Than Win Htut Live Q&A
Than Win Htut
Than Win Htut, as an exile Burmese journalist, currently living in Atlanta, GA, United State and continue working as a director of news and current affairs of the Democratic Voice of Burma, left Burma/Myanmar after the military coup and DVB TV was blacklisted by junta in March 2021. Have been with DVB for more than 18 years, as a director of current affairs, planning editor, sub-editor, senior reporter, interviewer, producer, TV host, debate moderator, based in Mae Sot, Chiang Mai, Bangkok of Thailand, Paris, Oslo of Norway and Yangon in Myanmar etc. From 2017 to 2021, worked as a director of current affairs - developed multiple TV segments for variety of audience groups, planning output- outcome, estimation of production cost, setting objectives and week to week project management, monitoring project implementation, mitigating risks, human resources management, budget allocations, record all measurable results back to DVB management board, leading data analysis/ visualization team on the audience engagement, demography & trending, handling feedback & feedforward from metric data insights of all the social media platforms, working with funding agencies, grants and INGOs on the multimedia PSM content creations for public awareness and policy influences etc.
This is a provisional transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
The Digital Dictatorship: The Myanmar Coup Two Years On
With Than Win Htut, Director of News and Current Affairs at the Democratic Voice of Burma
On the morning of February 1st 2021, everyday life in Myanmar was plunged into disarray. Notable politicians including Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Wyint were kidnapped, around 400 elected members of parliament were placed under house arrest, and the state-run MRTV ceased to broadcast. Cellular networks throughout the country were down, financial services were suspended, and all government ministers were removed from their positions. A military junta had seized control in a sudden coup, the exact moment of their approach to the capital, Napiyadaw, infamously caught on camera from a livestreaming fitness instructor.
Life over the coming weeks and months became increasingly difficult for Burmese citizens, with food supplies running dangerously low, a low faith in the Burmese Kyat currency, and the imposition of a digital dictatorship restricting and often banning access to the internet, telecommunications, and any contact with the outside world.
Commemorating the two-year anniversary of this coup, WEDF was honoured to be joined again by Director of News and Current Affairs of the Democratic Voice of Burma, Than Win Htut. One of the largest media outlets in Myanmar, DVB continues to report and broadcast following the coup, endeavouring to hold those responsible for human rights violations and suspected crimes against humanity within the country, thanks to a global network of journalists and innovative uses of censorship circumvention and clandestine broadcast technology. Below, is an abridged transcript of Than’s live Q and A, featuring some of the most powerful and sobering insights into the inner machination of this contemporary crisis.
Than, today is the two-year anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar. How do you personally reflect on the past two years?
Yeah, this week is the two-year anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar, exactly today. February, two years ago, exactly on this day we couldn’t sleep. We heard a lot of rumour a few days before the real coup, there might be a coup, on the periphery first because it is the exact date of the starting of the parliament, with the elected parliamentarians. So that was very, very fast. We couldn't sleep very well. And then in the early morning, there were a lot of phones ringing and also SMS and then the internet shut down. We didn't know why. We wake up very early in the morning and we realise that this is not good. This is really the beginning of a strange nightmare. We rushed to our office, and many of us were calling each other to give files. You know, we have been openly running in the country for about eight years, we have an HR file in the office, administration files, and some financial documents relating to international funding agencies like in Norway and Sweden and US. And then we have all the personnel documentation in the HR department as well, and then also we have our archive system 24/7, live streaming broadcast system and we all, many of us, rushed to the office and we tried to move some important documents. At the time, we had a live stream from the digital terrestrial television, but the military authority blacked-out these signals, so that's what and then our TV channel is no longer on the MRTV platform, which is run by the Information Ministry. So we realised then they have cut off our internet, they cut off our broadcast television.
There are millions of people who experienced the previous military coup in 1988 and the previous military dictator and their operation. Many people rushed to ATMs and many of them were collecting food, some dry food and instant noodles. Then we were locked out of our office and everyone worked from home. Then we have a totally different scenario of workflow, and many of our journalists could not report without the internet. Some of us were collecting footage from the many different teams, and then uploading from some hotel, where there was still internet available. Then we share information about which hotel is still running, which hotel is good for the internet, and where is the Internet available and yeah, this total chaos happened two years ago exactly today.
How dangerous is it to be a journalist trying to get the truth out to the rest of the world in Myanmar at the moment?
