Burma Is Speaking Out — Why Aren't We Listening?


This week, Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film was made with footage from thirty underground video journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) who secretly filmed the September 2007 "saffron revolution" — peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhists monks to protest a doubling in the cost of food. 

During the protests, soldiers and riot police clubbed, teargassed and opened fire on protesters. Over 200 died, including a Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai. A 28-year-old Buddhist monk by the name of Gambira declared before his arrest in November 2007: "The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture, and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us." In November 2008, a court sentenced Gambira to 68 years in prison, 12 of them with hard labour. Denied family visits, he is reportedly ill in a remote prison.

The risks taken by DVB journalists to deliver stories from Burma to the world can be easily inferred from Burma VJ but the film doesn’t tell the whole story. Last year, Hla Hla Win, a 25-year-old DVB journalist was sentenced to 27 years imprisonment and her assistant Myint Naing to 26 years. Burma is the world’s largest prison for journalists and bloggers after China and Cuba according to Reporters without Borders. It is currently ranked 193 out of 195 on the World Press Freedom Index: only Turkmenistan and North Korea ranked lower.

Burma’s ruling regime has announced that a general election will be held on 10 October 2010. The last election held in 1990 was, of course, convincingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo. Both remain under house arrest. Burma is now ruled by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and is the only country in the world ruled by a military dictatorship that has a viable, elected democratic alternative.

"The main impetus for struggle is not an appetite for power, revenge and destruction, but a genuine respect for freedom, peace and justice," Suu Kyi wrote in 1989. "The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community."

Immediately after the military junta refused to accept the popular mandate granted to the pro-democracy parties in the 1990 elections, the NLD pledged to follow a path of seeking power by non-violent means. Their adversary in this struggle is a military regime which has formed one of the largest standing armies per capita in South East Asia, and one which has recruited more child soldiers than any other

A large army is needed as the regime is alert not to any threat from Burma’s neighbours but from "internal and external destructive elements" — that is, from anyone who argues for reform. Arrest, interrogation, torture and imprisonment — frequently for 10 years or more — routinely follow acts perceived to be critical of the military regime.

Burma’s generals are pressing ahead with 2010 elections to bring in a sham parliament, a new constitution and to reinforce military control. Article 121 of the SPDC-drafted 2008 Constitution of the Republic of Myanmar prohibits any person serving a sentence for any offence from standing for election to parliament.

In preparation for the 2010 elections, the regime ensured that Suu Kyi and other pro-democracy activists would be detained during the election period. On 11 August 2009 Suu Kyi’s house arrest was extended a further 18 months — and will not expire until February 2011.

As the world’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in detention, Suu Kyi is the most internationally recognised political prisoner. Unrecognised, however, are many ordinary people who have been pursuing political change through non-violent means for more than four decades of military rule.

Lawyer U Aye Myint set up a legal aid group to handle cases dealing with forced labour, arbitrary land confiscation and workers’ rights. He was awarded the 2008 European Bar’s Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize for his work under extremely repressive conditions. On receiving his award, Aye Myint vowed to continue to "fight any government or individual acting against the law".

Aye Myint represented 362 farmers who had their farms, animals, crops and houses taken by the regime. His work contributed to the research project I secretly conducted in Burma (with Sein Htay) entitled Arbitrary Confiscation of Farmers’ Land by the SPDC Military Regime. Our research demonstrated that farmers were not reconciled to being mere victims — despite the risks. They had not given up hope of redress and continue the struggle to hold the SPDC regime accountable for illegal acts of arbitrary land confiscation.

A most significant research finding, then, was the strong network of individuals who believe in the rule of law, justice and respect for human rights. The number of farmers both male and female who spoke out — as well as those who interviewed them, collected statements, maps and photographs, and those who clandestinely carried information across the border — suggests the depth and extent of the movement inside and outside Burma working for democratic change.

In 2008, I had planned a meeting with Aye Myint but it did not take place. Rangoon police and immigration security arrived at the hotel, took my passport and air tickets, and questioned my husband and me for eight hours before deporting us. We were denied access to the Australian embassy. Accused of "doing something wrong", of "being a national security threat", of "meeting with Burmese people", of "travelling too much" and of "causing trouble on the border", security officials told me their orders were to get me out of Burma immediately. The arbitrariness of the regime is chilling. My life was disrupted briefly as I was deported. Burmese people who are viewed as a threat are much more severely punished.

When the regime announced that fuel and food costs were set to double in August 2007 (the announcement that triggered the saffron protests), Su Su Nway, a 35-year-old woman, staged a small protest in downtown Rangoon. She was attacked by the paramilitary group Swan Arr Shin under the direction of the Burmese police. Her supporters linked arms to protect her and she escaped, spending three months in hiding.

Su Su Nway was eventually picked up and sentenced to 12 and a half years imprisonment for causing fear and alarm to the public.

Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta with destructive force in May 2008. The SPDC refused international aid and the rest of the world stood by as over 150,000 people died — the majority of whom were children — and more than 1.5 million were made homeless.

Inside Burma, individuals formed support and rescue groups. Monks sheltered and fed thousands of displaced people. Zargana, a well-known Burmese comedian and social activist, mobilised a network of more than 400 supporters to drive supplies to affected areas in the delta and to raise money for urgently needed food, water and shelter. Before he was arrested in June 2008, Zargana said: "I want to save my own people but the government doesn’t like our work. It is not interested in helping people." In November 2008 during a closed trial, Zargana was charged for giving interviews to foreign media, for possessing photographs of Cyclone devastated areas and a copy of a Rambo movie. Sentenced to 65 years in jail, Zargana is now languishing in Myitkyina Prison in northern Kachin State.

Currently 2200 political prisoners are being held, often in isolation, in 43 prisons across Burma or in one of 50 labour camps. The Asian Human Rights Commission found that ill-treatment and torture of political prisoners in Burma are rampant.

The true scale of injustice in Burma is hidden, however, as independent observers are not permitted. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended visits in 2005 to Burma’s prisons when the government demanded that regime officials be present during interviews with prisoners and denied access to most prisons.

Before she was placed under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi described Burmese people’s "capacity for sustained mental strife and physical endurance necessary to withstand the forces of negativity, bigotry and hate" in their quest for democracy.

This capacity continues to be severely tested. Where is the recognition and support for people’s peaceful quest or outrage at the regime’s arbitrary cruelties?

Concerned governments, regional bodies and international institutions have a responsibility to support this active non-violent struggle against repression. Maximum pressure must be exerted on Burma’s regime to allow the ICRC to resume unhindered visits to detention centres, prisons and labour camps.

Burmese generals have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity according to Crimes in Burma, a 2009 Harvard Law School Report commissioned by four international jurists. In spite of this, the regime continues to rule and there is no evidence the country is moving toward democracy. Under the present conditions, it is inevitable that the 2010 elections will merely ensconce the military dictatorship anew.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.