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Analysis: Junta’s information black-out

Tai Kyaw

Jul 4, 2008 (DVB), Burma's military regime is still keeping quiet about an incident following Cyclone Nargis. It is a minor incident, but one that would surprise the people of Burma and the international community.

Relief supplies provided for Burma's cyclone victims from China included 2000 radios. They were handed over to the junta authorities. Low-ranking officials were in a difficult situation when they received those cheap radios because they were not sure if they should give them to refugees or hold them back, so they asked their superiors what to do.

The information about the radios pushed high-ranking officials into a tight corner. They seemed to be worried about affecting the relationship with China if they did not give the radios out. On the other hand, if they distributed the radios, the 2000 people who received them would be able to listen to foreign broadcasting services such as BBC, VOA, DVB and RFA, which they did not want their citizens to be able to access. Finally, an order came through that radios should be distributed to cyclone victims only after they had been adapted so that they could not be used to listen to foreign broadcasting services.

As a consequence, engineers and officials at the Communication Department faced a heavy workload. They had to remove the short wave tuning system used by foreign broadcasting services to air their programmes from each radio. Engineers working for the Communication Department in Rangoon Division spent a lot of time on these radios worth US$ 5 each. After the radios had been adapted, the authorities gave them out in Irrawaddy division for people to listen to weather news, took photos of their donations and then sent the photos back to donors in China.

When village headmen and others received the radios, they were unable to tune into foreign radio broadcasts because the short wave system had been disabled. They were also unable to listen to City FM since they were far away from Rangoon. As a result, they all ended up only being able to listen to programmes from Myanmar Radio and Television Department, the state-controlled radio station transmitted on medium wave.

The way the military regime dealt with the donated radio shoes the lengths to which it will go to black out information and stop its citizens listening to news broadcasts.

The military regime was able to take preventive action because those radios were given to them directly. However, they could not do anything about aid directly provided to UN agencies and INGOs inside Burma by international governments and organisations.

In an attempt to limit and control the movements of UN agencies and INGOs working on relief efforts for cyclone victims, the junta issued 10 operating guidelines on 10 June. According to the guidelines, detailed lists of the type and quantity of aid donated from overseas must be submitted to the relevant government ministry, permission must be requested prior to aid distribution and relief supplies must be stockpiled in Rangoon. When permission to distribute aid is granted by the junta another request must be made to township authorities where the aid will be given out and supplies can only be distributed when permission from local officials has been granted.

The regime still keeps imported communication apparatuses that are meant for UN agencies and INGOs. None of those organisations have been allowed to use satellite phones donated by the Thai government. This indicates that the regime is trying to obstruct smooth communication and information flow between the UN, NGOs and the people. Despite the restrictions, private donors including comedian Zarganar distributed radios among cyclone victims in Irrawaddy divisions, infuriating the junta, who later arrested them.

Irrawaddy division had never been a restricted area for tourists until it was devastated by the cyclone. Bassein, Ngwe Hsaung and Chaung Thar were regular tourist destinations. Even a week after the storm stuck the delta the military regime had not taken any special measures to restrict tourism in the region. The junta only stopped allowing any foreigners to visit Irrawaddy division when the international media carried news items about the cyclone and displayed pictures of corpses.

The reason was simply to black out information. When the regime shut down the area, they treated it as if it was a military zone. They placed many more checkpoints on the Rangoon-Bassein road to check if there were any foreigners in the passing vehicles. When foreigners were found, they were questioned and sent back to Rangoon. As a result, international experts and aid workers were unable to reach the affected areas to carry out relief operations and the difficulties for cyclone victims were doubled.

Foreign journalists looked for alternative ways to reach the delta when they were not allowed to use the main route, the Rangoon-Bassein road. They tried instead to enter the region on the Rangoon-Kaw Hmoo-Kongyankone-Daydaye-Pyarpon road. In response, the military regime deployed thousands of riot police along the way, in addition to the numerous checkpoints. In Rangoon, foreign journalists were under constant surveillance. According to a special police officer from Rangoon airport, at least 10 foreigners were sent to the airport from their hotels or the streets and deported within the month after the cyclone ravaged the country.

The junta not only restricts and keeps an eye on foreign journalists in the country but also prevents them from coming in. It has even imposed restrictions on the issuing of tourist visas. As a result, the number of foreigners visiting the country in post-cyclone period noticeably decreased. As a consequence, hotels in Rangoon received fewer tourists and those dependent on foreign guests in Ngwe Hsaung and Chaung Thar had to close down. Air Mandalay and Air Bagan also had to stop all their overseas flights.

The military regime was still focusing on its mission to black out information even after UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon visited Rangoon. The regime issued visas for some UN and INGO officials but continued to restrict their visits to Irrawaddy division. Those who were permitted to go there were only able to visit a limited area. For instance, a Japanese medical team could only stay in refugee camps in Latputta and was not allowed to visit the surrounding areas. The team was told to leave within 10 days on the pretext that their visas had run out.

The military regime also cut cyclone-related information out of imported newspapers and magazines on a large scale. They distributed the Times, Newsweek, the Economist, the Straits Times, the Bangkok Post and others only after they had torn out news about Burma's cyclone.

One of the latest attempts by the military regime to restrict the flow of information was its raids on satellite stores in Rangoon. Some store owners were forced to sign papers promising to stop selling satellite dishes. As a result, the reinstallation of satellite dishes in post-cyclone Rangoon was temporarily halted.

The military regime in Burma has been seriously trying not to let the people of Burma and the international community become aware of what is happening in Irrawaddy division and the rest of the country. As for news that is already in media, the regime tries its best to suppress it so its own citizens, and particularly soldiers in the army, will not hear about it.

It seems that the generals believe they can cling on power for a long time by stopping the flow of information. However, as recent incidents have shown, the military will not succeed in its endeavour to black out information as long as journalists and citizens are brave enough and able to use modern digital equipment to disseminate news and information.


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