I think it is extremely dangerous. Not only to cover something happening, you know, atrocities and mass killings, air strike attacks, there might be no way to cover this live now. Many of our journalists, previously running openly in the country, all of them are hiding. All of them are hiding, or moving to another place and changing their identity. Because over the last eight years before the coup, many of us were running as a TV reporter openly in the neighbourhood and in towns. The people in the town know ‘he or she is working for DVB’ as a TV journalist, they support us, they demand our journalists to cover this and that whatever the human right violations and oppressions from the local authority are happening in any village or town. They know that DVB, our reporter, stands for freedom of expression and human rights. But after the coup many of our journalists need to hide somewhere, move to another location. Any authority, any local authority is going to arrest all the journalists and then they're gonna charge some, with misinformation. Every [piece of] information our channel publishes or processes, is misinformation in the eyes of the military dictator. So to be a journalist in Myanmar right now has extreme challenges.
Right now, we've been working with the Invisible Journalist Network like underground journalists, and we have to be very, very careful about their identity. Sometimes they lose internet connection, sometimes they lose telephone signals and we cannot reach [them]. You know, all our journalists understand that no not everyone in our network can go into exile. You cannot all go to the Thai border, and we as an institution, we have a new strategy. Some of us are in Europe, some of us in the US, some of us in Canada and Australia, some of us in Thailand, and some of us in Myanmar. We're not so sure about the political situation in Thailand and the position of the Thai government you can see amidst exiled journalists. So we’re supposed to have a Plan B ticket, you know, Australia.
Technology can play a role, but the military junta is also playing with the technology.
And what role does secure technology play in allowing you and your colleagues to still run the Democratic Voice of Burma?
Originally [when] a local journalist was arrested, in the beginning it was quite secure. He's got a password and he locked all the files in his iOS device and iPhone, iPad. But the military, they can unlock now without knowing a password. I think they are using some high technology to now figure out what is inside the hidden folders of an iPhone or macbook, or Ipad, without knowing any passwords. Yet this technology from our side, we also use a VPN to hide our location, for secure network video. We use Signal and Telegram, we are also using Protonmail. But in some cases they cut the internet connections. All the mobile operators, all of these phone operators are well under control by the military. Telenor run by Norwegians, they have left already, Ooredoo from the Middle East, they also left already, now all of the four mobile operators running inside Myanmar are under the control of the military. So talking in terms of technology, they cannot shut down all the information flow, they cannot. No, they cannot stop all the information flow, by technology that there is a way to circumvent all the time. But they are also evolving, it's like a cat and mouse game. So with secure technology, we have to learn more to overcome the current situation.
You explained in your WEDF 2022 keynote that journalists have had to go into exile around the world, can you describe how secure tech helps with their continuing work?
Yes, for example, I am in the US now, some of us are in Canada, some of us in Norway, Sweden, Australia and Thailand. Even in Thailand it's not democratic right now. We don’t really feel protected as journalists under the Thai internet and Thai mobile phone network. The technology, yeah, we find the technology and 5G internet speed are all available [in exile], high-tech gadgets, we can report from any parts of the world about Burma and we can communicate with our, our stringers, our citizen journalists, our friends network, our informants network that stays running inside Myanmar. We can communicate and we can report, and myself, I can organise a roundtable discussion, interview, talk shows from my living room in the United States.
There might be possibilities to figure out more advanced, secure technology. But we don't know if they cut out all the internet connectivity in the region including the telephone signals. They cut off sometimes when they have a very serious military offensive to the area they have a serious fight with the local PDF, if there is no internet, no phone, no communication, we’ve lost everything, and we have information only a few days later.
Under this extreme censorship over time, what are the instruments and sources that can be regarded as reliable?
Under this extreme censorship, yeah, some instruments and sources can be regarded as reliable, yeah, it's a really difficult situation. It's not like a two-party fight, two political parties fighting each other. It's not like that. Military coup, military dictators against everybody, against all the students, all the media, all the civil society groups, all the intellectual groups. Sometimes we figure the misinformation and disinformation intentionally distributed by the military Click Army. They have their technology force, and very often we have to, seriously try to clarify the misinformation, disinformation, and how much we can rely on the source, video clip, or photo. Sometimes our source can be a freedom fighter from the resistance army, and sometimes it can be a local villager. Our local citizen journalists try to call somebody in a village recently burned down by the military, and then we’ve got to hide their identity. Who are these people? Who is this villager? …Sometimes there were clashes between the PDF fighters (People’s Defense Force)... We’ve got some news, but it's very difficult to verify: How, how has it happened? Sometimes we can reach the PDF leader? They might say that then by a landmine, by their booby trap, two soldiers were killed, sometimes 10 you know. Soldiers have been killed but it’s very difficult to clarify how many, how many villagers were tortured and the killed and raped? It’s very, very difficult to verify often so we put a disclaimer ‘We cannot independently confirm this information’. This happens very, very often.
