Nandita Haksar follows up a 2019 conversation with Soe Myint, a media entrepreneur now in hiding in Myanmar.
Myanmar is once again under military rule even before it could emerge as a proper democracy. Once again, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest. She had emerged as a popular leader in the national uprising in 1988 and put under house arrest for 15 years from 1989 to 2010.
She played a vital role in the transition of Myanmar from being military rule to fledgling democracy. Her role was given international recognition when she was awarded the Nobel prize in 1991; but she was severely criticised for not speaking out against army operations against the Rohingyas – one of the reasons she did not do so was to [avoid provoking] the army to take over again. Aung San Suu Kyi risked her reputation and was subjected to humiliation for her silence; and she was hoping the transition to democracy would be completed when her party, the National League for Democracy won by an overwhelming majority in [the] November 2020 national elections.
Instead the Tatmadaw or the Burmese military staged a coup and re-arrested her in February 2021. Now she is once again under house arrest.
The soldiers roam freely; there are snipers on the roofs taking aim at students, poets, writers and protestors. Right across the country there are spectacular protests with students and youth lustily singing patriotic songs, giving their three-finger salutes and waving the red flags with the fighting peacock.
The Myanmar military says these young people are all anti-national. A young Burmese poet Ka Za Win (1982-2021) described the Myanmar military’s love of the country in these words:
They love the country
Just the way they love to grate a coconut
From inside out,
For coconut milk.
Ka Za Win was shot dead as he stood with young people protesting against military rule in the first week of March.
The special targets are those students who had led the uprising in 1988. Among them were two students from Rangoon University who had taken shelter with the Karens, an ethnic minority on the Myanmar-Thai border. These two students hijacked a Thai Airways plane to focus global attention on the plight of their people under military rule. They successfully diverted the plane to Calcutta in November 1990.
They knew that hijacking was a serious crime and they could spend the rest of their lives in jail in India; at the time India was officially supporting the military junta.
When they were asked by the West Bengal police what they wanted, the two Burmese hijackers said they just wanted a news conference so they could tell the world about what was happening in Myanmar. Their demand was that Aung San Suu Kyi be released.
One of those hijackers was Soe Myint. He stayed in exile in India for 15 years. Most of the other Burmese refugees opted to get resettlement in Europe, America and Australia but Soe Myint and his wife, Thin Thin Aung, started Mizzima news service. Mizzima is a pali word for middle or moderate.
The Mizzima news service blossomed into a multi-media news organisation. In 2007, the International Press Institute awarded Mizzima News its Free Media Pioneer award. In 2012, Soe Myint took his Mizzima back to his country. Mizzima became the first exile-based media organisation to get incorporation and is counted among the five top media houses in Myanmar.
In 2017, Mizzima was awarded a licence to operate an independent free-to-air digital TV channel. Mizzima even set up a foundation as a part of its Corporate Social Responsibility and has taken [on] various projects. On August 24, 2018, Prasar Bharati signed an agreement to share content with Mizzima. It is the first such deal India’s public broadcaster has made with a private media company – and it completes a dramatic cycle in the life, and struggle, of Mizzima’s owner and editor Soe Myint.
I have seen Soe Myint and Mizzima’s struggle from the first day to last year when the Mizzima team came to India and we did some programmes together to promote Indo-Mynamar friendship.
Then came the news of the military coup of February 1. I read a report of the raid on media houses; the raid on the offices of Kamayut Media ended with the detention of its co-founder, Han Thar Nyein, and editor-in-chief, Nathan Maung. The report stated: ‘Witnesses said seven military trucks were involved in the raid, according to a member of Han Thar Nyein’s family. The military also raided the offices of Mizzima News.’
The Mizzima office in downtown Yangon
A Burmese friend informed me that [the] Mizzima office had been raided and smashed to smithereens but there was no news of Soe Myint. It was a great relief when I was finally able to get in touch with Soe. This is what had happened, in his own words:
‘The military from the day one on February 1, they wanted the independent media to be silent. That’s why they shut down our Mizzima TV free-to-air TV channel on the day they took power on February 1. They revoked licence to publish and broadcast of the five independent media outlets (including Mizzima).
‘The heavy military and police forces surrounded the Head Office of Mizzima Media on March 9 and raided the office and took away whatever they could get (we have not been using the premise since the military coup day and we are operating from different hideouts in the country).’
I asked Soe Myint what was the difference between this military coup and the one in 1988. He says this time the Tatmadaw is even more brutal and the soldiers are totally undisciplined. ‘The military is using snipers to shoot the peaceful protestors,’ he said. ‘As of March 15, at least 138 people have been killed and in one township along in Hlaing Thar Yar township in Yangon, at least 74 people were killed on March 14 alone.
‘This is the figure of the United Nations and I believe the actual number is more than that. It is because there are many people missing and they are believed to be dead somewhere on the road. More than 2100 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.’
K Za Win had written these lines just hours before he was shot dead:
Before the Revolution blooms,
From the busted skull on the road,
Are there any words with devils,
Do statements still matter?
But words do matter. And Soe Myint knows that. He has only recently been discharged from the hospital where he had undergone chemotherapy. From the hospital, he said the doctors recommended that he go to India and I arranged for his treatment but he said he trusted his own doctors. When he was discharged he was proud that it was Burmese doctors who had cared for him.
Now he and the Mizzima journalists continue to broadcast from various hideouts.
But Soe Myint knows that the fight against military rule cannot be won without international solidarity at all levels. And his appeal to the Indians is to ensure Mizzima survives.
Soe Myint writes:
‘For Mizzima, we are determined to continue our reporting and broadcasting in the country to tell the peoples inside and outside the country of what is happening on the ground in Burma/Myanmar. Please set up a network of Friends of Mizzima, who can help the work of Mizzima with monetary and technical support, who can continue the Mizzima team members inside the country, even if people like me is either arrested or killed. We want Mizzima to continue to report as an independent media and fighting against the military junta for the restoration of democracy in the country.’
Soe Myint says he has found that writing is important but listening is even more so. If people had not listened to him they would not have extended the solidarity they did when he was in exile in India.
I hope someone is listening.
First published in Scroll.in, Saturday, March 20th 2021.