Myanmar activists look to spread freedom via Internet

by Mariko Yasumoto

Kyodo News

Over the past year, a Tokyo-based group of overseas Myanmar democracy activists has broadened its presence among peers back home via an audio news program broadcast over the Internet.

One Saturday evening in October, Than Swe (no relation to the leader of Myanmar’s military junta), president of Burma Democratic Action, joined other members of the group in an apartment in Tokyo’s bustling Takadanobaba district to work on their weekly online program “Maykha Internet Radio.”

One of their main tasks was to conduct telephone interviews with activists remaining at the forefront of the opposition movement in Myanmar, and ask opinions about recent developments there in the aftermath of the junta’s brutal clampdown on protesters in Yangon in late September.

“This is an editor from ‘Maykha Internet Radio.’ Can I talk to you now?” asked Lay Lay, a 43-year-old editor for the program, calling a leading member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, who criticized the junta’s recent move to draw up a new constitution.

That evening, the group also interviewed a well-known filmmaker who had just been released from jail the previous week. He explained to the BDA that the prison water was badly contaminated and had damaged his liver.

The phone interview is the highlight of the online program, which also contains up-to-date information on the democracy movement in Myanmar, reactions from in and outside the country, events in the world, and songs for democracy — none of which are readily available in the reclusive nation.

The BDA, formed in 2003, is one of the few organizations in Japan that provide an Internet audio broadcast service in their language. Since its launch last October, the group has produced 55 installments of the program.

In addition to radio, the BDA has also published a monthly magazine since 2004 with a distribution of about 800 copies worldwide.

BDA members usually meet around 6 p.m. Saturdays and stay overnight in the apartment. Their work sometimes lasts until Sunday night.

“It is indeed hard work, but this is nothing compared to the situation facing our compatriots in Myanmar, who are literally fighting at the risk of their lives, and we spare no effort to support them,” said Kyaw Sunn Tun, a 43-year-old executive member.

Experts on Myanmar affairs say their activity in Japan could give a huge impetus and have the potential power to influence the overall movement.

Hisao Tanabe, one of the founders of People’s Forum on Burma, a nongovernmental organization in Japan, said, “People in Myanmar are often frustrated with the lack of information, and (a) Myanmar news service from abroad is a vital source of information for them.”

Commenting on Maykha in particular, he said, “The program is spearheaded by grassroots activists, which is a big difference from major radio broadcasters like BBC Burmese, and people in Myanmar are greatly encouraged by seeing such activists struggling for them.”

Kei Nemoto, a professor of Burmese history at Sophia University, agreed with Tanabe. “The fact that many activists overseas have not given up and are still fighting provides considerable moral support to the locals,” he said.

Maykha, which is the name of a river in Myanmar, has steadily gained recognition in Myanmar and the military junta is looking for ways to interfere with its activities.

The members are thus cautious when conducting interviews, since projunta spies may try to get information by posing as interviewers from Maykha on the phone line.

The BDA not only provides information but also gets news from activists who are occasionally at the center of the unrest. During the September clashes between security forces and protesters, digital photos of the battles were sent to the BDA.

The members also receive antigovernment books and reports from activists banned from publication in Myanmar, distributing them worldwide.

While activists in Myanmar risk their lives to pursue democracy, Swe and other Myanmar refugees in Japan have also undergone countless hardships after barely escaping alive.

Swe, 45, arrived in Japan in November 1989, a year after he led an antigovernment demonstration in Yangon, previously known as Rangoon, that ballooned into a huge democracy uprising by citizens across the Southeast Asian nation.

Getting blacklisted as a high-profile political dissident, the native of Rangoon knew he would never be able to return home.

His father died at age 69 in 2001 without being able to see his son.

“Still, I had to leave Burma as I have the responsibility of keeping on the fight,” said Swe, who would have suffered years of detention and torture if he had remained in Myanmar. Two of his friends died in jail.

Leaving families and friends is one of the hardships most political refugees have to go through. “I could not stop crying when she died,” said Lay, whose mother abruptly died in 1994, four years after she left.