Silencing Burma's 'Saffron Revolution'

25 March 2008

Silencing Burma's 'Saffron Revolution'
by Min Zin

On Feb. 15, the military stormed the offices of the Myanmar Nation and took my brother, the weekly journal's editor in chief, to jail. His crime? Possession of a United Nation’s report on the ruling junta’s brutal crackdown on last September’s demonstrations by monks and democracy activists—the so-called Saffron Revolution.

My brother's name is Thet Zin, and he is one of hundreds of Burmese citizens who struggle to tell the truth about what is happening in their country—whether through traditional forms of journalism or through the Internet—under threat of arrest or worse by the military regime.
Indeed, even as the Burmese military promises the United Nations it will implement its "Roadmap to Democracy," the generals are stepping up their crackdown on the media. News of my brother's arrest was painful, but I should have been prepared for it. This kind of brutal repression and disregard for freedom of speech is the defining phenomenon of daily life in Burma.

The irony here is that my brother, who was a political prisoner in 1988, has not been involved in clandestine political activities or activist groups since he began working as a reporter and editor for several legally published weekly journals in the early 2000s. He founded Myanmar Nation Weekly, where he worked as editor in chief until his arrest, in 2006.

When the military raided the offices of Myanmar Nation, they discovered video footage of last September's Buddhist monk-led protests, a copy of the aforementioned report by U.N. Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, and a book about federalism written by a veteran Shan ethnic leader. Along with my brother, his office manager, Sein Win Maung, was also arrested. The authorities confiscated mobile phones and computer hard-drives during the raid.

In early March, both were charged under section 17/20 of the Printers and Publishers Registration Law. The court cited the U.N. report as evidence of possessing "illegal material" in order to set up a case against my brother. If found guilty, they could serve up to seven years' imprisonment. The publication of Myanmar Nation has also been suspended since their arrest.

Sadly, my brother's case is not uncommon. In the wake of last September's protests, the military has stepped up its crackdown on the media and severely curtailed freedom of expression. At least 20 journalists have been arrested in the past six months, although many were released after severe interrogations. According to Reporters Without Borders, 11 journalists are known to be imprisoned in Burma, including 78-year-old U Win Tin, who has been in jail since July 1989.

The exile-based Burmese Media Association (BMA), however, places the number of imprisoned writers—including journalists, poets, fiction writers, etc.—at 30. These journalists, writers and poets, who exercise their free speech as a birthright, add to the more than 1,800 political prisoners who, according to Human Rights Watch, are still behind bars.

Since the Buddhist monk-led protests of September last year, about a dozen publications in Burma have been banned or suspended for allegedly failing to follow the directives of the regime’s censorship board.

Burma, which enjoyed perhaps the liveliest free press in Southeast Asia until the 1962 military coup, is now facing some of the severest media repression in the nation’s history. The Burmese military launched a "fight media with media" campaign in 2005 in order to "rebuff the unfair and baseless news produced by the Western media." The junta's notorious censorship board has imposed ever more stringent restrictions on private publications. Journalists are pressured to write articles in line with the regime's views and policies. Journals and magazines are forced to print an increasing number of "planted" pro-junta articles.

"The situation is now getting worse and very rigid," says Zaw Thet Htwe, a well-known journalist inside Burma, who himself received the death penalty in 2003 for sending reports to the outside world, a sentence which was later reduced to three years imprisonment due to international pressure. "The news journals are increasingly facing a hard time due to the whimsical regulations. The atmosphere of fear and pressure for self-censorship has been growing."

Thankfully, the Burmese people's main sources of information remain free from the military's abuses. They are the daily Burmese language radio broadcasts from abroad by the BBC (Burmese Service), Voice of America (Burmese Service), Radio Free Asia, and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

At the height of the protests last year, large numbers of people (including military personnel) relied on these broadcasts for information. The regime’s anger was apparent in state-controlled newspapers and TV announcements that described the radio broadcasters as "killers on the airwaves" and "saboteurs" who were "airing a sky full of lies." In addition to radio, DVB launched a new Burmese language TV broadcast in May 2005 that can be received via satellite in Burma. The TV broadcast was a main source of news during the September protests.

Now, a new generation of Burmese has found another means of defying the junta's thought police: the Internet. Although less than 1% of the total population has access to the Internet in Burma, that 1% generally has access to cell phones, digital cameras and memory sticks and can disseminate information widely. During last September's protests, these "cyber dissidents"—citizen reporters and bloggers—posted hundreds of images and eyewitness accounts of the Saffron Revolution and the regime's brutality on the Internet.

Unlike the 1988 pro-democracy uprising—when the killing of at least 3,000 unarmed demonstrators received little international attention—images of violence against last fall's protestors, including the killing of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, spread fast throughout the world and helped ignite international outrage.

The regime, of course, responded by hunting down and arresting those who posted the images, and by further limiting access to the Internet. Internet café owners are now reportedly forced to install spy software provided by military intelligence officials that take automatic screen shots of user activity every five minutes. The monitoring results then have to be delivered to the military for surveillance.

Meanwhile, the military promises the outside world that it is marching toward "democracy" with its constitutional referendum in May and new elections in 2010. But nearly all observers agree that the military’s constitution won't lead to legitimate political freedom or national reconciliation. Violations of human rights are expected to continue, as are repression and censorship of the media.

"Though the military promises reform by holding a constitutional referendum in May," says Maung Maung Myint, chairman of the Burmese Media Association, “the arrest of journalists and constraints on the free flow of information clearly demonstrate that the regime discourages any informed public debate on their draft constitution."

Clearly, my brother and other recently detained journalists are being held by the junta in an effort to spread fear among Burma’s defiant media in the run-up to the constitutional referendum. Without outside pressure, the sad fact is these tactics will likely succeed—and the Burmese people will continue to suffer under a repressive military dictatorship, and those brave journalists and writers willing to challenge Burma's censors will be silenced.
Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.

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