In the last seven weeks, Burma (now called officially Myanmar) has been in the throes of a social and political revolution that presages the birth of a new system, and the dying spasms, we hope, of the old tyranny run by old generals. A fivefold increase in the centrally controlled prices of fuel proved the spark that set off the powder keg of Burma. When the few activists who first demonstrated on the streets of Rangoon were arrested or went into hiding, monks took to the streets chanting the Metta (or Loving Kindness) Sutra and their numbers grew to a peak of 100,000 before the military junta, following its decades old pattern, clamped down with deadly force. Even while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s special envoy, Dr. Ibrihim Gambari, was in Burma, the crackdown continued. The demonstrators thought he would stay at the Trader’s Hotel and so tried to go there, but bus routes were changed. Passengers let off their buses by bus drivers unaware of the route changes were set on with batons by soldiers dressed as policemen. Disturbing photos of a monk’s body, bruised and swollen lying face down in a stream; frame by frame video of the point blank shooting of Japanese photo journalist Kenji Nagai; a piece of human brain, and a squashed woman – missing a head, deliberately run over by a truck during the crackdown, have emerged. The night-time arrests during curfew were reported by U.S. Charge d’Affaires Shari Villarosa – and members of the UN Security Council, especially the US embassador, called for an immediate stop to these abuses as Mr. Gambari presented his official report on his visit to Burma on 5 October 2007.
During this time, as my pro-democracy compatriots and I tried to keep up with events in order to adequately handle the increased requests for interviews and analysis, I would like to write about how to go about trying to find out the truth about a country like Burma. The first pre-requisite I must say, is that you yourself be in a safe place while you do this kind of work. As it is not advisable for civilians to go to a war zone like Iraq, or other unsafe places, it’s also not advisable to try and get a visa to Burma and just pack and go, or to try entering Burma “by the back door” or via the Three Pagodas Pass and other border crossings from Thailand, or from other neighboring countries. It used to be that foreign correspondents, especially Caucasians, were reasonably safe – but now Mr. Nagai’s death has shown graphically how dangerous the streets of Burma are. A State Department Advisory, recently updated, states that “though the demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent at any moment.” An eye witness who called in to BBC spoke about how terrifying the sound of the “police” beating their round rattan shields with their batons was. They were actually well-equipped soldiers dressed as police, in a new uniform with red scarves around their necks, that no one had seen before. I wish I could look at their new boots and uniforms and find out where the items were made. Reportedly, China is equipping the Burmese army and this past week there were reports that the head of the Burmese Air Force was in Moscow, reportedly shopping for drones and other air force planes. Burma has no external enemies, but treats its people as enemies. On a per capita basis relative to the size of the population, it has the largest army in Asia. My advice only involves reading, and what you might call “letting your fingers do the walking” or “your mouse do the walking”, in search of open source material that is open to anyone on the Internet. I believe it is the quality of one’s thinking that decides the quality of one’s analysis and its truth value.
I myself read what everyone else reads and I have no access to restricted, high security information. As regards highly restricted information, the experience of the Bush administration and the weapons of mass destruction fiasco should remind us that as likely as not, such restriction can lead to a dangerous group think. You cannot get group think by reading widely. I still pre-suppose that you know how to use a computer and have a dial up or DSL line to get on the Internet. You don’t need any more computer skills than that, but you do need to know how to do simple Google or other search engine searches. Mainly you need to know how to use the words “and” and “or” to widen your search. I don’t think you need to know more than that, but you do need to visually “delete” the other items that are not relevant and come up – for e.g. if I Google my name “Kyi May Kaung” all other Burmese names with each word will come up also – There was an ill trained “librarian” once who brought me a list which included the word “architect” when I asked for “architect of the Marshall Plan.” What I wanted was the name of the economist involved. You must remember that computers are smart but not as smart as humans and they don’t understand metaphors.
In 1988, at the time of the first great country wide pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma, the Internet was not yet born, so physical film had to be smuggled out. Videographer Jeane Hallacy told me that while she was filming Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the mid-90s (Suu Kyi was released the first time in 1995), they heard the sound of army trucks approaching. In the video, now a part of Hallacy’s Burma Diary, Suu is seen nervously blinking as she speaks into the camera. Hallacy told me that she managed to change the videotape in her camera to a new cassette. She did not say how she got the videotape out of Burma. In the 19 years between 1988 and the demonstrations this August and September, the main differences are 1. the Internet revolution 2. members of the 1988 generation who fled are now well educated and well placed in non-profits overseas as part of the Burmese diaspora, 3. inside Burma since 1988, due to the so-called open economy (open for entrepreneurs connected to the military government) there is a certain level of contact with other countries, especially the neighboring countries, Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand and the Asean countries, now chaired by Singapore, 4. Burmese migrant workers who may be both blue collar and white collar now work in places as diverse as Singapore, Malaysia and Qatar, and the military junta itself is in charge of training and posting overseas, nurses and marine workers. This led to connections between inside and outside Burmese and the sending of images and video through the Internet to media overseas. Here are some of the main and best sites, in order of preference, as I see it.
