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Burma’s double-edged sword

Kyaw Min Htun’s is a story too often seen, but not told: the boy was plied with alcohol by troops in the small town of Taungdwingyi in central Burma last month, before being abducted and taken to a nearby army base.

He became one of an estimated 70,000 child soldiers in Burma; thought to be the world’s highest figure, but one that rarely gets media attention. Following a failed rescue mission, his mother contacted the BBC’s Burmese service, along with Radio Free Asia, who quickly aired interviews carrying pleas for his release. Then last week, soldiers arrived at her house with her son.

His release exemplifies the effect that international media exposure of the secretive state can have. Aye Myint, from the Guiding Star advocacy group that monitors child soldiers in Burma, heralded a growing international awareness of the country thanks to a new level of media exposure that “now limits corrupt government officials from taking advantage”. But following his own outspoken comments to foreign media, intelligence agents on Sunday arrived on his doorstep to question him. This is the dark side of Burma’s media sphere, within which the continued imprisonment of journalists provides a chillingly ironic reminder of the power of the pen.

That Kyaw Min Htun’s mother contacted the media in the first place is a rarity in a country in which publicly aired criticism of the military government, let alone exposure of state-sanctioned corruption, can land you decades in prison. The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders last year ranked Burma 171 out of 175 countries in its annual Press Freedom Index, with only Iran, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea deemed more repressive.

Under the all-seeing eye of the regime’s Censor Board, opposition media outlets have had to develop innovative ways in which to circumvent a near total ban on non-state media broadcasting in the country, with journalists often crossing into Thailand on foot to deliver footage to exiled media based along the border. Organisations such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), RFA and Voice of America then package the material and beam it back into the country, on television or shortwave radio, via satellites in Europe.

But no plan is foolproof, and in the past six weeks alone, two DVB journalists have been imprisoned. Twenty-five year old female Hla Hla Win in December was charged under the Electronics Act after filming interviews with monks, and sentenced to a total of 27 years. Her crime was no more than an attempt to show the world a simmering discontent among the normally apolitical, and highly revered, monks’ community in Burma.

Then on 27 January, Ngwe Soe Linn, who had filmed the lives of children orphaned by cyclone Nargis in 2008 for a Channel 4 documentary, was given a 13-year sentence, softened only through his recognition by the Rory Peck Award, one of the world’s leading honours for cameramen working in dangerous environments.

He knew that filming in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta would be precarious. In the days following Nargis, the junta slapped a blanket ban on both reporters and aid workers entering the region, fearing a public airing of its lax reaction to the disaster. Ngwe Soe Linn and fellow cameraman ‘Z’, who is now in hiding, regularly had to dodge authorities, often lying low for several days until it was safe to begin work again. Then, after each round of filming, the two disassembled their cameras and hid each part in separate locations before smuggling them out of the delta, piece by piece, over the course of several months.

This painstakingly secret operation, normally reserved for drugs or weapons trafficking, draws a startling analogy of the apparent threat posed by independent media to the Burmese junta. The number of DVB staff now imprisoned stands at 14, and this is expected to rise as the government prepares to tighten its grip in the run up to elections. Joining the 14 in jails across Burma are more than 250 monks, 30 cyclone relief workers and 12 lawyers, out of a total of more than 2,190 ‘political prisoners’. Around 130 are thought to be in poor health, and some are serving sentences of more than 100 years.

With Burma due this year to hold its first elections since 1990, the Southeast Asian pariah will once again be under the international spotlight, and the plight of Burmese opposition journalists, the ‘third pillar’ in the democracy movement, is under greater scrutiny; last week the documentary Burma VJ, filmed during the September 2007 monk-led uprising, was nominated for an Oscar, having already scooped more than 50 awards since its release eight months ago.

And this will be of some consolation to the 14 now imprisoned who knew full well the risks of picking up a camera and squaring up to the generals. But while awards reflect the work, they do not necessarily engender the real results that the country needs. This captivating footage is one of only a few bridges between Burma and the outside world, and is only worth its salt if the viewers , governments, campaigners, policymakers, and so on – can unite to lift the country out of the quagmire. The risks underground journalists in Burma face are colossal, and it’s time they were rewarded with more than a statuette.