. “Some can be very clever and get away with it.”Many, however, do get caught. Last November, poet Saw Wei was sentenced to two years in prison for “inducing crime against public tranquility” by way of a poem published in a local weekly. Reports said the first letters of the Burmese-language poem’s lines spelled out “Power Crazy Snr. Gen. Than Shwe.” Than Shwe is the chief of the military junta.

Too many issues: Besides the generals, there is a surfeit of other subjects to be scrutinized in Burma, courtesy of the way the military has run the country since 1962. For instance, households experience chronic power shortages, leaving much of the country in almost permanent blackout, but the junta’s new capital in isolated Naypyidaw gleams with 24-hour electricity. For some reason, too, women workers have become staple sights in road projects while children as young as seven toil away in tea stalls, many with only food as their wage. Burma has also long been known as an AIDS hot spot.

But a straightforward report on any of these or something similar is bound to land one behind bars. Tired of dodging authorities, many Burmese journalists have elected to report on their country from far away.

There are more than 100 Burmese journalists now working in exile, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They fled Myanmar after a crackdown following the 8888 Revolution (a student-led uprising that culminated on August 8, 1988) against the military junta. “I myself am a persona non grata,” said Aung Zaw, who is editor in chief of the popular Irrawaddy magazine. “I cannot go back to Burma. I am forced to live in Thailand. From outside, we tell the story as much as we [can].”

Aung Zaw said he was jailed for a week in 1988, while his younger brother spent eight years in detention for participating in student demonstrations against the junta. Irrawaddy magazine comes out in print, but is also online. It has become one of the most visited news websites on Burma and Southeast Asia. At the height of the Saffron Revolution, it had 20 million hits in a month, a phenomenal jump from its regular average of 80,000 hits per month.

Short on funds, staff: Aung Saw said most of the Burmese media in exile are understaffed and underfunded. Yet while their apparent staying power is admirable, what is really remarkable about them is their army of sources within Burma itself.

“We have a lot of sources inside the country,” Aung Zaw said. “We rely on the telephone, Internet, e-mail . . . talking to sources. Some of our sources have been with us for 10 years, but some of them we don’t meet or have met just recently.”

“We are not disconnected,” he said. “Ideas keep flowing inside and outside Burma.”This can only be an indication that while the Burmese themselves are left in the dark about much that is going on in their own land, many of them understand that the rest of the world needs to know as much as possible about Burma if they want to put a stop to the junta’s abuses. Thus, there are those who risking the ire of authorities and investing considerable sums just to get information out of the country.

Clearances required: After all, in Burma, to own a computer and other electronic devices capable of accessing outside information, one must first secure government clearance.

Too, Internet access is not only limited, but also has very prohibitive rates and highly controlled. A mobile phone’s Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, meanwhile, costs $1,500 to $2,000 each.

One senior editor in Rangoon theorizes that it is the younger generation that has become very creative in communicating with the outside world. “We have no [open] access to Yahoo, Gmail, YouTube, and the like,” he said, “but everyone seems to be breaking the rules . . . they have secret access.”

Still, the information from Burma often comes in trickles. Or at least it seems that way to impatient editors at international news organizations. This has prompted some media companies to send their own reporters to Myanmar—itself a tricky operation, since Burmese embassies are quite strict with granting visa requests; anyone who identifies his or her occupation as “journalist” is turned down. Journalists who intend to make several visits to the country therefore tend to use aliases in their reports to avoid difficulty in securing visas for subsequent trips.

Deportation, death: Old Burmese hands, though, said that any foreign visitor to the country was likely to be the subject of surveillance by authorities, and advised caution in talking to the locals and discretion in taking photographs.

“You just have to be careful who you are with, just use your common sense,” said a foreign photojournalist who has been in and out of Burma for the last 15 years and is now working on a photo book on the military junta. “Just don’t draw attention to what you’re doing.

But the risks confronting members of the foreign media are obviously less compared to those faced by local journalists. According to one business magazine editor in Rangoon, the worst that could happen to a foreign journalist in Myanmar is deportation and seizure of photographs, discs, or printed materials about the country.

Then again, during one of the biggest of the monk-led rallies in 2007, Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai was shot and killed by a Burmese soldier. Nagai was working for APF Tsushin, a media company based in Tokyo.

It’s a situation that could test the resolve of anyone, but to the likes of Aung Zaw, it’s also one that highlights the role of media in society. “Without a free media,” he said, “a democratic society is incomplete.” What more for one under an autocratic regime.

Burmese Detainees in Danger
Saw Yan Naing (The Irrawaddy)

The relocation of Burmese refugees in Malaysia could lead to worse human rights abuses as they would be isolated from outside world, rights advocacy groups in Malaysia said.

According to the rights groups, the Malaysia immigration authorities moved 598 Burmese refugees including women and children who were detained at Semenyih Immigration camp near Malaysia’s Kajang Township on Friday.

The move was likely due to the Malaysia authorities wanting to isolate the refugees from the outside world, while other sources said it was due to the riot between Burmese refugees and Malaysia camp authorities on July 1. The riot broke out after camp authorities beat 30 detainees who were refusing to board a truck that was to take them to another camp. Eight Burmese detainees were wounded in the riot.

Aung Naing Thu, general secretary of the Malaysia-based rights advocacy group known as the Burma Youth of Nationalists Association said, “Now the Burmese refugees have been relocated to other places, they will be isolated, and the authorities will be able to do whatever the want, even torture them.” Forty-eight out of more then 600 Burmese refugees who were detained in Semenyih detention camp were released on Monday, but 598 of them remained. Many of the remaining refugees are undocumented, said rights groups.

The released detainees said there had been many human rights abuses while they were in the camp. Months-old children and women and pregnant women were the most vulnerable, as the meals distributed in the detention camp lack nutrition, they said. Thant Zin, a Burmese refugee who was released on Monday, said that only ten sick people are allowed to receive medical treatment per week.

“Many people who feel sick in the camp go without medical treatment. They are not allowed to see doctors,” said Thant Zin. “The drinking water and the water used in the toilet come from the same source,” he added.

“If they find communication materials such as mobile phones, they brutally beat you,” said Thant Zin.Immigration authorities regularly beat the detained Burmese refugees during inspections. Last week, two Burmese detainees were seriously beaten when they went to the clinic to ask for medicine.

One detainee was beaten around the eyes till they filled with blood and he became unable to see. The other detainee suffered from cigarette burns on his body and was said to be in serious condition.A delegation from the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees in Malaysia is now investigating the riot, according to Yante Ismail, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, in Kuala Lumpur.

There are 22 detention camps in Malaysia, some of which are located in isolated areas on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Some refugees have spent years in the detention camps. About 500,000 Burmese migrants work in Malaysia, legally and illegally, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Burma Workers’ Rights Protection Committee.

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