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Transborder freedom of expression
– by Khin Maung Win
The military in Burma is doing what it can to suppress all attempts of civilians to play an active role in society. It is determined not to let anything like a real civil society emerge. The last time its authoritarian stance made international headlines was May last year. The military severely restricted local relief efforts after cyclone Nargis hit the country. Dozens of ordinary citizens were imprisoned and given long prison terms of up to 65 years, just for distribution of food to victims or voluntary involvement in rescue efforts.
Nargis was the worst-ever natural disaster in Burma’s history, killing 138,000 people and leaving 2.5 million homeless. At the time, the Burmese military regime, formally known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was preparing a sham referendum on its highly controversial constitution for 10 May 2009. It denied foreign aid agencies access to those in need, because it wanted to seal off the country from the rest of the world prior to and during the referendum. Massive cheating was being prepared to gain “yes” votes. Indeed, the SPDC later claimed over 90 % voter-turn out and over 90 % votes cast in favour of the constitution.
Relief efforts by local people using donations from overseas Burmese were considered an element of civil society activism, with a potential of undermining the authority of the SPDC. Therefore, the military leaders pretended that the disaster situation was under control. It seems unbelievable that they suppressed both international aid and local relief in a time of calamity – but they did.
A history of repression
The SPDC, which changed its name from “State Law and Order Restoration Council” in 1992, came to power in a bloody clampdown on a nationwide pro-democracy movement in 1988. This military regime turned out to be even more brutal and repressive than its predecessors. Security forces shot dead 3,000 Burmese who were demonstrating for human rights and democracy like the country enjoyed when it gained independence from Britain in 1948.
The last time free elections were held in Burma was in 1990. The regime sponsored those elections, but did not accept the results. The opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide. She is now a noble-prize winning popular icon of democracy – and has remained under house arrest for almost two decades.
Ongoing human rights violations of all kinds have been well documented by local and international organisations. Civilians providing assistance to HIV/AIDS patients are arrested; and their offices are raided and sealed. More than 2,300 prominent opposition members and activists are serving jail terms of up to 108 years for their peaceful political activities.
In 2007, Buddhist monks led pro-democracy protests. Their movement became known as the Saffron Revolution, before it was gunned down.
The media front
Suppression of civil society movements goes along with total control over the media. All broadcast media in the country are under state control, and all privately-run magazines and newspapers are subject to tight screening by the government-appointed censorship board before and after publication. Dozens of independent journalists and publishers are in prison. The 2008 RSF (Reporters Without Border) index ranks Burma as 4th worst media freedom on the world (170 out of 173 countries). In other words, 55 million people in Burma have no trustworthy media at home.
The regime is nonetheless losing the struggle over public opinion. In spite of brutal repression, people are becoming more outspoken, expressing their anti-SPDC views via exile media. They continue to demand what they have been doing domestically again and again ever since the pro-democracy movement in 1988. They want freedom, democracy, justice and less deprivation and poverty.
Foreign broadcasters play an important role. They include the Burmese services of the British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC) and the Washington-based Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which is based in Norway, is another major source of uncensored news about Burma and the world.
While there are more than a dozen well-known Burmese media outlets in exile, only the broadcast media have a wide impact inside the country. Short wave radio and satellite TV reach people all over Burma.
The DVB differs from the BBC and the Voice of America in that its main mission is to promote civil society in Burma through professional journalism. The US- and UK-based programmes serve other purposes as well, and their producers are tied into complex management structures.
Since its founding in 1992, DVB’s mission has been to:
– provide accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma and the international community about Burma,
– promote understanding and cooperation amongst the various ethnic and religious groups of Burma,
– encourage and sustain independent public opinion debate and enable social and political discourse, and finally
– spread the understanding of the principles of democracy and human rights in Burma.
DVB’s annual budget has grown from approximately $ 100,000 in 1992 to $ 3.5 million this year. The broadcaster is funded by 12 governmental and non-governmental organisations from the USA, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland Republic, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Non-financial costs matter, too, of course. DVB journalists run serious risks. Ten colleagues are imprisoned, serving terms up to 65 years. The upside, however, is that DVB is making a difference in people’s lives.
Images of monk-led demonstrations in September 2007 and of cyclone Nargis disaster in May 2008 were captured by DVB correspondents in Burma and then broadcasted back to Burma via satellite TV, allowing millions of people to view such pictures on their screens for the first time in history. The images were also distributed worldwide via major agencies, namely Reuters and Associated Press. Such media activism had the effect of triggering international reactions to the events without delay. None of that had been possible 20 years ago. Anders Østergaard’s documentary film “Burma VJ” dealt with the work of DVB and its journalists, and the film has won 19 international awards as of early April 2009.
In the past 17 years, DVB has had a tangible impact. Particularly important its progress in four respects:
– Scrutinising the brutality, reducing causalities. The death toll of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 was relatively low: little more than 100 dead compared to 3,000 in 1988. One reason was that the SPDC understood that cameras were capturing violent action. They felt less free to kill than they did in 1988. A DVB cameraman filmed the killing of Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist, on September 27, 2007, and the images were on TV screens all over the world within a few hours. Not least, this footage contributed to a policy change of Japan’s government, which had been Burma’s most significant provider of official development assistance after World War II. More important, however, was that this item of TV news prevented more such killings.
– Malpractices reduced. There is proof of SPDC officials having become responsive to media coverage in other ways, too. Awareness of corruption has grown, and some culprits have been taken to account after media reports of their wrongdoing. Such positive results are encouraging more people to inform DVB and other exile media of similar cases.
– Freedom of expression. Burmese demonstrators express their views via the media, explaining why they are protesting and what kind of government system they want. In a similar way, victims of cyclone Nargis spoke out against government policies that blocked foreign humanitarian aid. More and more journalists who are employed by various media in Burma are secretly in touch with the exile media, publishing items there that they cannot publish domestically. Even officials of various government agencies have begun to answer to questions from exile media. The emerging trend of freedom of expression by the people is obvious.
– A forum for civil society. Suppression by the SPDC cannot terminate the courage of people who will not bow down to injustice. Day-to-day grievances include, among others, forced labour practices, illegal land confiscation, malpractices in government agencies and a generally worsening economic situation. These matters are dealt with in the exile media in support of action on the ground. DVB and other exile media today constitute a forum for Burma’s civil-society movement, and thus make it impossible to exterminate the movement.
However, a major test for exile media is coming regarding how they can do their job as media in connection with the election in 2010. SPDC is planning to hold general elections in 2010, under the constitution approved by sham referendum in May 2008. The date has yet to be announced.
Although there are people who consider the proposed elections a solution to the current political stalemate, most opposition figures including key opposition party National League for Democracy have no trust in the proposed election. Nor do most ordinary people. Everybody, including those who are in favour of the election, know how voters were cheated during the referendum. A similar level of cheating is to be expected again.
In the run-up to the election, control over the media inside Burma has been tightened even more. Many opposition members are in jail, and whoever has jailed once automatically becomes ineligible to vote, according to existing laws. The Election Commission, which was, of course, appointed by the SPDC, has abolished 20 of the 27 parties that won parliamentary seats in the general election of 1990. The political atmosphere in the country does not match even minimum requirements for any meaningful election.
It is premature to predict how the election process will turn out. However the exile media – including DVB – can play a crucial role, by levelling the playing field for various parties and candidates to some extent, and by serving as an election watchdog. Whether the media will be able to contribute to any positive development in connection with the 2010 elections remains to be seen.