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Several weeks after the body count from 2008’s cyclone Nargis had topped 100,000, an article in the Burmese state-run New Light of Myanmar led with the headline, ‘The enemy that is more destructive than the cyclone’, and posed the riddle: “The enemy that is worse than thieves and robbers is fire. Who is the enemy that is more destructive than Nargis?”
Lo and behold, the article wasn’t a lament of the rampant cholera that swept across the delta, turning thousands of survivors into statistics, nor the countless bloated bodies that still littered towns and villages weeks, even months, after the storm. It was about foreign journalists – in fact a single broadcast by a single radio reporter – who painstakingly unravelled the horror stories that emerged from one of Asia’s worst recorded, but most underreported, natural disasters, one that eventually claimed 140,000 lives and left 2.4 million destitute. It was these scenes that undercover video reporters had secretly documented, knowing full well the ramifications for anyone caught with a video camera in the country. But as the article explained, in Burma, and perhaps only in Burma, what is worse than countless square miles of submerged towns, farmland and families is a foreign or exiled journalist.
The venom with which the junta continues to attack media workers – particularly Burmese who act as a counterweight to the government propaganda spouted on state-run outlets – is quite shocking: one DVB reporter who spent the latter half of 2008 filming a group of children for Channel 4’s award-winning ‘Orphans of Burma’s Cyclone’ documentary was tracked by Burmese intelligence and is now serving a 13-year jail sentence. He joins 26-year-old fellow DVB video journalist Hla Hla Win, who last year began a 27-year sentence after she was caught with video interviews of monks critical of the junta – the two bring the number of journalists in prison to around 15.
The monks had perhaps told Hla Hla Win about their memories of the September 2007 uprising, whose three-year anniversary was marked by the generals on Monday with a mass cyber-attack on exiled media websites, paralysing perhaps the only window into Burma for the outside world. Their weapon of choice is DDoS, or distributed denial-of-service, which they drag up to the ramparts on politically sensitive dates and pepper so-called ‘subversive’ outlets, extinguishing any ‘foreign meddling’ or ‘sowing of hatred among the people’, as it’s branded. The same attack was launched in 2008 on the one-year anniversary of the uprising, overloading websites with information requests and thus crashing them. Ironically, the only major non-state Burmese news website still standing on Monday was the BBC’s service, highlighting how despicable the threat of its closure by the UK government is.
While the BBC’s defensive walls are considerable, those of exiled media’s are not, and as Burma’s first elections in 20 years loom it’ll be the technically savvier and resource-rich side that triumphs. Unfortunately, this may not be ours. The consequences of a blackout are hard to grasp in much of the Western world, where access to comparatively objective news is a given, for while in Downing Street and elsewhere the debate over the BBC is essentially one of balancing finances, its repercussions 5000 miles away will be intensely personal.
What Monday’s cyber attacks demonstrate is both the threat that independent media is to the paranoid rulers of Burma – and thus its fundamental importance in the push for democratic transition – but also the realisation that media operating within and along the borders of closed countries around the world is an extremely fragile and vulnerable industry, its fate pinned to the draconian mindset of those it challenges. Moreover, the tactics and abilities employed in cyber warfare are strengthening, and in Burma the art is being refined by training programmes for its Information Warfare (IW) troops in Russia, China, Singapore, and perhaps elsewhere.
So the counterweight also needs support, otherwise it will fall victim to the many obstacles littering the road to the 7 November elections, another politically sensitive date where “the enemy that is more destructive than Nargis” will again “rear its ugly head”. The free flow of information within and outside of Burma is not an option for the junta, and a crackdown on media is expected by all, with Monday marking the latest step in a move to lock the country’s physical and virtual borders.
The silencing could well be brutal, for again – perhaps only in Burma – the laws of the land are reversed and journalism becomes a heinous crime, the video journalist forced to plan his escape from a filming session like that of a drugs or gun smuggler. Another cameraman for ‘Orphans of Burma’s Cyclone’ who fled to Thailand described how at the end of every period of filming they had to disassemble their cameras, hide each part in different locations around the town, and assign several people to carry the individual part back to Rangoon, sometimes weeks apart from one another to avoid suspicion. It is only a camera, you may say, but in this day and age the camera is mightier than the gun, and for a hermit regime like the one cowering in Naypyidaw, you shoot the truth, and it hurts.
Unfettered access to media becomes a human rights issue in a closed country, and what Burma does not need, especially now, is the closing of one of these lifelines because a government on the other side of the world cannot bridge the gap between an abstract scenario and the cutting of a drip feed. The economic recession is also biting, and funding is being pulled in crucial areas in exiled media around the world; not just for Burma, but for Zimbabwe, which is also facing the spectre of elections, and a raft of other countries.
That observers are eyeing the coming polls with the same cynicism that they now look back on cyclone Nargis with speaks volumes for the state of affairs in the pariah: an election becomes a time when the generals draw the veil over Burma and shrink back into their secretive capital, their henchmen left to scour the streets for the camera or pen-wielding warrior. It’ll be a flashpoint, no doubt, and with that the game changes for media and the risks heighten exponentially. But it’ll also be a test of how innovative journalism in the 21st century has become, and what weapons it can deploy itself to evade decades in a jail cell.