“But it is clear to me that this moment in Burma’s history represents a real opportunity for permanent change—an opportunity that the international community must not miss.”
On February 27, 2012, something happened that many had dreamed of for more than two decades, but somehow never expected to see happen so soon. Aye Chan Naing, editor-in-chief, director and founding member of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the outlawed Burmese media organization, returned to his country after 24 years of exile.
DVB has never minced its words in criticizing Burma’s leadership and calling for democratic reform. For the ruling military junta, Mr. Naing was public enemy number one until just a fortnight ago.
The following is an exclusive interview with Mr. Naing for the Vigilante Journalist, conducted by Anne Holmes upon his return to Oslo, where he currently resides.
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You just returned to Burma for the first time since the student uprising of 1988, which you took part in. In 1992 you co-founded Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a radio news service that later went on to publish on-line content and broadcast television. It became the leading independent media source for news out of Burma, and an Academy Award nominated documentary, Burma VJ brought the risky work of your organization to the forefront in 2009. To the ruling junta, you were persona non grata until just two weeks ago when you returned for the first time in over 20 years. What made you confident that the time was ripe and that you would not be detained upon entry?
Honestly speaking, I did worry about returning to Burma. But I did get the official journalist visa, and the Minister of Information agreed to meet me and discuss about DVB’s future operation inside Burma. I don’t think they would harm me in any way while allowing for official visit. If they would have, they would lose more than they gain. I believe this is a possible chance for DVB to operate within Burma. I always dreamed about operating inside Burma and as a media organization, it is not ideal to operate from exile.
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What did you discuss while meeting with officials?
I met the minister of information, director-general of the Information Ministry, head of the Censorship Board, and advisors to the president. My main mission was to discuss with the Information Minister. I asked mainly for allowing DVB’s journalists in exile to come back to Burma to cover the story as journalists, to allow our journalists within the country to work officially, and to allow us to open a branch office in Rangoon. The Minister agreed on the first point on the spot, and will follow up on other two points.
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Were you being closely monitored while inside the country?
That is something really amazing, and that is something that reflects on change. I can feel the feeling of freedom in Burma. When I arrived in Rangoon, I was worried about people who I met for example, my family, my childhood friends, and my colleagues who work secretly. I thought I should meet them discretely, but none of them care about security and they feel very safe. That would not have been the case just six months ago in Rangoon.
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Why has Burma suddenly decided to open up to the world, release political prisoners, and pave the way for democratization? To the casual observer, it seems as though it happened almost overnight. Why now?
That is the question everybody asks including myself. I have tried to look for the answer for this during my visit to Burma and in the meeting with government officials. There are a lot of different statements, theories and speculations, but I did not really get the convincing answer. But one thing for sure is positive changes are there, and there should have been big fanfare for this, and the fact that there is no fanfare yet is a bit worrying.
(During a separate conversation with Mr. Naing, he pointed out an article by Bertil Lintner detailing the “Master Plan” for Burma, a document circulated in 2004 that likely came from a Burmese think tank. In simplified terms, it assesses that heavy reliance on China will eventually lead to a crisis in leadership, in which China will eventually replace the current junta leaders. The solution, therefore, is to open up to western investors by initiating a democracy process. “Although human rights are a concern in the West, the US would be willing to modify its policy to suit “strategic interests,’” writes Lintner. The ultimate goal in this opening up process, however, is to crush the opposition. Do read that here.)
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In 2010, DVB issued an investigative report revealing Burma’s underground plans to go nuclear. What is the status of that project today and how did the ruling elite react to your report?
Nothing during my trip. There was an angry denial from the government on the state television when our film came out. We do not have the latest information on the project. But I believe western governments would not have come into Burma recently without questioning about the nuclear issues.
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Many of DVB’s journalists went to prison as a result of their clandestine reporting. They were all released in January, along with some 600 political prisoners. Was there a deal struck with the authorities in exchange for their freedom? Are they prohibited from carrying out certain activities?
There was no deal with the government for their release. Part of my mission to Burma was to discuss with the government to allow them to work legally without any fear of getting arrested. This issue is still not resolved, and we still have to talk to the government.
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On March 1, the government lifted a ban on DVB, professing to grant those living outside the country 5-day visas in order to carry out their assignments. Was your visit instrumental in negotiating this deal?
This is the first big step considering the fact that the government had treated DVB as the enemy of the state, and just released 13 remaining DVB’s journalists a month ago. During my trip, the government agreed to issues journalist visas for exiled DVB journalists to come back to Burma to cover the story within Burma. We have also discussed a wide range of issues from giving official accreditation to undercover journalists within Burma to open a temporary office in Rangoon. I think the talk went well, but there are many more issues to follow up on.
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The National League for Democracy (NLD) has referred to the democratization process in Burma as a “parody.” Were you able to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, or members of her party, to discuss what measures need to be taken in order for Burma to become a real democracy? Does the general population have faith that a true process in underway?
I met all top senior NLD’s leadership except Aung San Suu Kyi as she has been travelling for campaign trip. I also met many opposition groups and 88 students’ generation leaders as well as local journalists. Some of them are very sceptical about current changes, and believe there is some kind of trap in the future. Some of them think some people in the government including the president really want change. But everyone agreed that there are obvious changes, and felt no more fear in their daily political activities. People involved in politics feel the change, but ordinary people do not seem to feel the changes, mainly because, their daily survival is still as hard as before.
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Your ultimate goal is to move your organization back inside Burma. Do you suspect this might affect international funding, either positively or negatively?
I don’t think we can take international funding for our core operation of the DVB once we settle inside Burma. As an independent news media organization operating within the country, our credibility will be on the line if we continue to take funding from international organizations. We will have to find ways to survive ourselves, for example, getting into commercial, while maintaining our goal of public service broadcasting. We will definitely need international funding during the transition period, but for the long term, apart from our public service programming, our core operation should be financed by our own.
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What is the status of private enterprise in Burma? Is the market opening up to the general population, or is that a privilege reserved largely for members of the oligarchy?
Business enterprise in Burma is still very limited to government cronies and it is not transparent.
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It has been 24 years since you set foot in Burma. What struck you the most upon your return?
I felt really sad about wasting 24 years of development in the country. During the last 24 years, all of our neighbouring countries moved forward, but Burma was like stopping in 1988 or maybe even backward from 1988. I was there for only 5 days, and I wasn’t able to see everything, but what I have seen, places in Rangoon during my trip, was worse than the time before I left Rangoon. People are really struggling to survive.
© Anne Holmes for The Vigilante Journalist. All Rights Reserved.