Five years ago, Aye Min Soe abandoned his work as an engineer to pick up a camera, dodge the Burmese military and risk arrest and another prison term. He had already been jailed for four years; punishment for his so-called subversive student activities. Yet he chose to dance closer to danger by working for the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma. DVB’s uncensored radio and television reports, broadcast back into Burma, have appalled the ruling military junta, and DVB journalists inside the shuttered nation have been hunted, arrested, convicted and jailed.
Aye Min Soe began filming in 2005, zooming in on schools, government works, and social and political subjects. In 2007, he took up his camera to record the bravery of the Buddhist monks marching in the Saffron revolution.“Our country is a closed country; our people they don’t know what is happening in Burma,” he says, with passion in his voice. “The reporting is a very special thing for my country.”
After fleeing Burma two years ago, Aye Min Soe now lives in the closed Thai border town of Mae Sot with his wife and two sons. He can see Burma just across the river, but he would be taking his life in his hands to go back for any length of time. “I want to go back to Burma, but I cannot, because I’m too famous with military intelligence,” he says. He has no ID, and no passport, so his movements are severely curtailed in Thailand. Now 41, he hopes to be granted asylum somewhere, but for the moment he continues to work for DVB as a production manager, and continues to hope his work will make a small difference.
Toe Zaw Latt is DVB’s bureau chief in Thailand, based in the northern city of Chiang Mai. With oversight from Oslo, he is largely in charge of 100 DVB staff illicitly working inside Burma, as well as more than 38 in Thailand. He fled Burma in 1988, after the brutal military crackdown that left thousands dead, and he is now an Australian citizen, with a degree from a leading Australian university.
In his office in DVB’s Thai headquarters in Chiang Mai, where every floor is crammed full to bursting with DVB staff and equipment, Toe Zaw Latt quietly schemes and manoeuvres to ensure the stream of news from Burma continues to flow, especially now, on the eve of elections scheduled for November 7.
“I think we will be more targeted now,” he says. “Both the journalists on the ground, and the technology. They are going to shut down any leaks. It will become more and more difficult for election reporting, but we have already anticipated these things. We do try and prepare ourselves. We have put some high technology in place.”
The elections are the first in 20 years, and widely derided as a farce and a sham, but they have nevertheless sparked intense media interest, running in parallel to a fierce military crackdown on dissident reporting in the barricaded nation. Still, the news continues to stream over the border, and return to the Burmese audience in the form of uncensored reports and opinion from exiled media organisations like DVB, the Irrawaddy magazine and Mizzima.
Toe Zaw Latt leans back in his chair and grins. He takes delight in foiling the generals’ plans, thwarting their security and publishing their secrets. A combination of the courage of the undercover journalists and their sophisticated use of technology has usually helped the exiled media outlet stay ahead of generals, but last month the DVB website ( HYPERLINK “http://www.dvb.no” www.dvb.no) was knocked off the internet for 18 hours on the anniversary of the Saffron uprising, when monks marked through Rangoon and the world sat up and watched. The SPDC regime was infuriated by the global attention focused on the monks, and finally shut the internet down altogether.
Last month’s cyber attack was far more sophisticated than a simple blanket shut-down, and it echoed the bludgeoning that the DVB was hit with on the first anniversary of the Saffron uprising. It utilised DDoS, or distributed denial-of-service, which hurls thousands of malformed web connections at the site. Other exiled Burma media organisation websites were also hit, including those belonging to the Irrawaddy magazine and Mizzima. Many believe the attack was the work of a Russian-trained police cyber crime unit established by the SPDC regime – largely to track down undercover and citizen journalists trying to send information out of Burma via the internet.
Toe Zaw Latt insists the attack did not demonstrated a burgeoning technological sophistication on the part of DVB’s enemies. “It’s not clever,” he says. “They just need to hijack quite a lot of servers.” Still he concedes the tension is escalating, and the SPDC might have some as yet unknown plans to shut down the dissident media for good. “Sure, it’s getting more dangerous for us. Everything is planned; everything is controlled. They will shut down the internet – they did it for the Saffron uprising, the referendum, the visit by (UN secretary-general) Ban Ki Moon.” But he is blithely sure that even if there are hiccups and hiatuses, the news will continue to get out, one way or another.
