Popular demonstrations, led by Buddhist monks in August and September 2007 shook the military government which has ruled the country for more than 40 years. Despite pressure from the international community, the junta’s reaction was brutal: at least 100 people were killed, thousands arrested and a climate of fear and denunciations took hold. After several weeks of hesitation during which the world enthusiastically watched the highly-mediatised “Saffron Revolution”, the military took drastic action. Japanese journalist, Kenji Nagai, who was at the centre of a crowd with his camera in his hand, was gunned down by a soldier on 27 September. The Internet was cut for two weeks, during which time around 15 Burmese journalists were arrested. Foreign correspondents who had entered the country on tourist visas found themselves very closely watched.
Many Burmese journalists covered the demonstrations, despite the fact that military censorship bans the publication of independent news. Some 15 were arrested, suspected of sending footage of the marches and the crackdown to other countries. This is what happened to Win Ko Ko Latt, reporter on Weekly Eleven Journal, Nay Linn Aung, of the 7-Days Journal, and cameraman Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who were imprisoned in Rangoon. Ko Thu Ya Soe, a photographer working for the European news agency EPA, had to go into hiding for several weeks after taking numbers of photos of the demonstrations. When security forces failed to find those they were looking for, they arrested members of their family instead. Khin Mar Lar, the wife of Nyein Thit, a documentary-maker and ex political prisoner who hid for several weeks, was taken into custody near Mandalay for more than ten days.
A score of publications showed their solidarity with the demonstrations by ceasing to appear rather than publishing government news. Other titles did not appear for fear of not selling a single copy. Military censorship prevented them all from covering the events independently. The Burmese people once again resorted to international radio, BBC, RFA, VOA, and the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television. Despite bans there was a huge boom in satellite dishes. More than a million homes are now equipped to follow Chinese soaps, European football but also international channels like Al-Jazeera International and the BBC, which are very popular in Burma.
Artists, intellectuals, comedians and singers suspected of supporting the rebel monks were arrested and threatened. For example, writer Maung Yan Paing, poet and singer Ye Lwin, comedian Zargana, nicknamed Burma’s “Charlie Chaplin” and the comedians, the Moustache Brothers, in Mandalay. The authorities in November banned distribution of a video recording of a performance by a comedy troupe “Say Young Sone". The same month police arrested a Burmese rapper for paying tribute to the monks during a concert.
The junta’s militia
The junta deployed its militia, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), and gangs known as “Masters of Force”, who travelled in army trucks armed with shovels and iron bars terrorising demonstrators and journalists. From the start of the marches in mid-August, correspondents for foreign media were jostled and insulted. Authorities then cut telephone lines of numbers of activists and journalists, including that of the Agence France-Presse correspondent, and the freelance journalist May Thingyan Hein. “Men in plainclothes who sow fear among the demonstrators prevent us from working”, said one Burmese reporter for a foreign media. “It’s difficult when you run the risk of being arrested for a photo.”
From 20 August, Rangoon’s military commander banned all journalists from taking photos of demonstrations and ordered the destruction of cameras confiscated from offenders. Belgian journalist Thierry Falise who was in Rangoon at the time said that security forces then received the order to fire on people taking footage of the crackdown, which most likely led to the death of Kenji Nagai...
The security forces, which had been thrown off balance at the start, quickly threw themselves into the hunt for cameramen. Several accounts given by people arrested and then released had police questioning everyone about the names of the “cameramen”, understood to mean journalists working secretly for foreign media or the Democratic Voice of Burma. Many photographers and cameramen were so afraid of being identified that they stopped working altogether. Some even threw away their cameras and went into exile.
Internet cut off
Burmese Internet-users were restricted to just a few hours online a day during in October and November. The regime ordered access providers to limit exchanges between the Burmese people and the rest of the world. The junta aimed to prevent the spread of film on sharing sites such as YouTube, Dailymotion, and Flickr. Cutting off the Internet isolated the country, with rumour replacing news and reducing footage to that taken by foreign media.
The junta unsurprisingly also strictly controlled the sale of foreign publications within the country. Magazines Time and Newsweek and Thai newspapers disappeared from the newsstands in the first few weeks. At the end of December, Burmese authorities raised the price of a satellite licence by 167 times, from 6,000 to one million Kyats (from five to 800 dollars). This was aimed particularly at DVB TV whose deputy director told Reporters Without Borders “The military junta knows the power of an image. They are not going to let DVB TV and foreign televisions become the principal source of news in Burma. Even if 90% of satellite dish owners don’t have licences, this decision is perhaps the first step to imposing control”.
After the crackdown, the military junta did its utmost to give the impression of a return to normality. But behind the peaceful footage of crowds gathering to support the junta, the censorship bureau, headed by a military officer, acted with complete ruthlessness. The weekly News Watch was banned for one week after publishing photos in mid-November which angered the military. A score of journalists suspected of sympathy with the protest movement, were also banned from writing articles or being interviewed in the press. Chief among these were sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe, cartoonist Au Pi Kyee and writer Pe Myint.
Government media poured our propaganda, featuring the actions of the junta heads on the front pages. Demonstrators, who were presented as agitators of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the service of foreign powers, were accused of having stirred up the violence. Pro-junta media accused the foreign press of having created the disorder. Even though for years General Than Shwe cultivated a taste for the secretive, he appeared several times on national television to pronounce diatribes against the opposition. He made a speech to students at a military academy in December in which he exhorted them to be ready to “sacrifice your lives to defend the state”. And state-run television channels denigrated the work of foreign media, particularly the BBC, RFA and VOA, whom it accused of wanting to “destabilise the country”. The media were ordered to vaunt a return to normality and the country’s economic progress.
U Win Tin, imprisoned since 1989, calls for resistance
Burma’s most renowned journalist, U Win Tin, has never been granted the early release he has been entitled to since 2005. On his 77th birthday in March 2007, he launched an appeal for resistance against the military regime which has kept him in prison since July 1989. “All political prisoners should be released and the democratic parliament should be recalled. We must not abandon our demands”, he told one of his family members who was allowed to visit him. A few days earlier, the director general of prisons visited U Win Tin in his cell. The journalist pointed out his rights to him as a political prisoner. “I am not going to beg you to release me. I have the right to be freed because I have served 18 of my 20-year prison sentence. I should be allowed an early release”. But the director general told him he did not qualify because he had not worked while in custody. Win Tin told him that as a political prisoner he could not be forced to work in jail.
U Win Tin, laureate of the 2006 Reporters Without Borders press freedom prize, also promoted from his cell the “Suu Hlut Twe” platform which demands: the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners (Suu); recall of the parliament elected in 1990 (Hlut) and political dialogue (Twe). “My vision, my opinions and my principles have not changed”, said the journalist, calling on pro-democracy activists to resist repression.
During the year U Win Tin had to undergo treatment for blood pressure problems and inflammation of the prostate. Although a prison doctor checks him twice a month, U Win Tin is dependent on the help of family members who regularly bring him medication and food. His health has considerably deteriorated after 18 years in jail.
Nine journalists in prison
Eight other Burmese journalists were in prison as at 1st January 2008. Ko Aung Gyi, former editorial head of the sports magazine, 90 minutes, is suspected of having contributed to the Democratic Voice of Burma. Ko Win Maw and Ko Aung Aung, two other secret media contributors are also being held in prison.
The year began with prison releases. Than Win Hlaing, who had been in jail since 2000 and was suffering from diabetes and Thaung Tun, arrested in October 1999 and sentenced to eight years in prison for sending human rights violations footage abroad, were both freed in January.