Especially blogs with connections inside Burma. One site that posted many images of the demonstrations as well as of atrocities still being committed in Burma as the crackdown started on 26 September 2007 continues is Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection. London based Ko Htike says he has about 40 citizen correspondents inside Burma.
B. Dissident print and on line magazines/radio/TV stations.
i. Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Oslo – came out first in my own “Kaung ratings” – like “Huffs” on the Huffington Post. DVB got the scoop of the century, for Burma coverage – when in spite of its known lesser financial resources, it was able to show much video footage of the demonstrations as well as the spine chilling footage of Japanese photo journalist Kenji Nagai pushed down by a soldier and shot point blank. Japan has said however that “it is too early to cut aid.” This prompted one blogger to write sarcastically, “Are they going to wait for a whole posse of journalists to be shot down? As for Burmese they don’t count.” As someone who has worked both sides of the mike, I always noticed that DVB correspondents were the most energetic in chasing down the news and interviewees.
ii. Mizzima.com – on a par with Ko Htike and DVB for news and images straight out of Burma. To my knowledge, Mizzima is similarly strapped for funds, and my own personal opinion is donors should recognize their important and timely contributions to provide more needed funding and other support.
iii. The Irrawaddy – with a distinguished record, was during the crisis hit by a cyber attack which crashed its site on 27 September. It quickly put up a mirror site and was able to recover its archives, it wrote, but it was obviously very challenged and as a newsmagazine, I believe, events moved rather too fast in September for it to keep ups its usual in depth articles.
These were named in the recent mass pro-junta counter demonstrations being organized inside Burma by the SPDC. Of these VOA easily led the pack as the “voice of the United States Government.” In previous years, it was led by 2 people who were allegedly “junta-friendly” but now has the advantage of being managed by Than Lwin Tun, a veteran of the 1988 generation. Than Lwin Tun testified before Congress after the clampdown, saying “the only way it is ‘normal’ again is that oppression continues.” Earlier in the crisis period, he was interviewed by Ray Suarez on the McNeil Lehrer Newshour, and VOA under his leadership got exclusive interviews from Laura Bush, who has spoken up for Burma, and former President Jimmy Carter. BBC Burmese Service in the past has also had rumors of a junta friendly head who in fact went back to live in Rangoon! Radio Free Asia is rumored to have a mandate only up to 2008, very close now, and seems to be struggling to justify its existence. It has the poor practice of sending low level staff to cover events in Washington, and since a managerial change at the beginning of 2007, I have not heard of the head attending or indeed displaying any interest in high level discussions on Burma. Sticking to the knitting and keeping the shop going are clearly not enough in this crucial period. As regards program formatting, all 3 stations suffer from mannered and egotistic presentation that seems designed to fill up a lot of time – it can only be compared to the mannered jesting between the flirtatious dancer and the 2 clowns in traditional Burmese Ah-Nyient shows. The annoying format goes something like this. “So tonight we have Mr – and Ms – from – and – And now Ms. – please tell us – Ah, Mr. It is like this -” and so on and on ad nauseum.
I could only bear to listen to it for half of the 45 or so minutes of the newscasts. That said, non-Burmese speakers, which include most Burma specialists and journalists covering Burma, are missing a lot by being unable to listen in on these radio sites. The SPDC accused these radio stations of inciting the demonstrations. I believe they should not have lured listeners from within the country into a false sense of security by keeping them so long on the phone. What has happened now to the people who called in?
Beyond all this, I do believe the international community should remove the blinkers from its eyes and talk to as many dissident Burmese as they can find outside the country. Be especially careful of those polished people you meet on the circuit who insist its an internal matter, say it is not all negative, say they were just in Burma on Wednesday. After all, even as the Holocaust was taking place, there were Holocaust deniers and they still exist. Why should deniers of the Burmese atrocities be any different? The mind rebels at what it finds too awful, yet we should and we must confront the demons.