The question was on censorship. Well this time, the situation is more than the heavy censorship. We know no information. All the information is wrong in their [the military junta] eyes, so you can be charged by the misinformation, disinformation, and sometimes you know, the terrorist act, because you distribute or you publish something you witnessed. Not only media persons, not only journalists, but also some local people if they put something on their Facebook or Twitter with a photo... there are many stories like that, normal citizens, normal people were arrested and charged upon their Facebook page or Facebook post, and their Twitter post. And there are some, even some that didn't publish, they didn't post anything, but if they have some photo they took in their photo album on their smartphone, if the security personnel found out that they have some photo or video they don't like for example, like soldiers killing a protester and you know., soldiers torturing villagers, if they find that, if they don't like that,you can be charged, arrested, and tortured. You can be a dead body the next day.
Everybody lives under the risk of getting arrested at any time. So this is a lot more serious than censorship. This would be a total information blackout I think.
How has communication been made difficult during life under junta rule? For journalists, activists, and civil society in exile, is it still possible to stay in contact safely with families and friends left behind, or does even this put them at risk?
There are lots of stories, you know even my own mother, almost 80 and now lying in bed with oxygen breathing assistance, her house was raided by the local police from many different stations, because of me. They tried to knock down the house. And the local administrator, the head of the local administrator office, was very friendly to my father and mother, my late father. The police thought that this house belonged to me, but my mother, showed the proof of bills, electricity bill, and water bill under the name of my father, my late father, not with my name. This house has nothing to do with my name, and the police initially, police [came] to knock down my mothers house and after they checked the bill and receipt of the electricity and water bill, they didn't knock down my mother’s house. And like this story, in some cases if they can't find the local resistance fighter or protester, or if they can't find the son they arrest the father or mother or sister. There are many different stories, many of them similar stories.
So nobody is safe and for us sometimes you know, we know we need to analyse this, for some conclusions or comment on climate change for example, like inflation issue for example, Central Bank interest rate, for example not really like a military thing or human right thing. But sometimes, you know, even people studying in London or US or Europe, they are studying, they’re pursuing their Master’s degree or PhD, that don't want to show their face. They don't want to answer our questions. “No, no, sorry, no comment”, because for thousands of reasons they're scared [in case] their family members and relatives are getting arrested by the junta because of their appearance in the media.
So there are people, even people in the US and Europe and the wider area or who are not really free from fear, and we’ve found it very very difficult. So they’re in exile. In Thailand, I think thousands and thousands of Burmese exiles…have gone without having the proper passport or identity documents. And their family members and relatives left behind stay inside Myanmar. Both in the city or in the countryside, in the remote areas, nobody's safe.
Myanmar has a huge percentage of STEM (technology and science) trained women in its population, at around 50% of its PhDs and masters students. Can you talk about the people of Myanmar and education and how this has changed since the junta?
Yeah. You know, last year the special rapporteur for Myanmar’s human rights reported at least 7.8 million students inside Myanmar lost their education. And a UN agency even used [the term] “Lost Generation”. But we found that, right after the coup even until now and in many areas, the military cannot force open the schools or hospitals because of the civil defiance movement. No cooperation with the military dictator. That's why many university students and teachers from the universities and colleges and high schools, they’re in resistance, and some of them change to another local area, some of them move to exile. Some of them join the resistance groups, some of them are involved in armed struggles. So [the] education system is a few of these students under the military regime, a few of the schools and universities can are under control by the military junta, and many of the students are refused to enter the high school final examinations… or to join the colleges or universities opened by the military. So that's the UN estimation, 7.8 million students. But we think it’s more than that because we have 20 million followers on the DVB Facebook page. More than two thirds, more than two thirds of these 20 million followers, are from the age groups 18 to 24 and 25 to 34. These groups are the generations who are learning something in university, high school graduates.
So the resistance government, the exiled government formed by the parliamentarians who won the 2020 elections, are trying to support some interim education system via the internet. But there might be many limitations and a lot of challenges for education, I think it’s a state problem. Yeah, there will be hundreds, I think hundreds and hundreds, thousands of Burmese students in Master’s degree programs with a scholarship program. We know that some are in PHD programs in many different countries, in many different parts of the world. But like I said earlier, some or many of them have a well-founded fear not to talk to the media, not to expose anything on their social media page. Some of them stay very reluctant to talk to me, to show their face, worrying about their relatives and family members that stay inside Myanmar…
If a resistance movement succeeds the military junta, maybe thousands of PhD candidates and Western Master’s degree candidates and educated people might be coming back to the country, and they can contribute something positive.
