Burma: Keeping the Flame Alive Over Radio, Internet

BANGKOK - International media interest in Burma seems to have cooled down after images of the violent dispersal of pro-democracy demonstrators were splashed on TV screens and newspapers late September. But exiled Burmese journalists are determined to keep the flame going over radio and the Internet.

"While there has not been a united policy (among exiled Burmese all over the world) the struggle is going to continue, and we're going to keep on reporting until we see a change in the government," declared Aung Zaw, editor and director of the Chiang Mai-based 'The Irrawaddy' magazine, which focuses on Burma.

Along with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) bureau chief Toe Zaw Latt and National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma spokesman U Zin Linn, Aung Zaw faced a barrage of questions from journalists at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand here on Wednesday.

A former student activist, Aung Zaw, pointed out that the military junta's "clever ways" are key reasons why this quest for freedom and change in his country have been futile for decades.

"The government has been able to exploit different opinions within and outside Burma," he said. Add to that, he continued, the junta leaders "are still united and are ready to counter domestic and international pressure".

Gen. Than Shwe's iron rule has instilled fear among the people, including even the Buddhist clergy. In a short video clip shown at the press club, a young monk living in a temple near the Burma-Thailand border refused to comment about the government and the recent events on-cam, fear and worry evident in his face.

In another clip taken at the height of the protests on Sep. 27, a purported plainclothes police officer was shown taking photos of the faces of reporters and cameramen, as well as other rallyists who were at the demonstrations.

According to Toe Zaw Latt, witnesses said that journalists working for state-owned media were also taking photos of people toting cameras, MP3 players, and cell phones. "They would report this back to the military," said Toe Zaw Latt.

Needless to say, Aung Zaw feels that there is anger and depression among the people in Burma, as well as disappointment over the failure of United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari to settle key issues with the government.

Still, the exiled journalists remain gung-ho about the future. Especially with the huge role the Internet played in the recent events, they believe that the government is facing tough days ahead when it comes to gagging the Internet and the 'army' of citizen journalists, even if it has tightened control over the web.

"The Internet is the biggest enemy of the government now. The way that citizen reporters partnered with our correspondents and found ways to get the news out is a very encouraging and healthy sign," said Aung Zaw.

In 'The Irrawaddy's' case alone, the site (www.irrawaddy.org)registered 40 million hits, with over 100,000 unique visitors a month. Then, Aung Zaw related, on the same day when the government shut down the Internet in Burma, a virus also attacked the magazine site. It was a classic case of cyber-attack, he noted.

The popularity of the Internet and the people's desperation to get the news out were such that, 'The Irrawaddy' got over 1,000 images from Burma, in one week in September.

Radio, too, has taken a prominent place in this quest for freedom in recent years. According to U Zin Linn, prior to the 1988 student uprising that saw more than 3,000 people killed, radio was mainly only used for entertainment purposes. "Only elderly people listened to serious news on the radio, while the younger ones listened to music," he said.

But everything changed after the 1988 uprising broke out against the military in Burma, when students and intellectuals began using radio, shortwave radio in particular, as a way of getting independent information. Thus, the BBC Burmese service and Voice of America became popular choices.

Ironically, U Zin Linn implied how China, a close ally of the junta, inadvertently helped pro-democracy activists. "We have to thank China for selling cheap transistor radios in Burma. Now, even poor people can buy radios," he quipped.

U Zin Linn also urged the people to support radio stations, which could, in turn, develop new ways to reach out to the masses.

"We all know that Burma is not a media-friendly country and all media outlets are state-run, so people relied on outside media, and radio is one of the easiest way to do so," he added.

Toe Zaw Latt admits that people within and, to a certain extent, outside Burma have expectations about what the exiled media could do to help get democracy back in Burma.

"It's normal for people to have expectations after all that happened, especially since now, more Burmese know what's going on. But our role is the same as ever, and that is to give accurate, timely and relevant information about events in our country. I don't think our role has changed that much," he told IPS.

Aung Zaw also cautions against high expectations about the exiled Burmese media, intimating that they can only do so much, given the resources available to them.

"Yes, we did feel such expectations, both from the people in Burma and the international community. It's okay to have expectations, but these have to be realistic ones. In the final analysis, it's going to be the Burmese people who will decide (on the future)," he said. But definitely, he continued, the exiled media will be there to report on this.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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