Yin and Yang: The Media's Role in the Burmese Peace Movement

By Katie Meyer (Bangkok, Thailand) | 2008-01-01 12:00:00

The "Saffron Revolution" took hold in Burma, mobilizing monks and citizens in the country and alerting the world to the economic and political crisis without a spokesperson for the movement and without any official media covering the demonstrations. It was just too dangerous for either to operate openly.

This was dreadfully underscored by the death of Agence Presse France journalist Kenji Nagai on 28 September 2007 at the hands of military troops as he was photographing the demonstrations. The Japanese government has since called for an official investigation into his death.

Despite nearly insurmountable barriers to press freedom and media access and serious danger, Burmese monks and citizens managed send their call for action across the country. They also managed to get the world's attention, making the story of the monks' protests dominate news headlines and inspire diplomatic intervention internationally.

Only one percent of the Burmese population has access to Internet. Even when citizens or journalists in Burma log on they find it unpredictable --blocked, suspended and monitored by the junta. Since the crackdown, it has only been available sporadically for a few hours a day.

Information flow is further hampered by the impossible costs of information communication technologies (ICTs). An Internet hook-up costs the equivalent of two year's average salary - US$800. Purchasing a cell phone in Burma costs US$3000.

In the face of adversity, Burmese citizens have been getting creative. "Public mobile phones" -- that is, cell phones that are rented out to individuals -- have become an important means of communication. These public phones also provide some security since a phone's multiple users make it more difficult for the junta to effectively monitor calls. These phones also allowed Burmese to take pictures and send them out to the world.

"Citizen journalism" was being applied in Burma without people being conscious of what it meant, explains Roby Alampay, Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

"Young people knew how to get access and upload documents and images. They were sending information between their peers and to news agencies and contacts outside the country. If it weren't for those choppy, silent videos we wouldn't have had an idea about the movement going on inside the country."

SEAPA has been mobilizing international attention to the situation of Burmese media, in part through the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a network of 81 free expression organizations worldwide. In October, the network struck a Burma Action Group and has been lobbying the UN Special Envoy on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to raise the issue of Internet access and the repression of all media inside Burma in his meetings with the junta.

Alampay explains that before the crackdown there were thriving media houses that were pushing the envelope, albeit discreetly, in journalism dedicated to sports, astrology and entertainment. While the flow of information was very slow, at least Burmese could circulate ideas. Daily newspapers have been impossible to publish in Burma since each issue is reviewed by the Press Scrutiny and Regulation Department (PSRD) -- the censorship board -- which normally takes about a week.

However, since the crackdown, the PSRD have been overwhelmed by the need to scrutinize potentially controversial material, causing the private media to come to a standstill. The backlog at the department also means that the government is censoring itself, so very little information is circulating in the country.

Difficulties have been further compounded for these existing media groups inside Burma since the junta banned the names of 20 authors from publishing in any media outlet. While all of these writers have been writing under pseudonyms, they are finding the ban crippling to their profession and are facing the challenge of developing new names under which they can write. But their reputations cannot be built again overnight.

Meanwhile, exiled radio, print and online media groups outside Burma have been a critical source of information for inspiring the monks, mobilizing the population, and alerting the outside world. Burmese peace activist in exile Nai Nai (a pseudonym used for her protection) explains that according to reports, one of the monks who initiated the demonstrations said that he was so moved by a media report wherein a young woman explained her decision to join the underground student movement and leave her young baby who was still nursing for the sake of the future of the country. It was after that interview that he decided to act.

Also, as a result of media coverage, monks from around the country got involved and the process by which they called for the government to ask for forgiveness and address the poverty and economic crisis in the country became transparent.

"The crackdown situation has been incredibly important in making the Burmese realize the value of the Internet and of exile media houses for sending and receiving information," says Nai Nai.

Soe Myint, the founding editor of Mizzima.com, an online independent media house dedicated to covering Burma, has been training exiles in Thailand, India, and Bangladesh in journalism. These journalists work under extremely precarious circumstances without official papers or refugee status. Without the existence of media such as Mizzima.com and The Irrawaddy -- another exile media outlet -- there would be limited opportunities for Burmese journalists to access training and practice their profession.

