Burma has in recent weeks been one of the top world news stories. The country’s November 7 general election was followed less than a week later by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s best-known political dissidents, whose appearance at her front gate on Saturday, November 13, was carried on news networks around the world.
However, getting news out of Burma is no easy task. As detailed by MediaShift contributor Clothilde Le Coz, foreign journalists were banned from entering the country to cover the elections. Though an estimated 30 to 40 managed to sneak in on tourist visas, seven were deported after being detained by the police. Fourteen media workers are currently behind bars, some serving sentences of up to 35 years. There are a total of around 2,200 political prisoners who remain locked up, despite the release of Suu Kyi.
Still, high-profile reporters such as BBC’s John Simpson managed to interview Suu Kyi after her release, with no apparent retaliation or punitive measures by the ruling junta. One reporter in Rangoon, who asked to remain anonymous due to the restrictions on foreign journalists operating in Burma, told me the apparent indifference to the journalists-posing-as-tourists was more due to ineptitude on the part of the police, rather than newfound tolerance.
Chinese correspondents are the only foreign press permitted to work in Burma on a full-time basis; news agencies and wire services such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse are only allowed to deploy Burmese stringers.
The information challenge was heightened in the week before the November 7 election, when a moratorium on new SIM cards was imposed by the junta, pushing the price of black market SIMs to well over $1,000. Economics are another form of censorship in Burma, as the average wage is a little over $200 per year. Even if the release of Suu Kyi somehow galvanized the public into another confrontation with the junta, there is little prospect of seeing the SMS-organized mass protests that emerged a decade ago elsewhere in southeast Asia, such as when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Manila to demand the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.
All told, only four percent of the population are wired up to telephone networks, one of the world’s lowest telephone usage rates. There are rumors that various multinational telecommunications companies are seeking ways into the market, and trying to get around U.S., E.U. and Australian sanctions by setting up shell companies in Singapore and Hong Kong. However, the privatization of various state assets over the past year appears to have only benefited a narrow cabal of Burmese businessmen affiliated to the ruling junta. There are 1.3 million mobile phones and 866,084 landlines in Burma, according to statistics released by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. The country has a population of roughly 50 million people. In contrast, over half the population of neighboring Thailand has mobile phones.
The country has been deemed “an enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), and Vincent Brossell, RSF’s Asia representative, told me that “it is so risky to try to work with people inside Burma.”
When it comes to the Internet, foreign news and social networking sites are blocked, though tech-savvy Internet users and Internet cafe owners in Rangoon and Mandalay can find ways around the wall using various proxies. However, just one in 455 Burmese were Internet users in 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Internet cafes in Rangoon and Mandalay charge around $0.40 an hour for access, which is far too expensive for ordinary Burmese.
Enhanced Online Surveillance
A new ISP regime is being implemented by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, the official title for the junta. The planned “national web portal” will split the military, government and general ISPs into separate services, meaning that the publicly available Internet can be closed down or slowed without impinging on the government or army’s web access. Critics say the new plan will enhance surveillance and online snooping, and make the country’s few bloggers more vulnerable than ever to arrest.
During the monk-led mass protests in September 2007, citizens used the web to send reports and video to the outside world, circumventing the ban on foreign media. Blogger Nay Phone Latt was a central figure in that effort, but he was given a 12 year jail term for his efforts — a harsh reminder of what happens to those who use the Internet to speak out against the ruling junta.
Any hope that the release of Suu Kyi signals even a tentative loosening-up appear to be misplaced. The military censors have stuck to the old ways, as evidenced by the fact that only ten of the country’s 100-plus privately owned publications were sanctioned to offer coverage of the release of Suu Kyi. All publications in Burma must have their content approved in advance by the Press Scrutiny Board. Speaking at a seminar on post-election Burma in Bangkok on November 23, Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine based in Thailand but run by Burmese journalists, told me that “media in Burma are trying to push the envelope with the censor, since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me there is a “yawning news gap” caused by heavy censorship and intimidation inside Burma. Burmese exiles try to fill the void, operating mainly from India and Thailand. Clandestine reporters inside the country take great risks to funnel information to editors in Chiang Mai, New Delhi and beyond.
Late in 2009, Hla Hla Win, a reporter for the Norway-headquartered Democratic Voice of Burma, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in jail for violating the Electronics Act, another draconian lever used by the junta to stop information from getting around the country or to the outside.
First Eleven’s Cover
However, since the release of Suu Kyi, even the state-watched media in Burma have shown daring creativity to get their message out, risking the wrath of the regime in the process. Sports journal First Eleven led with a front-page story on the Tuesday after Suu Kyi’s release that was a combination of headlines ostensibly about English Premier League soccer matches, but that also used colored lettering to discuss Suu Kyi’s release. Three innocuous-looking headlines — “Sunderland Freeze Chelsea,” “United Stunned by Villa” and “Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope” — read as “Su Free Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope.”
First Eleven got the ruse past the censors by submitting the advance copy of the page in black and white, but were subsequently hit with a two week publishing ban after the military realized that they had been fooled.
Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.