MAE SOT, THAILAND – In the lead up to the French Revolution a dogged group of scribblers, satirists, and cartoonists banded together to pillory the Versailles aristocracy. Despite facing massive censorship and attacks on the press, this group of journalists, writers, and artists conquered the streets of Paris with their words and images, often in the form of underground pamphlets. Over time, their efforts to undermine power combined with the sentiments of the broader public to bring down a tyrannical and oppressive regime.
Though sometimes it looks like the media world has been turned upside down by social media in the 21st century, today’s media tactics being used in the fight against authoritarianism still convey satire and irony in words and images. In Myanmar, a country much of the world still knows as Burma, the media is determined to get the news out and, in doing so, make the iron-fisted military junta look cruel and ridiculous.
Myanmar’s latest “revolution” and the war of ideas it has engendered began in February, when the military junta ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian backers, who had been working with the military, but who were ultimately seeking to sideline its role in government. For several years before the de facto coup d’etat, the media had begun to flourish and adapt in an increasingly open environment characterized by free speech, access to wifi and mobile internet, and a public embrace of all things multimedia.
Yet, in the past year since the military takeover, the oppression of the media in Myanmar must be ranked as the world’s worst. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists noted last week that China and Myanmar together hold a full 25 percent of a global total of 293 media workers in detention. That’s not the most useful comparison since China, holding 50, is a country of over 1.4 billion and Myanmar, holding 26, has a population of under 55 million. (In that sense, Vietnam’s 23 media detainees in a country of 93 million provides a more useful comparison with Myanmar.)
Inside Myanmar, as well as here on the Thai-Myanmar border and in India, Europe, and North America, Myanmar’s free media organizations strive daily to get the story out and avoid the censorship and oppressive arm of the junta. Indeed, the nation’s media workers manage this with a special humor, tenacity, and aplomb.
Though Facebook has come under withering legal attacks for its unwillingness at times to tackle and remove the so-called “hate speech” that helped spark what the U.N. has called a military-led genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority group starting in 2017, the U.S.-based media giant also has played a less direct but crucial role on an almost daily basis in helping Burmese media workers spread the word.
A New Approach to Reporting
In the case of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), whose multimedia channel hosts livestreams daily on Facebook and on other platforms, this has led to some serious run-ins with the junta, which has used arrests, beatings, and significant jailtime to stifle its reporters and editors.
Though DVB is edited and managed outside of Myanmar, the media outlet, like many others in Myanmar, maintains dozens of reporters and stringers inside the country. Some of these have worked for over a decade with DVB, which was founded in 1992 with Norwegian assistance. Old and new reporters have been trained in the stealth art of reporting from inside the country. Presently, most of them work on the “fly,” often on motorbikes and with a “cover,” posing or doubling as delivery boys (and girls), taxi drivers, and street food servers.
Kyaw Maung Zaw* is an enterprising DVB reporter assigned to southern Myanmar’s thin strip of land bordering on the Andaman Sea in Myeik City. He was arrested this year after he videotaped soldiers looting homes and upending people’s belongings in an alleged effort to expose “enemies of the state.” Though Zaw videotaped the military home invasions from a distance, he followed up with lengthy interviews of residents who had been robbed by soldiers. This story, which Zaw documented carefully, infuriated the top commanders in charge of a key air force and army base in his region on the southern panhandle.
The story turned ugly for Zaw himself when a top major general sent some 200 soldiers in trucks to surround his home and take him into custody. In a videotape of the scene, which was streaming on Facebook Live at the time, soldiers can be seen shouting to Zaw to come down from his second-floor balcony while, at the same time, using slingshots to break his windows. The bizarre livestream from Zaw expertly exposed the military’s bumbling approach to stamping out free speech.
Zaw, who laughs now as he shows the video of the attack on his house, said he was astounded that the junta would send such a massive force to take down a single reporter. “It was surreal: I was shouting at them, asking on what grounds they were attacking the free press,” said Zaw, sitting now in a café alongside the Moei River, which looks from Thailand into Myanmar. “After that, they drove me around in a truck with a plastic bag over my head, beating me and threatening me with death if I did not unveil my editors and sources.”
Zaw recounts his tale today as though the beatings and eight months of jail time didn’t surprise him nearly as much as the excesses of that attack on his home. When he was finally released from jail, Zaw made a special effort, he says, to “mine” the Facebook account of the major general who had him arrested. Zaw eventually posted the pictures of the general fishing and drinking beer as Myanmar continued its descent into chaos. “He is a ridiculous person and I wanted to make him look that way,” he said, holding up one of the photos of the commander on his cell phone.