In your WEDF 2022 presentation you said that MyTel now dominates telecoms in Myanmar. The company is jointly owned and run by the Myanmar and Vietnamese military. What does this mean in practice? What is Vietnam's role in the coup?
Yeah MyTel, MyTel is the latest one, the telephone and internet provider [is a] joint venture by the Myanmar military. Myanmar’s military has many different roles in big business across the country… All the business is run by the military, but they are (and they know they are) in a very, very privileged situation and they don't pay a fee at all for the military business. To get back to the MyTel, MyTel is a joint venture between the military and the Vietnamese military. Nobody believes we are safe and secure by using MyTel, their MyTel SIM card. And there were a lot of stories of local resistance groups destroying, explode the local transmission tower of MyTel. But then at the same time, in many different areas, there might be a lost signal or very, very poor signal by the other telecoms like MPT, Telenor or Ooredoo. But there's only MyTel that has a strong signal. So sometimes some people in the resistance groups are also playing with a MyTel SIM card, from the street market they're not registering. Yeah, sometimes and in some areas, there is no choice to avoid MyTel.
I don't think about the Vietnamese role in the military coup, we're not so sure, there's no information about this..
Are the profits from Mytel used to subsidise the military?
Of course, yeah military business! Profits on MyTel are used to subsidise the military. I think for sure, more than 100%. This is military business, you know, airstrikes, whatever artillery or Firepower they're using, is from this business, military business
Has anything happened with Starlink?
No, I don't know anything about Starlink, no. There's no news about Starlink.
Who controls the media in Myanmar? Does the notion of a free press still exist within the country?
No, media for the moment is totally controlled. Media [remaining] like MRTV (Myanmar Radio and Television), and the Information Ministry, and news channels [are] run by the military. And then some FM stations are a joint venture with the military or Information Ministry, all controlled by the military leader, the coup leader. There are a few media outlets run by a private group, but they cannot touch anything sensitive. They might say that the onion price, potato price, oil price, is getting higher, gold price getting lower or skyrocketing… but they cannot touch any sensitive areas. No. At any time they can be charged with misinformation by the military authority. So who's in control? That's only the military. They have the upper hand, to play all the media outlets inside the country.
How many journalists have been arrested over the last two years, and what has happened to them?
I would say that, as far as we can know, there are more than 150. 156 probably, 156, and then more than 50 are still remaining in prison. And some of them are released over time, after three months, some of them released after six months, some after one year. In the beginning, I said as far as we know. There are some local journalists [that] might get arrested and nobody knows sometimes, you know, even for our journalist network. We cannot release a statement or we cannot answer in the foreign media asking how many journalists were imprisoned. Five TV journalists still remain in prison, but few of them were charged as a journalist [they are] charged by the Misinformation Act, and some of them by the Terrorist Act. Because, for some of them, local police charge them as an illegal unlawful organisation and as terrorists, because they think that they have communication… a link to the resistance groups, or they are participating in the resistance.
Sometimes they are like ‘He is a journalist, she is a journalist’. They say no in the interrogation centre. They say this is a photo because these are hobbies, he is not a journalist for TV. They might say, I don't know TV, I don't know foreign media, I don't know journalists, I'm just taking picture, photo as my hobby. So that's why sometimes we cannot answer to the call from the international media, we can’t say he or she is a journalist. So that's why I know we cannot say exactly that there will be more than 150 journalists that have been arrested over the last two years, there might be more.
Are there organisations helping to train Burmese journalists in anonymity and security practices? Who is helping in the area?
Uh, I think some of the organisations like Internews, and some agencies, I think are helping some journalists running in exile, and some radio journalists [are] still running inside Myanmar. I think some of them have some financial support and technical support, but in some regions, some local media groups are not able to run anymore. Independent media groups [have] already disappeared in some regions. Because of many, many reasons. There are some NGO groups, some like Internews and some others, I'm not sure how many are helping some exiled journalists along the Thai border.
Can you explain the difference between the day before the coup, and the day after for the citizens and for those working in the media?
For us, we had experienced and witnessed Burmese democracy reform, democracy progress, gradually starting to open in the early 2010, 2011, 2012. We came back to the country, at the time we were (DVB) based in Norway and were based in Chiang-Mai in 2012, and in 2013 we set up the office and at the time the reform government…they abolished censorship systems. And we witnessed it, and the process from 2013 to 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 those seven or eight years of the reform process, growing up and down and moving forward and backwards. But it suddenly changed to total darkness after the coup. It shocked many of our young generations. And particularly some Generation Z. They just enjoyed the internet freedom. And we were just enjoying some openness, then the total upside down happened [because of] the military coup. [it] upset a lot of citizens and also civil society. You know throughout the years of gradual, slow opening process before the coup, that situation allowed more and more civil society engagement, freedom of expression. There might have been hundreds or thousands of civil society groups up and running on many different issues, landmines, children, women, education, technology, whatever, you name it, environmental or you know many different issues.
