RFA’s Burmese Service
Last Updated on Thursday, 17 November 2011 05:36 Written by RFA15 Wednesday, 16 November 2011 02:53
Thank you for visiting RFA’s 15th Anniversary site. This month we’re featuring RFA’s service to Burma. Since its beginning in 1997, RFA’s Burmese service has been successfully breaking stories and providing thorough coverage of news and information important to people in Burma and Burmese people living around the world.
Please scroll down to explore the unique features of RFA Burmese, including its popular programming, exclusive coverage, and listener comments.
You can also view major news events and story highlights as well as awards won by RFA Burmese journalists.
First Broadcast: February 3, 1997
Languages: Burmese and 7 other ethnic languages
Coverage: 4 hours per day, 7 days a week
Distribution: Radio, Internet and satellite
English Language Website: www.rfa.org/english/news/burma
Burmese Blog: www.reportsfromdc.com
Target Audience: 55 million people in Burma and millions in exile
Special programming: In addition to news, RFA Burmese also features programming devoted to political discussions and commentary, literature, the cultures and traditions of Burma’s different ethnic groups, current events of the region and Burma’s neighbors, environmental and updates on deforestation in the country, listeners’ letters and emails, the lives of Burmese refugees in Thailand, U.N. reports on the country, and health and well being, and even political satire. RFA Burmese also broadcasts programs weekly in each of the seven main ethnic languages. In November 2010, RFA was the first broadcaster to feature a radio forum with Aung San Suu Kyi, in which Burmese listeners could ask the Nobel laureate questions about democracy, political reform, and her views on current affairs.
First Broadcast: On Feb. 3, 1997, RFA’s Burmese service made its first broadcast that lasted one hour. After introducing the new radio service and outlining its mission and goals for listeners, RFA’s broadcasters ran down a list of top news items for the country, with individual reports filed from staff based in Thailand at RFA’s Bangkok bureau. These included the state of human rights and the country’s military engagement with ethnic rebel forces. Shortly after, the service began airing a regular segment on censorship to focus on longstanding issues related to the country’s restrictive media and free speech environment.
The following year, RFA Burmese started airing live anchor shows instead of pre-taped programs. Since the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma, RFA Burmese has three hours of programming plus an additional one hour repeat of the live broadcast. RFA Burmese began with a broadcast staff of eight. Since then, the number of broadcasters has doubled and the service also has an online multimedia editor.
Reaction from Burma: In it’s maiden broadcast, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed RFA’s newest language broadcast and its role in providing non-government-controlled news in Burma: “We would like to welcome Radio Free Asia. But what Burma needs is, like Radio Free Asia, voices and views from the rest of the world. As you know, there are three newspapers in Burma and all of those newspapers are controlled by the government. Therefore, it is very important for us to be able to hear the views of others, the views of our own people and news and features that do not reflect the views of the government. As such, it is a powerful source of strength for us to know that a radio station like Radio Free Asia has been established to broadcast, with absolute freedom, the views of the world as well as those of the people of Burma. We would like to wish every success to the Burmese Language program of Radio Free Asia.”
Media Environment in Burma
In one of the world’s worst environments for free speech and journalism, Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service has brought accurate, breaking news directly to the people of Burma. Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders have consistently ranked Burma, among the lowest rated countries for media freedom in their annual surveys. With the transfer of power to ostensible civilian rule in 2011, Burmese people and the world are keeping watchful eye on the country for real, meaningful reform given the stark reality of the longstanding state of free speech and press.
Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom of the Press Index states that “The 2008 constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but the Burmese media environment remained among the most tightly restricted in the world in 2010. The government owns all broadcast media and daily newspapers, and exercises tight control over a growing number of privately owned weekly and monthly publications.”
Comedian blogger Maung Thura, popularly known as Zarganar, was serving a 59-year prison term (which was later reduced to 35 years on appeal) until his release on Oct. 12, 2011 along with approximately 200 other political prisoners. In 2008, he was arrested after disseminating video footage after Cyclone Nargis and speaking with foreign media. He was sentenced to 59 years in prison for violating Myanmar’s Electronic Transactions Law, which bans citizens from using the Internet to send information, photos, or videos critical of the government to foreign audiences, among other charges.
Despite obstacles, RFA Burmese has been successful in warning listeners of deadly storms; airing exclusive reports on human and political rights abuses; broadcasting frequent coverage relating to the treatment and rights of Burma’s minority groups, such as the Rohingya and Karen communities; holding open, on-air forums and debates for opposition party leaders; providing special, in-depth coverage on the lives of Burma’s refugees in Thailand; and exposing the Burmese military’s recruitment efforts among children, in addition to exploring other important topics.
Global news sources, including The New York Times, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, BBC, Associated Press, Reuters, and USA Today, have cited the Burmese service’s thorough, often exclusive coverage of news related to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic strife within the country, Burma’s military ties to North Korea, Cyclone Nargis, and the “Saffron Revolution,” among other important stories over the years.