George Orwell, who would go on to write the classic “1984,” which helped predict the strange and often oppressive world we live in today, also ridiculed slothful and incompetent British and Burmese colonial officials in his earlier book “Burmese Days.” But even Orwell couldn’t imagine the designs and devices “Big Brother” – a term he coined – would go to in modern Myanmar to combat the free media and twist the truth.
Since the junta also has control and oversight of almost all the wifi and other modes of communication in Myanmar, it can muster these resources to spy on and attack the press. Journalists are often caught through their messages, even when they send them over encrypted platforms. The military, when it raids a home, makes a point to seize smartphones and gather files before they can be erased.
But these tactics have backfired. “Trust in the independent and free media has increased significantly with the crackdowns, but also because the junta-controlled media do not tell the truth, thus tarnishing the armed forces as the least respected institution in Burma,” said Richard Mookerdum, a former U.N. media official whose family owned the legendary Smart & Mookerdum bookstore in Rangoon (today’s Yangon) in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was mentioned by Orwell as a favorite venue.
The U.S. Treasury Department, in an acknowledgement of the junta’s manipulation of information and fresh killings of civilians, slapped harsher sanctions on the military last week, stating that the junta was misusing technology to spy on the public and “facilitate human rights abuses and repression.”
Fighting to Keep the News Flowing
Than Win Htut, 52, DVB’s director of current affairs, who worked closely with Zaw when he was inside Myanmar, said the young reporter’s ability to think on his feet may have saved his life and prevented him from spending more time in jail. When under attack that day, Zaw was able to quickly reset his phone to its blank “factory settings” when he was surrounded by soldiers, instantly deleting damning content that might have led to a longer sentence and further beatings.
Htut described the nuanced work of DVB in exile, which is now editing and producing content obtained inside Myanmar. As with other non-state news organizations, reporters send dispatches daily, often in the form of eyewitness accounts via hastily-made and narrated video clips, including from battle zones. Once the materials are collected, editors decide what they can package and use, and what they can try to livestream based on assessments of security and timeliness.
The methods of filing and distribution are changing daily. Undoubtedly, Myanmar’s proactive media certainly has more tools than we did during the uprising in 1988, which I covered for several U.S. media outlets, including the Washington Post and CBS News, from inside the country in August and September of that year. News stories, at that time, were sent out over antiquated telex lines, often with a telex machine operator agreeing to surreptitiously print out a telex tickertape in advance and destroy it immediately after sending as a way to erase any lasting record of the communications.
“I was a student at that time and hundreds were gunned down in the streets,” said Htut, a classic chain-smoking “old school” journalist, who sports a French beret reading “So What!”
After the 1988 crackdown, which left hundreds of dead in the streets of Rangoon (the English name was changed to Yangon by the junta the next year), an armed effort opposing Myanmar’s military sprung up in the jungle along the Thai-Myanmar border, just as it has done today.
“Except that, this time, the armed effort and resistance is seriously bigger and has gone on nearly 10 months,” said Htut. “It is partly driven by the ‘Gen Z’ kids, who understand the new tools of reporting and are – it must be said – extremely talented. They ride motorbikes to escape, switch out SIM cards often, and work in every region of the country.”
“That said, it is also increasingly difficult to cover this story because of the relative black outs and black holes,” he added. “There are more clashes now and there are more deaths in detention during interrogation. So many of these incidents are impossible for us to properly document since we require concrete evidence.”
Even with that, Htut said the military’s systematic tactics to crush the voices of common citizens are often the same as in 1988. “They use electric shock, beating, hot water and cigarettes among other devices to torture and interrogate reporters,” said Htut, who lived briefly Paris in exile before returning to Yangon for the “Myanmar Spring” in the 2010s.
“From February until May, most of the bodies, I mean corpses, were being released to families. Now, there is nothing coming out of the prisons. The junta will often say that ‘so-and-so’ died of heart failure or an unexplained illness in jail.”
The other distinct difference Htut sees between the 1988 uprising and 2021 is that this time, despite the mounting horrors, “this brutality is not scaring ‘Gen Z,” whose members have popularized the three fingered salute of the Hunger Games movie series to demonstrate their defiance of military rule.”
“They have vowed to fight with words and guns until they take down the junta,” he added.
* For reasons of personal security, the journalist’s name has been changed.