Mizzima.com has also been building an underground network of sources for news stories under very dangerous circumstances. Soe Myint explains that it takes many months and sometimes years to establish information channels in Burma since Mizzima needs to build trust, train sources, and covertly send ICTs into the country. Even after the ICTs reach contacts, they need to set up covert places to access them. And then, sources keep a low profile for a while before any information can be sent out.

"The foremost challenge the journalists inside Burma face is safety because the junta is making all-out efforts to crack down the flow of information between inside and outside the country," says Soe Myint.

International news organizations that have dedicated broadcasts into Burma have also been essential to mobilizing the population. Before the crackdown, the Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had dedicated broadcast service of about an hour a day into the country, which they expanded to meet the population's needs for information. While not all Burmese have access to radio it is one of the cheaper and more accessible options, particularly for those living in rural areas.

While inside and outside Burma media proved to be an effective force for mobilization, it also came at a cost. Many journalists and activists have been arrested, gone missing, killed and jailed by the regime.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Ko Thu Ya Soe, a 30-year-old photographer who works for the German agency EPA, has been missing since the start of October 2007. He was last seen taking photos near the Sule pagoda in Rangoon. No one, not even his family, has any idea where he is. Win Saing, a photographer arrested on 28 August is also reportedly still under arrest.

And while images of the protestors sent from cell phones alerted the world to the struggle for peace and justice in Burma, it also unfortunately gave tools to the junta to arrest and detain people based on their identification in these photographs.

"International news agencies probably didn't consider the impact that exposing the faces of those protestors would mean for individuals who have since gone missing based on the publication of these photos," says Nai Nai.

Independent Media Covering Burma:

Mizzima.com http://www.mizzima.com
The Irrawaddy http://www.irrawaddy.com
Democractic Voice of Burma http://www.dvb.no
Voice of America (Burmese Service) http://www.voanews.com/burmese
Radio Free Asia (Burmese Service) http://www.rfa.org
British Broadcasting Corporation (Burmese Service) http://www.bbc.co.uk/burmese
International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFeX) http://www.ifex.org

The Monks' Boycott Process

The "Saffron Revolution" happened as a result of the domino or spiraling effect that appears to be almost built into the monks' systems.

My Buddhist Burmese friend Nai Nai explained it this way:

One monk can boycott or refuse someone who offers something ("his giver") if he feels there is something wrong or indecent in that giver's action. This can also occur if someone has acted badly -- i.e. engaging in torture, verbal or physical abuse and/or is harming the community.

When a monk wants to engage in a boycott he must go to the sacred area in the temple (the same place where monks are also fully admitted into that community) and chant his mantra. Upon hearing his boycott the other monks from the temple will also automatically come to the boycott. If not, monks that do not participate in support of the boycott will be relegated to the "unjust side."

In the case of the recent uprising, it occurred because monks in Upper Burma, upset with the people's poverty there, went out for their morning alms (this is when people come out and give offering to the monks early in the mornings since they live off the goodwill of the community and hence were themselves also suffering under the current economic crisis) but they only said prayers and did not take offerings. They sang chants in the streets and called for other monks to join. In response, the military came and beat those monks, tying them to lamp posts and hitting them with the backs of their guns. There are unconfirmed reports that one monk died as a result of torture.

This set of incidents, particularly the killing of a monk, gave the other monks a concrete reason for an official boycott against members of the junta military government.

The boycott is significant because of what it means. If you are boycotted, the monks cannot perform important religious rites -- they cannot attend your funeral (so your spirit cannot be freed from your body) and you cannot offer alms to the monks and hence cannot really practice Buddhism.

Before starting the boycott, the monks gave a deadline of 17 September 2007 for the government to come and ask for forgiveness. When that did not occur, the boycott started on 18 September.

Because of the media's coverage, monks from around the country got involved and the process became transparent. The monks spearheaded the action by chanting in the streets during the first week of demonstrations. They did not allow the public to participate; they just drew the people's attention, binding people's hearts to the message and giving them courage to also act by their own bravery. People felt so moved by the action against the suffering that they also joined the demonstrations, first building a protective wall of people around the monks as they walked the streets and later fully joining in.

"The movement was based on peace in the hearts of monks, which was inspiring to the people." After the protests, the clear demands from the monks came.

Katie Meyer is a Canadian journalist recently returned from Thailand.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008, page 9. Some rights reserved.

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