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A reality-check in Burma

About the author
Kyi May Kaung is an analyst based in Washington DC.

Burmese exiles around the world have been transfixed by two major broadcasts about their homeland on CNN and PBS. The contrast between them could not be greater. Together, they tell so much about the current reality of the country renamed by its vicious military regime as "Myanmar".

The CNN report is based on a leaked "home video" of the wedding in July 2006 of Thandar Shwe, the daughter of the junta's senior general, Than Shwe. The video - quickly posted on YouTube - revealed a ceremony suffused with classic nouveau riche bad taste, more reminiscent of aristocratic Versailles than of one of the poorest countries in the world.

It is all there: the overdressed bride, in a gown featuring a Burmese-style tight sarong combined with a western train; the over-abundance of flowers; the canopied bed; the seemingly never-ending red carpet; the oleaginous announcer wishing the bride and her consort, Major Zaw Phyo Win, happiness for all eternity. And the highest yuck-point came when the camera focused on the neckline of the bride, her hand delicately adjusting the huge diamonds in a multi-strand jewelled necklace.

CNN's circulation of this juicy morsel was a public-relations coup for Burma's democratic opposition and its allies, as evident in the interviews it conducted with Burma specialists such as Larry Jagan.

A few days earlier, PBS's Frontline World special had shown the reality of Burma. It contained extensive footage of Karen villagers on the border between eastern Burma and northwestern Thailand, presented by reporter Evan Williams and filmed by members of the Free Burma Rangers who guided him to the area.

The Burmese military has burned 4,000 villages in eastern Burma in 2006 alone. The Karen's armed struggle, the longest-running fight for independence in the world, has been going on since 1947. It helps to make Burma the most conflict-ridden country in southeast Asia.

The report also showed heartrending scenes from the March 2006 funeral of Thet Naing Oo, beaten to death by regime thugs in central Rangoon - in daylight, and in full view of passers-by. I had previously seen only a graphic still photo of his remains, with his shaved, swollen skull, stitched together crudely in two curves like a centipede's tracks (a photo obtained by the Washington-based United States Campaign for Burma [USCB]). An eyewitness (now abroad) told Williams that the attackers had come prepared, using catapults to shoot steel balls at the victim. Thet Naing Oo's mother is shown crying; another Burmese mother with another dead child.

Kyi May Kaung is a Burmese human-rights activist, artist and writer who has lived in exile since 1982. She holds a doctorate in political economy from the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently she worked for the Burma Fund, affiliated to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratic government-in-exile.

Also by Kyi May Kaung in openDemocracy:

"Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role"
(8 August 2006)

The ethics of witness

The CNN and PBS broadcasts, stunning as they are individually and in combination, nonetheless raise a disturbing question: the value of the evidence vs the danger to those speaking out. Williams was able to link up in Thailand with a man who had been jailed in Burma for talking to him, before subsequently fleeing across the border. The man gamely insisted it had been worth it to get the word out, but an issue of journalistic ethics remains.

Meanwhile, veteran Burmese journalist U Sein Win, was shown full face while breathing through an oxygen-tube. Others were filmed only from the neck down, or their faces blurred. But their voices were not disguised. I easily recognised a man interviewed by CNN who appeared only in silhouette.

In the intimate world of Burma and among the Burmese exile community, it is often not difficult to identify people, and consequences for those exposed can be horrifying. A Burmese foreign-ministry official stated in a press conference that what happens to the imprisoned Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi "will depend on her behaviour". This blame-the-victim attitude is rooted in the junta's mindset, and dangerous to its many victims and potential victims.

Watching the watchers

The ethical problem extends to the professional Burma-watchers' international conference front. Such meetings are often dominated and manipulated by organisations and experts with a stake in maintaining friendly relationships with the Rangoon regime. Some of those attending will criticise the junta, though mostly within safe boundaries. Moreover, the last three years have seen an increase in arguments for lifting international sanctions against Burma.

More recently, at a 3 November conference in Washington, Daw Ni Ni Myint from the Myanmar embassy in the United States unwittingly acknowledged that the "four cuts" campaigns - designed to deprive armed opposition groups of food, funds, recruits and information - still exist in Burma "for military operations". Here, Jeremy Woodrum of USCB had the last word, saying the conference panel should have included representatives from the National League for Democracy and scholars who argue that sanctions against the Burmese regime have worked.

In this sense, CNN, PBS - and You Tube - have exposed more of the truth of Burma today than many foreign experts sitting on a stage passing judgment and recommending policy on the country. Behind all the fine words and all the fine jewels, the Burmese people continue to suffer the depredations of a criminal regime. Those who cannot recognise it need a reality-check.


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