There were hundreds and thousands of people working on the many different issues and they're in safe sectors. Now I think almost all of them are not able to be run openly, because every civil society group is funded by a foreign country, and any international funding agency is being monitored. And they monitor everything, no financial flow, or no banking account, all the activities. Every activity is monitored and that's why you know, we have hundreds and hundreds of civil society groups moving to exile with some partially running inside the country like an underground network.
I think also for some students from the upper middle class, they moved to Thailand, to Singapore for their higher education and to enrol in some university in Bangkok or Chiang-Mai or Singapore or some other country. For the journalists and civil society groups, as far as we know most of them are running in exile.
What is it like to use the internet in Myanmar? Is it possible to see news from abroad?
Like I said, there are some internet providers. There are some small internet providers, Wi-Fi providers in some cities, but the speed is very, very limited. Not 4G, not even 3G sometimes and there are whitelists and blacklists.They have a whitelist and then you have to use VPN to circumvent any other website. Very often Facebook is also on the blacklist. In some areas telephone mobile connectivity allows you to browse the internet, but at very slow speeds.
Sometimes our reporters need to drive a motorbike for one or two hours to get to an area with better internet signals. Sometimes they have to get to the top of a mountain with better reception to send a photo to us. The photo might not be very high resolution, but still they need to struggle. So, Internet connectivity is crazy.
Also, like I said earlier the military junta is playing, they are playing with the internet connectivity and the telephone reception and all the mobile towers. They can trace, they can intercept, they can monitor who is who. And other people also try to hide their identity, buying and not registering some SIM cards available in the street market, like a black market. Many of our colleagues, if they are, if they are involved in the resistance movement, don't register their SIM card to hide their identity. But some of them managed with many different SIM cards. One SIM card is clean, it's linked to your mobile banking account, your mobile money transfer account, you register with your name, your ID card. But for some SIM cards, they don't register. That is really, really tricky right now for the internet. When we use the VPN, the internet connection is really slow, even for text messages in some areas, really struggling with the VPN.
Is your coverage seen by people in Burma or is that now impossible? Who is the main audience of DVB? Is it different from before the junta seized power?
Yeah, we broadcast from satellite. This is not terrestrial television. This is not like a cable network. This is not like a local territory television. By technology, the KU band, two-foot satellite dishes, were quite affordable because it costs you something like $20/$30 and you can watch satellite TV. There are 100 different channels in the Thai language or in English or in Chinese or in India, or some it's Asian, some different languages from the Asian region, and many many channels from Thailand so people can watch our TV channel from the satellite coverage. So the satellite signal footprint can reach all the different multiple areas, different terrains without interference from anybody…They can watch if they have at least a solar battery and if they have a two-foot satellite dish. But the military cracked down, intentionally cracked down, on this kind of satellite dish and in many different cities, but people changed to another colour on the satellite dish. Some satellite dishes run by the military and cronies and their families are still in business, they stay running openly. People can change the colour of the internal receiver, you can change the colour. Also these are sometimes not supposed to be outside the house all the time. Sometimes this antenna can be inside the house, and then targeted at 90 to 95 degrees east of the ThaiCom satellite, or AsiaSat 5 or something like that, so they can stay tuned, it’s a hide and seek game for the satellite dish.
One of the prominent resistance leaders approached me a few months ago saying thank you. They can receive information from satellite television and they say thank you for our effort and our coverage. In the northwest region of Burma, this was a highly conflicted region, and in many areas they would have the internet and connectivity blackouts, shutdown by the military. They can rely on satellite TV. But in some areas they cannot. In some areas, in some cities, local authorities remove or destroy all the satellite receiver dishes, intentionally black out the information flow. So it's still possible, but yeah, we can stay [across] the whole country, but things change from time to time. So I would say the main audience or DVB would be people of Myanmar who do not believe the state run television, the total total lies and propaganda of the military junta, broadcast from the analog TV and digital terrestrial TV. All of them understand that they are just propaganda and lies in everything about the military. There are violations of human rights and their crimes against humanity.
