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With four journalists in prison, Democratic Voice of Burma keeps reporting on Myanmar coup

May 05, 2021
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#Democratic Voice of Burma, #Myanmar, #NGO, #Rohingya, #Interview
by:Magdalena Rojo
Until 2013, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) was known as an exile media organisation established in 1992 in Norway. Toe Zaw Latt, the current operations director of DVB, was previously the head of the group’s office in Chiang Mai. Information collected by a network of journalists inside Myanmar used to be sent to Thailand and then to Norway. It was thanks to DVB that the whole world could follow the Saffron revolution in 2007.

Following the outbreak of the current military coup in the country, DVB's license was revoked in the beginning of March after seven years of having its main office in Yangon, inside Myanmar. 

Toe Zaw Latt had left the country one week before speaking to FairPlanet on Zoom. He could flee to the border with Thailand or take a risk and get on a plane to Australia, where he had resettled in 1988 as an exiled student.

FairPlanet: Where are you at the moment and why are you there?

Toe Zaw Latt: I am in Adelaide, Australia, in a quarantine center. Before, I was in Yangon, Burma, Myanmar, for the first eighty days of the military coup that started on 1 February. My situation became difficult there so I decided to leave to Australia where I have citizenship.

What was the situation in Yangon when you were leaving?

It is getting very hard. There is an on-going crackdown and many members of the security forces and soldiers are everywhere. Police is chasing people. Yangon has become like a war zone. For example, if you want to go out in the morning, you make sure you do not wear black or red clothes because you might be subjected to arrest. 

There are a lot of checkpoints on the roads; [the] army may check your phone, your car. They would ask you questions, if they find some photos [from protests], they will arrest you. 

Also, there is a deliberate handing on journalists. For example, on the first day of the coup, they froze the signal of our TV station. There is a systematic arrest of journalists. Tens of journalists were behind bars when I was leaving, four of our journalists [were] arrested facing charges of two years imprisonment and five are on a warrant list. 

“They feel like their future is being taken away, snatched away from them” 

Working in the media house and following the events transpiring in the country so closely, could you say the coup was predictable?

Nobody thought there would be a coup. It is just a stupid action by some of the generals. It was a day of transition of the MPs; we were expecting a smooth transition. We just had elections in November 2020; everything went peacefully. During the elections, the army chief said that they would honor the election results so we did not expect that there would be a coup and every single life would be turned upside down overnight. 

The lives of millions of people, especially the youth [...]  The Burmese population is very young. There were five million first time voters in the last elections. They feel like their future is being taken away, snatched away from them. 

Even now there is a protest in Yangon, even though there was heavy rain, I just talked to some of the protesters. There is no way the protesters are going to step back easily. 

“There has always been repression of freedom of expression in Myanmar”

There were restrictions on the media in Myanmar last year. The military was using the pandemic to prohibit certain websites, for example. Could this not be considered a sign of some change coming?

Burma is practically run by two governments. One is the government led by Aung San Su Kyi and another one is the army by the constitution. So [the] media has always been threatened in the country. There has always been repression of freedom of expression in Myanmar. We have never enjoyed complete press freedom but that would not make you think that there would be a coup. 

How had DVB been operating in Yangon before the coup happened?

We decided to go back to Burma in 2013 and we were doing relatively okay there. We did not negotiate our editorial independence. In 2018 we even got a broadcast license, we were using a government platform to air our TV channel and paying fees for it. We always say there is no news that DVB would not report. We report all the news that the audience should know.

There are topics that have been very sensitive in Myanmar to report on, however, such as the situation of the Rohingya people.

We have got a lot of warning not to use the name Rohingya, for example. We had a series of negotiations with the ministry of information. One of the key issues is that the government does not even have proper rules on how to use the name Rohingya. 

There is only one official letter from Aung San Su Kyi's office saying they should be called "a Muslim minority in Rakhine state." But, that does not refer to the refugees so there were times when we had clashes. 

Was there any pre-censorship?

