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Protesters near the U.N. on Sept. 28, 2007 (AP photo)

Filing reports from Burma between gunshots

SHOWCASE | October 02, 2007

For a while, reports from Rangoon flowed out via cell phones and email. Now it is pretty much blacked out, says the editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine based in Thailand.

By Aung Zaw
Editor, Irrawaddy Magazine

CHIANG MAI, Thailand—There was sharp contrast in The Irrawaddy newsroom between last week and this week. Last week, reporters were busy, phone lines were jam-packed, we received endless phone calls from around the world and editors were hit by a tsunami of interview requests. Lunch was ordered in to the newsroom, and everyone continued to work.
As we chased news and reports of Buddhist monks and activists marching in Burma followed by indiscriminate gunfire and violent crackdowns, we also watched video images from BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.
News traveled very fast, images arrived at our desks in seconds, and we were able to tell the world what was happening inside the country.
The images and still photographs were stunning, and the amount of airtime devoted to Burma by Al Jazeera, CNN and BBC was startling. My colleagues in Rangoon told me they loved watching Al Jazeera, claiming its Burma coverage was the best.
“I am installing a satellite dish to receive the Democratic Voice of Burma and Al Jazeera,” a former Burmese diplomat in Rangoon told me by telephone.
As soldiers opened fire on crowds on the street, the regime also fought an information war ­to prevent the flow of news and images to the outside world. On Friday afternoon, as the crackdown intensified, military leaders cut the main Internet line and cell phone connections. The landline was still working.
I thought of the military’s successful four cuts operation against ethnic insurgents in the 1970s. They cut their food chain, their intelligence, their recruitment and their ammunition. The military succeeded in doing it, and the insurgents were defeated.
Now Rangoon was under siege, and the regime cut lines of information, recognizing they were vital to the pro-democracy movement and journalists who covered the events. People with cameras were singled out and chased down by soldiers and clubbed. 
This week, the incoming news has slowed down, and images are in short supply, yet the violent crackdown continues. Burma news has slipped back, replaced by the Ukraine election, the South Korean president’s visit to the north and events in Iraq. [Click here for an Oct. 2 AP report on Burma.]
The regime also successfully kept a lid on information about the UN envoy’s visit as Ibrahim Gambari spent much of his time in Naypyidaw, the dusty new capital where the regime’s propaganda war machine churns out its bizarre version of events.
But the news we received from Rangoon was appalling. Pre-dawn raids on monasteries did not stop. My colleague in Rangoon told me, “Monks were hunted down by soldiers, and they are now in hiding,” some monasteries were deserted and civilians protected monks by providing them hideouts. Notorious Insein Prison and temporary detention centers were filled with monks and civilians.
Reports suggest that monks in detention centers continue to hold to the alms boycott, refusing to accept alms or food from regime supporters. Some reports say that monks went on a hunger strike.
We also learned this week about the tremendous hardships faced by average people and reporters in Rangoon.
One reporter told me by telephone, “We were constantly monitored… our e-mails did not go anywhere… I still have so many pictures to send, and there are many untold stories on the ground.” He added, “But thanks for not cutting off this land line,” chuckled, and hung up the phone. I understood the "who" he thanked on the telephone.
Others are now afraid to speak via telephone. A colleague of mine immediately hung up when she heard my voice. She usually spoke to me whenever I called.
We often joked on the phone and teased “the wall is listening” because we felt her phone was heavily monitored. In some cases, our previous conversations were filled with codes and dry jokes, but I knew she was intimidated and threatened. But she was brave and courageous enough to speak.
Last week, the voices of the reporters and people whom we spoke to in Rangoon were filled with happiness as thousands marched in the streets. Then, suddenly, their voices were filled with anger and cries as troops fired into crowds. Reporters in my office were listening to the shooting from their telephones as our colleagues described the indiscriminate killings in Rangoon. They kept their recorders rolling, but I could see tears in their eyes and weeping. 
But some brave Burmese in the country thought the week-long uprising was worth it.
In 1988, about 3,000 demonstrators were killed between March and September. Millions of Burmese took to the streets. But the international community, citizens around the world, and the media had only a dim idea where Burma was. In those days, people with a camera would be caught immediately, since they were suspected of being spies.
This time, Burma received the full attention of the international media, world leaders and people around the world. The media, the Internet, digital cameras, blogs, cell phones and e-mail invigorated the demonstrators who knew the world was watching, listening and reading about what they did and said.
Now, Burma is blacked out. How long can the regime afford to shut the country down?
But I think the fight continues between the Burmese journalists and citizen-reporters who want to remain connected to the world, and the generals who cut the line of communication to isolate Burma.
Click here for a Nieman Reports article by Aung Zaw in the Summer 2002 issue of Nieman Reports titled In Burma, A Repressive Regime Controls the Press, and click here for an article from the Summer 2006 issue titled, “Burmese Reporters in Exile Confront Different Risks.”

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