What was it before the military? You know, before two years ago, February 1st 2021, about five years under the administration of the Aung San Suu Kyi party and government. Before that, military generals ran the government. About 10 years from 2010 to 2020.This was you know, transitional. The transition took it from the former dictatorship, to a little bit better democratic society. But before that, since the 1988 Student Uprising the whole country uprising in 1988 more than 30 years ago, 35 years ago, hundreds and thousands of the student activists left for the border, and formed the student army. And also the Civil War, we had the longest Civil War in the world. We had more than 60 years, more than 70 years of civil war after the independence in 1948. We had ethnic cleansings, human rights violations in many different ethnic areas, and then through to the war between the ethnic armed forces, we have many different armed forces. You know, we have more than 20 different ethnic forces fighting in many different parts of the country. So that's why. Burma, Myanmar, is the fourth or fifth largest refugee exporter country in the world, probably after Afghanistan or Syria. So there are thousands you know, I think millions of the Burmese diaspora in almost every country around the world.
When considering which articles to write or what news to cover, what thoughts do you have to have about safety? How do you think about risk? Are there articles you don't write because of the threat to those referred to in it?
Yeah, this happened, this happens. Very often, we have to keep it confidential. We cannot expose the name of the source all the time you know, during our newsroom meetings, somebody would say that their family doesn’t want to talk. Even after an editor was released in a region, they were released a few months ago earlier in January. But they had to sign an agreement with the prison authority, military authority, that they're going to keep quiet. Then they understand that they're subject to getting arrested again if they talk to the media. So they said that they don't want to be interviewed. And then after some time, from the friends of friends, we understand that they were being tortured. Sometimes you know, they were being tortured about finding a source from open society or you know, USAid or European funding and you know sometimes, [because of] their relation with the resistance groups, many of our journalists were tortured. And even after they were released, they can't expose anything, their experience in the prison, in the interrogation centre. And sometimes they say “Just wait, just wait” they're going to live in exile, and after they move to exile, they can then expose what is going on inside the country. But sometimes, they know their life is not very secure…
Some former journalists are released from prison, they give up the journalist life and they change to other careers. There are also very few opportunities for the job at the moment. Even the World Bank cannot estimate the GDP of Burma, it is in freefall, many experts find that. But the journalist’s life is the most dangerous career in Myanmar for now.
How do you get your news sources? Do you have stable lines of communication with resistance fighters and activists on the ground?
No, we don't have our we don't have stable lines of communication, no. Sometimes we lose communication very often, sometimes you cannot even call them by phone, sometimes there is no internet in some regions. So on news sources, we have many different varieties of news sources, but sometimes it's really tricky. He or she is a citizen journalist, but at the same time they might be a PDF resistance fighter. Sometimes they might, our citizen journalists, might be from a volunteer group or a local donation group to the IDP people And sometimes that could take our citizen journalists, our stringer might be [from] a CSO group, from the CSO group or from the logistics support group. Yeah, there might, there are many different identities.
But like I said earlier, this is the fight, not between two different parties, a censorship party and a military party, you know, it's not like that. This is the fight between the military committing mass murder, you know people committing crime against humanity on these people. These people are against the military murder, Burmese people against the military.
What are the reliable indicators of public opinion with such danger everywhere?
So about 2,000,000 innocent people left their houses and villages became IDP, internally displaced persons, more than 1,000 got killed in the street or in the interrogation sessions, more than 10,000 stay in prison because of their protesting or because of their activities in the resistance campaign. Many are already frustrated at the situation, many are depressed, including me. Many of our friends, and millions and millions of our fellow Burmese citizens, haven’t slept very well over the last two years. We know they destroy everything, the future of the young generations, and all the infrastructure, education. [this had led to the] Civil defiance movement, CDM movement, participated in by millions and millions of health workers and education workers and students. So the country has now extremely deteriorated, getting worse and worse over the last two years.
By now, very well everybody [is] upset and frustrated over the military dictator. I would say on public opinion, everybody wants to see the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the release of the Members of Parliament from the election, and to go back to the previous situation. Even though the previous situation before the military coup was not a 100% Democratic situation, we know that this was gradually transforming, forming democratic society, but the current state undermines this. So we know and we can understand public opinion indicators, everybody is not happy and is suffering.
How many people work for DVB? If you are able to say, how many are in Myanmar currently? Do they have to keep their identities secret?
We had something like 150+ people inside the country before the coup. After the coup many of us moved to the Thailand border, many of us moved to another town and hid our identity, and some of us you know gave up, no more journalism, no more working as journalists. For now we have something like half, 70 -75 of our journalists working in Thailand based out of Chiang-Mai, and other countries like US and Canada and Norway and then Australia. And we also have a network because we have been running smartphone journalism, training journalism skills and citizen journalism training, from time to time, once in every two or three months, over the last two years. We lost some former local citizen journalists and local stringers, local contributors, already…
We have to build up a new network and we are trying, we train all the necessary skills. For the moment, something like 20-50 citizen journalists are still running. And sometimes more than 50 you know, depending on the situation… You know sometimes it’s crazy, we’ve got to remember many different ways for communication, Proton, Signal, and Telegram. And [it’s] sometimes crazy with the many different pseudonyms, many nicknames, codenames and sometimes, we even in the organisation, even in the newsroom, this editor knows something another editor knows something else, we don't share all the identities… Yeah, we cannot expose how many are in the current state or how many in Yangon or Mandalay we cannot expose a set number.