He notes with some pride that DVB first aired the news that the junta wanted to develop nuclear weapons. But this fertile stream of leaks may well begin to dry up as the election gets closer, and betrayal gets even more dangerous. Still, the smiling bureau chief says DVB will not miss anything. Officials cannot be directly questioned, but DVB has ways of knowing exactly what is going on, with stringers all over Burma, including in the war-torn conflict zones, he says.
On a sideboard in his office, in no particularly prominent position, is a picture of him with George W. Bush – a small demonstration of the importance many in the world attach to the Burmese who are fighting for a free Burma, and the resources and expertise on offer. Toe Zaw Latt is reluctant to spell out the details of the various ways of getting round the expected clampdown before the elections, but it’s likely they include various combinations of satellite phones, clandestine internet tricks, and the straightforward smuggling of footage back over the border to Thailand.
The brutality of Burma’s military junta, the so-called State Peace and Development Council, has been patchily recorded over the years. Foreign journalists are rarely permitted to operate in the closed country, and local media are heavily censored. The Saffron uprising was largely documented by undercover Burmese reporters who hid their cameras, ducked away from patrolling troops, and secretly sent their reports and their footage out of the country. It was a time of secrecy and fear: a Japanese photographer was shot dead by the military, and anyone carrying a video camera was automatically under suspicion.
Toe Zaw Latt won’t say exactly how many of the 100 Burmese working for DVB in Burma are journalists and how many are support staff: he wants to keep the junta in the dark, at least as much as possible. So, too, are many of the names of the jailed DVB journalists kept quiet – in case the SPDC hasn’t cottoned on to their affiliation – but a few are publicly known.
In December last year, Hla Hla Win, a 25-year-old woman, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in prison – 20 years apparently for interviewing monks, and a further seven years for riding an improperly registered motorbike. Her companion was also convicted and jailed. Then, in January this year, Ngwe Soe Linn, who won a Rory Peck award for his contributions to a documentary about the 2008 cyclone Nargis, was given a 13-year jail term; 10 years for violating the Electronics Act and three for seemingly spurious immigration irregularities.
DVB broadcasts both television and radio back into Burma in Burmese and various ethnic languages, including Karen and Shan, and runs a website ( HYPERLINK “http://www.dvb.no” www.dvb.no) in Burmese and English. With an estimated reach of 10 million people inside Burma, including between five and six million for the television broadcasts, it is a valuable and powerful resource and one the Burmese generals seem determined to curtail.
Now known world wide, the non-profit organisation was born of Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her in 1991 in recognition of her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. After she was awarded the prize, exiled Burmese leaders were invited to Oslo, where they asked the Norwegian government for help in setting up a radio station. Funded by grants from various nations, DVB is even expanding into talk-shows and children’s television.
Originally an opposition network, but now claiming staunch independence of all political affiliation, DVB sometimes seems more like an activist spy organisation than a media outlet. DVB journalists in Burma are organised into cells, and the use of their code-names is meant to be compulsory. They have been instructed to keep their mouths shut for at least a week if they are arrested to allow compromised colleagues to get away.
In recent weeks, DVB – as an organisation – was strongly tipped to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (finally awarded to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo). Nineteen years after Suu Kyi made world headlines by winning the prize, Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Oslo-based Peace Research Institute Oslo, tipped DVB as one of a few potential winners, saying, “the case for a peace prize to independent reporting is strong, and the DVB, with its innovative approaches to reporting under tight state controls, may be the first to win a prize in this category”.
DVB’s executive director, Aye Chan Naing, responded by acknowledging that no fewer than 17 DVB journalists are now living behind bars for their temerity in attempting to document the news of the country. “We don’t have high expectations of winning the Nobel peace prize,” he said, according to the DVB website, “but just being considered for this most prestigious award makes us very proud of all our journalists, especially those who are in prisons, and all the brave people of Burma.”