There is no pre-censorship. After we ran the story, we got a warning or the ministry of information called us and there was a punishment. 

When the military junta revoked the license of DVB at the beginning of March, they also forbade other independent media establishments from covering the events. 

The Army never liked us. They announced they had revoked our license and they did not allow us to carry on any media work on any platform. The military does not tolerate any independent reporting and all they are reporting is complete lies, fake news and misinformation. 

To give you one example of how the army uses their media. The military spokesperson is Zaw Min Tun. His business card states his name and his office: "Department of public relations and psychological warfare." It is clear from this card that they use media as a psychological warfare. And they are not ashamed of it.

There are many examples of how the army lies in their media. They used a photo of a lot of people peacefully visiting pagoda as if it was from a protest. Another case is from the capital city Naypyitaw. The military shot dead one person there but they say the bullet was not theirs but someone else's because of how that person's head is turned on the photo. They always portrait peaceful demonstrators as if they were violent and as if they wanted to destabilise the situation.

In 2012, when Aung San Su Kyi's National League for Democracy won the by-elections after decades of the rule of the military junta, the situation was very different in the country. There was no Internet and access to information other than that spread by the military junta was limited. 

What is the role of misinformation in this coup and are there ordinary Burmese who tend to believe the information presented by the state media?

Myanmar is now totally different from 1988 or 2007 uprisings because there are 38 million Facebook users there. Media plays a big role on Facebook, that is why the army cut down Internet access. They also banned social media such as Facebook and Twitter, but still, a lot of Burmese people use [proxies] to access real information. 

The majority of Burmese know the army and the state TV always lie about events; generals know citizens do not believe in their propaganda. Army's TV Myawaddy MWD TV target audience is soldiers.

What about the role of Aung San Su Kyi in this situation?

She is also equally responsible. She has the power. She also failed to consolidate democratic institutions. 

“We are the journalists trying to reveal and report on the events inside Burma. We are easy targets”

What are the options that the DVB has at the moment? How do you use technology to continue reporting?

We never stopped reporting. The only difference is the platform. We no longer have our satellite platform; we stay away from our satellite TV. However, we have millions of followers on our social media platforms. We also have the most watched YouTube channel. And we have experience with being an exile media house. We know how to overcome issues such as Internet blockage or danger when taking pictures. It has been easy for us to re-organise our reporting. 

How many journalists do you have on the ground these days?

I am not going to tell you this information. No one is safe, especially not journalists. This is the army who is hiding what is going on, especially their abuses. We are the journalists trying to reveal and report on the events inside Burma. We are easy targets. 

Independent information is key

What does the future hold for Myanmar? How can DVB contribute to make Myanmar go back on its path towards democracy?

If the army continues operations like this, the country is heading towards a failed state and there will be more violence. UNDP just said that millions of all Burmese would suffer from hunger because of mismanagement. In Yangon, you cannot withdraw money from ATMs; they all froze. At the same time, the youth and students are not going to give up.

Independent information is key. If Burmese get two things: independent information flow and Internet access, they can go back to normal. And there is no way the army can control these two things, everybody is connected nowadays. People will find a way to connect.

There is no way you can use censorship anymore; censorship is outdated. There is no way you can block information. That is why I hope the future will be a democratic Burma.

There is a long way to go, though.

Article written by:
Magdalena Rojo
Toe Zaw Latt is the director of operations at Democratic Voice of Burma.
© Toe Zaw Latt archives
Toe Zaw Latt is the director of operations at Democratic Voice of Burma.
Embed from Getty Images
General Min Aung Hlaing is the chief architect of the military coup in Myanmar
© Ye Aung Thu
Embed from Getty Images
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's elected leader, has been detained at an undisclosed location since the outbreak of the coup
© Koen Van Weel
Embed from Getty Images
Protesters demonstrating against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar on 22 February, 2021
Embed from Getty Images
A soldier stands next to a detained man during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on March 3, 2021. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) estimates that security forces in the country have killed at least 765 protesters and arrested some 4,609 people since the beginning of the coup.
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