Myanmar joined countries such as Iran and Afghanistan under similar levels of press-repression. What can the rest of the world do to help support journalists and publications under threat in these countries?
Myanmar junta are maybe even worse than the Taliban of Afghanistan in terms of press freedom and their partnering with the opium protection and trade of amphetamine, and then also the freedom expression as well. Although the question is about what the rest of the world can do to help and support journalists and publications under this threat, yeah, we don't know.
The military junta are you know, they’ve tried their best to shut down everything, to cut all the information. They have even played around with utilities in some areas recently in some conflict areas. Before they start an attack on a village, they cut the telephone service, so nobody has a reception and they cannot report to each other about whatever information they have. Sometimes they on-and-off [the] internet, sometimes they totally shut down the internet in some areas, and then people cannot share the information. So we don't know what the International Community can help in these situations.
Are there many international organisations supporting Burma from outside and if so how difficult is it to receive financial help? Is the general public adopting cryptocurrency?
Yeah, crypto, many of the younger generations are looking for cryptocurrency. I think hundreds and thousands of the young generations are looking to crypto. They cannot rely on gold, or they cannot rely on the Burmese currency controlled by the Central Bank, controlled by any military junta, and they don't really care about the Myanmar currency, Kyat. They don't care, and then nobody is believed to have a large sum of money at the bank inside Myanmar. People withdraw from time to time and they turn it into US dollars or they turn it to gold. Many young generations now think about crypto, but as you know, the crypto market is also, you know, struggling over the last [few] years. No stock exchange and no crypto market, the crypto world is itself also struggling with the many different regulations. And I'm not sure how reliable [it is] for the Burmese resistance if, if we go for the crypto.
There are many many international organisations supporting Bama including many European countries and many financial systems from Asia, from Europe and America, but I think it's not possible to run openly inside Myanmar…You know, some international organisations want to show they are okay with the current government, some they don't care… Right now I think many of, many of us are struggling
Do the military junta believe they're doing a good thing? Who benefits from this horrible situation domestically and internationally?
All the military and high officials in the military are rich, by our means, by corruption, their family business, or crony business, or nepotism. Not only is the military chief a billionaire, but also those in high positions. Generals are also millionaires, billionaires… But you know after the coup there are hundreds of defectors. Defectors fled to the Thai border, military officers like at major level, captain level... In the first year, the Australian government also announced that they were ready to offer asylum status in Australia for military defectors from the Burmese army. But the military cut off all the information…I think a military response to the call from the Australian government after the offering of asylum status in Australia.
And then the rest of the army, they were brainwashed by nationalism and Islamophobia, to hate Muslims, the Rohingya Muslim people. And Burmese nationalism, or extreme Burmese nationalism, some brainwashed soldiers, officers, might think that they are guardians, they are ‘protecting the country’. They are ‘protecting the Constitution’... Who benefits from this horrible situation domestically and internationally? I don't think anybody benefits except military chiefs, [their] families and the top generals. Nobody benefits from this situation, this horrible situation, there are more and more people dying, suffering and starving, millions of starving.
Do you think that what's happened in Myanmar is a lesson for other countries? How easily can a state slip into dictatorship?
There are, I think, hundreds, hundreds of lessons and you know there are many extreme cases, of crimes committed by the military, crimes against humanity.
Why do you think so little attention has been brought to the situation in Myanmar by foreign press and governments? I don't understand how it is not better known about, do you believe this will change?
Yeah there has been so little attention, it’s not anybody’s fault, I don’t think somebody intentionally neglected what's going on inside Myanmar. As I said earlier, even for our Burmese media, sometimes we know this is something seriously happening but in the dark. In the western region in the northwest region in the southwest region, something’s happening, but we cannot call anyone, we can’t talk, it’s like they’re in another planet we can’t reach, so we cannot cover 100% of the atrocity, and the human right violations, and the mass murder, and the torture, and the air strikes on civilians villages. We can receive a photo and video timely, and sometimes we can’t receive any information. So for the internet, for the international media, for the International Community, that might be really really hard to get access.
Too many things are happening at the same time, in the Ukraine war, and also there’s something happening, you know in Israel/Palestine, and Iran, Afghanistan, there are too many things happening at the same time. Yeah, Myanmar news, what is happening inside Buma, we’re not covered enough, [there’s] not enough information to know what's really going on. Do I believe it will change, someday? I don't know.