Naturally DVB journalists try as hard as they can to minimise the risks – they almost never carry cameras openly, and use all manner of tiny and concealed cameras. “It’s a risk,” Toe Zaw Latt says. “We never operate openly with a camera. But it’s not a hidden camera, or a spy camera all the time. We have a lot of people in business, a lot of people who can openly operate.”
Some of the tricks and filming subterfuge were seen on Burma VJ, the documentary that has now been seen all over the world. The Danish film, which was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, used some clips of footage from DVB journalists, including Aye Min Soe. Directed by Anders Ostergaard, “Burma VJ” was originally intended to be a straightforward documentary about video journalists in Burma, but that all changed with the Saffron uprising in 2007. A lot of the original Saffron revolution footage used in the documentary was shot by DVB journalists, but the feature-length film includes a number of re-enactments that were shot in Thailand, and some footage shot in Burma by the Danish filmmakers.
DVB journalists say the Saffron uprising taxed them to the limit. Often the video journalists’ equipment was damaged, by rain and sheer overuse, often their batteries ran out, some were forced to use archival tapes for new material because they ran out of new tapes, some ran out of money entirely, and didn’t even have enough for bus-fare. There has been better preparation for the election, simply because there has been far more time to plan. But Toe Zaw Latt says that even with all the preparation, the election is shaping up to be just as perilous. “It’s as big a challenge as the Saffron uprising,” he says. “Saffron was more emotional, there was more outrage. We were fanning the flames, screening footage of beaten monks. But this election is more difficult.” Unlike journalists covering elections the world over, DVB journalists cannot interview anyone in an official position. “Still, we are getting all the press conferences,” Toe Zaw Latt says. “How do we do it? Don’t ask me.”
Downstairs at DVB headquarters, a photo of a man with a tattoo – inked in English – is up on a computer screen. The tattoo, on the skin of a young Karen dissident, reads: “Karen Army Only One”, and a young British man is fiddling with it, to perfect its appearance on the screen. Nearby another young British man is working on a story for the website, and all round are journalists and support staff from Burma, heads down, machines whirring. Native English-speakers are needed to provide the polish for the English section of the website; otherwise DVB staff are from Burma, and of course those taking the most risks in Burma are the Burmese.
In Burma, the savage junta paranoia extends to anyone seen with a handycam or a video camera. Video repair shop staff now avoid taking the stock cameras anywhere – just in case they are caught up in a sweep. Video cameras are expensive equipment, generally only owned by the rich, so any subversive journalist caught with a camera is in deep trouble. Yet sympathisers can sometimes help. Toe Zaw Latt hugely enjoys the anecdote of a video-journalist who was arrested with a video camera. The camera was seized and the journalist locked in prison. But when his trial rolled around the camera was missing, because a well-wisher had stolen it. “They couldn’t find it to use as evidence,” Toe Zaw Latt says, with some glee.
He says filming in the nation’s isolated and shrouded capital Naypyidaw is the most difficult, and army bases are particularly challenging, but not impossible. DVB has a coterie of spies in the army. Toe Zaw Latt laughs. “Sure, of course we do,” he says. “We’ve been getting information for a long time.”
The army leaks to DVD and other dissidents point to a hidden dissatisfaction in the ranks of the Burmese military, and these feelings of disquiet and discontent, Toe Zaw Latt believe are the force behind the elections. Much to the irritation of the well-meaning west, the ruling military junta has long been impervious to western sanctions and deaf to foreign criticism. Civilian expressions of unrest, such as the Saffron, left it unimpressed. Why, then, even bother to hold elections? Toe Zaw Latt believes the elections are a response to growing restlessness the military, and an answer to those troops who have been asking what had happened to the ‘back to barracks’ plan, and the ‘roadmap to democracy’ mooted years ago.
On the whole, regardless of international skepticism about the poll, which most fear will simply paste a civilian face on the repressive military regime, Toe Zaw Latt thinks the elections could be a good thing, opening some space for civilian discourse. “There’s nothing else,” he says, almost wearily. “You have to keep playing the game.”
By Elizabeth Hughes.