FREE THE VJs: Inside Burma’s Secret Network

Today on World Press Freedom Day the global campaign “Free The VJs” is launched by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Seventeen reporters for the DVB are incarcerated in prisons across Burma. Some are serving sentences of 27 years, arbitrarily jailed for the so-called crime of exposing the truth about the regime. Their work has included the documenting of scorched-earth tactics against ethnic minorities, the murdering of monks by Burmese troops, and the ineptitude of the regime following cyclone Nargis in 2008. The video-journalists, or VJs, have become a source of humiliation for the regime, which keeps nearly 2,100 political prisoners behind bars: among these are activists, doctors, lawyers, MPs and comedians.

The release of the VJs and Burma’s many political prisoners is a key prerequisite to democratic transition in the country, which in March swore in what it claims to be a new civilian government. Whether this government will overturn Burma’s distinction as one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist remains to be seen, but action must be taken now.

Please visit the official website FREE THE VJs for further details where you can support our campaign and help bring about the release of our colleagues imprisoned in Burma’s jails.

View photos from inside Burma’s the secret VJ network – CLICK HERE – taken clandestinely in the secret offices in Thailand and Norway

Undercover VJs at work in the secret offices

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Military, Democracy and Ludu U Sein Win

A four hour delay at an airport with not a plane in sight might be hard to comprehend anywhere else in the world other than here. Last time I caught a flight a few years ago instead of landing in Mandalay we found ourselves at Heho – even to the surprise of the captain judging by his announcement upon arrival. But thankfully a transfer to another plane meant a safe arrival back in Rangoon and in time for a meeting that I had been looking forward to for some time with one of Burma’s most famous and well respected dissidents. Mandalay had had it’s moments of caution but with no sign yet of any ‘trouble’ from the authorities, now was not the time to relax on taking care and covering your tracks as needed. Moving hotel each night is just part of the game of cat and mouse that one plays to try to stay one step ahead of attention from the authorities. Checking in under a false name can even buy you time if you are being followed and judging by others apparent recent experiences of scores of police cars giving chase at high speed through the 5 lane highways of Rangoon whilst knocking over market stalls, one clearly has to take more care now than ever before. Checking in as ‘Jason Bourne’ was not going to be missed in an effort to bring out my own equally fantasy filled story from inside Burma. But of course I have no such stories to bring back nor take lightly the dangers involved in working inside Burma. The only stories I wish to tell are those of the people who have stood up to this brutal regime. Wandering once more through the busy streets of downtown Rangoon I made my way to meet with the man who’s writings had defied successive military regimes for more than 50 years.

Ludu U Sein Win was jailed for 13 years in Insein Prison and Coco Island

Veteran journalist, author and openly outspoken critic of Burma’s ruling military regime, Saya Ludu U Sein Win has fought tirelessly for more than four decades for the people of Burma. His hardline approach has more than often seen him calling for Burmese people to topple the regime by force rather than relying on help from the outside world and an ineffective and uncaring United Nations. He began his career as a journalist at ‘Ludu’ (The People) newspaper in 1964 but with his subversive style of commentary he soon caught the attention of General Ne Win and just 3 years later by 1967 Ne Win had ordered the paper to be shut down and Ludu Sein Win along with five other editors were arrested. He was sentenced without trial to 13 years in prison and jailed in Insein where he was placed in solitary confinement for two years before being sent to the notorious Coco Island, the island prison in the Andaman Sea that housed only political prisoners. In 1971 he was returned to Insein prison before his release in 1976. However, his freedom was short lived and was soon jailed again for a further four years. In 1980 he was finally released after he suffered a stroke in an Insein prison cell where he had been kept alone for three years. Though the right side of his body was paralysed, he learned to write with his left hand after his release and still today, using more than 15 pseudonyms, he writes 2 essays every day for about a dozen weekly journals and a dozen monthly magazines including Weekly ElevenNews Watch and Ah Kwint Ah Lan. His indomitable spirit defies everything that both the regime and his increasingly poor health throw at him – he survives with the breathing aid of an oxygen tank that more than often fails due to the lack of electricity supply in Rangoon.

Like so many before he has faced the wrath of the regime for speaking out to foreign and exiled media but he continues to do so and it is with his instruction that his portrait and brief audio clip (below) from our conversation is published here.

Q. “Do you feel there can be any dialogue before political prisoners are released?”

Ludu U Sein Win: “No, I don’t think so. They must be released first. The government side must show some good will on the political activists. Without showing this good will how can we trust to conduct a dialogue with this kind of regime? Without the release of political prisoners there will be no dialogue, there will be no national reconciliation. At this situation they dare not release especially the student leaders like Min Ko Naing and his friends. They are the most powerful after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I think the one and only effective way to help our people including the political prisoners is to help Burmese people change the regime. With this military regime I don’t believe any military regime will allow democracy in the country. Military and democracy are opposites. Poles apart.”

With the name ‘Zarganar’ written on his left palm (due to paralysis in his right side), Ludu U Sein Win stands for more than 50 other dissidents who I have met and photographed inside Burma. Their portraits cannot yet be shown in public for fear of reprisal from the authorities. Their safety must be guaranteed above all else and many of those who I have met (and work with) would face severe retribution of the highest degree from this regime should their faces be put alongside their colleagues who can be shown in public. Rest assured that whilst the risks they have taken are significant they have not be taken in vain or even for some pointless vanity project. Whilst their faces may be hidden their voices are not and the fight for democracy in Burma continues with them and for them whatever it takes and whatever the risks.

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Saw Wai nominated for major award

Burmese poet Saw Wai who was jailed in November 2008 having been sentenced to two years in Insein prison for writing a valentine’s day poem that contained a secret hidden code that criticised Senior General Than Shwe has been nominated for the ‘Imprisoned Artiste Prize’ in the 2009 ‘Freedom to Create Prize’ – for full details on the awards please click here

Khin Maung Soe

This is Khin Maung Soe. He was detained in Insein prison for 4 years.

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