Are there any misconceptions about the situation in Myanmar in the media that need to be corrected?
I'm not so clear about the misconceptions in the media. There might be some misconceptions among the international players, international organisations like the UN, or like an international [organisation] like the EU, or like with international stakeholders, there might be some misconceptions. The military is the part of the problem. But there are some misinterpretations or misconceptions about the civilian resistance and struggles. Nobody wants to see Burma (Myanmar) become like Syria…I mean the misconception there, is this Burmese system will never succeed, from this military junta. They have a supreme upper hand in firepower. Because no one from the International Community would support resistance. Nobody from the International Community will provide artillery, or guns, or, missiles or, or anything. So the misconception [is that] armed struggles will never defeat the Burmese military junta. I think right now, [organisations] including the UN investigators and many watchers came to realise that the Burmese military junta cannot succeed against all the resistance newly happening inside in the mainland of Myanmar... I think many of the international watchers, international organisations, came to realise that the Burmese military junta cannot crack down 100%, cannot control 100% of these Burmese resistance groups. I think that there might be misinterpretations or misconceptions.
Are you concerned with disinformation internationally and not only domestically?
Yeah, you know the misinformation and disinformation is created by a click army of the military junta. They were banned by Facebook and Twitter, but they keep coming, they keep coming with a different name. They are also running on Telegram. They keep coming. Because they are just distributing all the propaganda and lines from the military to brainwash those people who don't really know about it.mSo not yeah, not only domestically but also internationally they, they are coming back again, and again to any social network, even though Facebook and Twitter banned them very repeatedly.
Do you believe the situation in Myanmar will change? Can you say whether there is more or less hope after two years?
After two years, after two years of this nightmare, well, we can, we can see a way to escape as the future was just getting lost. The armed conflict might be still going on, you know, but even if the International Community can provide the, you know, the high technology, weapons, artillery, like Ukraine, even if the International Community can provide these weapons to the resistance groups, I think it's not easy to turn around all the things happening inside Myanmar. These man made disasters. We cannot expect anything good in the near future in this scenario.
Thank you for your time and bravery speaking with us today. Do you have a closing message for people [reading] around the world about the situation in Myanmar?
You know, there are a lot of struggles, a lot of challenges happening all around the world. There are really terrible things happening, human rights violations and murders and human atrocities, happening not only in Ukraine, but also inside Myanmar. But we don't know everything happening inside Myanmar right away, we cannot. We cannot know right away and we cannot report. Everything is in the dark and that's why we want to try to report. For the reporting, even being a journalist openly, it's not possible inside Myanmar. So the junta, it’s their intention to shut down all the information flow and then to kill all the journalists. Right now it's not favourable for the freedom of expression right now, absolutely not. So they can speed up their human right violations, and you know, mass murders and atrocities. They don't need to worry about somebody reporting everything, about their mass murder and their human rights violations. That's why all the military junta would be enemies of the journalists, and journalists become an enemy of the military junta. In some cases, the international community misses the news about the exile media and the Burmese media in exile are just naming us the opposition media. No, we're not like ‘opposition’ media. We are the media standing for the people, standing for the people not for the inside government. Not for the one single party group. We've done it for people, we service for the people, we are public service media. We are not an opposition group. But in many scenarios we are, civil society groups and all the activists and all the resistance fighters, are standing together against the Military junta. Sometimes, for the International Community that might be confusing.
As a closing message, I'd like to say a thank you. Thank you very much for the interest, the many interesting questions and your curiosity about what is going on. We all know this is not fair. This is not fair happening inside Ukraine. This is happening in Iran, something is happening in Afghanistan, and some very terrible stories happening in Myanmar. We know that civilised society cannot accept anything like that, but this is happening. So far, for the moment we are still fighting with demons, devils. We still don't know about a happy ending in the near future. We cannot estimate how long these fights take, how many more millions would be dying? How many millions more starving? We’d like to thank all of you, and I'd like to request, please spread your words, please spread whatever you know about Burma. These terrible things are happening in Myanmar.Thank you, thank you, thank you very much. Thank you very much everybody, bye bye for now.
To follow the work of Than and his colleagues at the Democratic Voice of Burma, their English language website is reachable at: https://english.dvb.no/. To watch or read the contents of Than’s keynote address featured at the 2022 World Ethical Data Forum, both the transcript and video are available here: https://worldethicaldata.org/media/video/myanmar-censorship-journalism. This article also features much in the way of additional reading to find out more about both the history and current situation in Myanmar.