In 2008, the Burmese service broke news of Cyclone Nargis several days before the deadly storm made landfall and a full 24 hours before state-controlled media even made a passing reference to it. After the cyclone hit, the service updated listeners about health and safety information essential to Burmese listeners about rescue efforts and available water and power supplies. For its excellent coverage of the cyclone and its aftermath, the service won a Gold Medal in the 2009 New York Festivals radio competition in the category of “Best Ongoing News Story.”
RFA Burmese also covered events that fueled the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 and doubled its broadcast hours after the military junta government shut down the Internet and cell phone communication to block the flow of news and information during the protests in Rangoon. The service’s coverage was honored with a Gold Medal from the 2008 New York Festivals.
The People and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: In November 2010, the service launched an ongoing weekly listener forum with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, shortly after she was freed from house arrest. RFA Burmese was the first news service to secure a commitment from the democracy icon to participate in a radio discussion series. People in Burma call or email Radio Free Asia with their questions during the week and she responds over the air every Friday.
Sunday Talks: This popular weekly program covers a range of topics important to its Burmese listeners, including human rights and labor issues, press freedom, welfare of political prisoners, women’s issues, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, the military recruitment of children, and international sanctions against the country.
Ethnic Language Programs
Reflecting the country’s diversity and complex ethnic politics, RFA Burmese introduced brief ethnic language segments in its daily evening broadcasts in 2006. These promote cultural awareness of Burma’s different ethnic traditions and focus on issues important to the different ethnic groups within the country.
Favorite Feature Programs
Burden of History: Aung San Suu Kyi’s lieutenant, who survives as longest jailed journalist, Win Tin gives an account of his past experiences of Burma’s political history in an exclusive engagement with RFA Burmese.
Book Review: Historical contemporary and classic non-fiction books about Burma are reviewed by a historian.
Jambon Says: Political satire in the voice of the fictitious title character, a village girl in Burma.
Listeners’ Letters: Letters and complaints against corrupt officials written by listeners to RFA are read on air. Topics vary according to their letters.
Burmese Literary Roundtable: Literary discussions on contemporary and classic works are moderated by a Burmese language and literature expert.
RFA’s Burmese service launched its Burmese language website in early 2000 with a multimedia page and live broadcast. The official RFA Burmese blog began in 2007 and features RFA news stories and reports.
The YouTube Channel was launched on May 12, 2010 with exclusive video coverage and video webcast that receive hundreds of thousands of views regularly.
RFA Burmese also maintains a strong presence on its Facebook page.
2010: At the 2010 New York Festivals, RFA Burmese reporter Kyaw Min Htun won a Bronze Meda lin the category of Best Coverage of Ongoing News Story for his stories on the human trafficking of Burmese refugees and migrants in Malaysia. For his stories, he interviewed ethnic migrants seeking asylum in Malaysia after being subjected to persecution in Burma. Once in Malaysia, many faced exploitation by human-traffickers, abusive employers, and corrupt officials.
2009: RFA’s Burmese service won a Gold Medal in the category of Best Ongoing News Story at the New York Festivals Radio Programming & Promotion Awards for its excellent coverage of Cyclone Nargis, which both warned listeners of the approaching storm and, after it made landfall, helped survivors find desperately needed food, shelter, medical attention and other humanitarian aid.
2008: The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) honored RFA’s Burmese service with its 2008 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award for its coverage of the 2007 Burmese “Saffron Revolution.” In 2008, New York Festivals Radio Broadcasting Awards also honored RFA Burmese’s coverage with a Gold Medal for its coverage of the September 2007 Saffron Revolution.
What Listeners Say
Aung San Suu Kyi recorded a special message for RFA’s 15th Anniversary, in which she thanks RFA for keeping her aware of events unfolding around the world and for its “invaluable contribution” to the strengthening of democratic values and freedoms. Listeners have also expressed their thoughts on RFA’s impact and value in their daily lives.
“RFA’s educational programs teach us how to understand politics, inform us of the new technological innovations and how they might affect mankind. We have learned a lot from those programs. Even though I am not an educated person, RFA’s educational programs have enabled me to converse like an educated person. A few months ago, I explained the universal declaration of human rights to a son of the businessman I worked for. When I came to the end of my explanation, the mother and the son asked me how I learned about it because they were in disbelief that a coolie could have a sophisticated understanding of politics. I replied that I had learned it from foreign radio broadcasts. They then proceeded to ask me which stations I listened to. I told them that I listened to RFA … regularly. This should prove RFA’s effectiveness and success in presenting educational programs.” – Male listener, 38, from the Matayar with a middle school education.
“I learned that Mayor U Aung Thein Lin was scolded by the old man U Than Shwe due to this program. Now, I heard from sources close to the authorities that clearing the city of rubbish is going to be done systematically. The reports of RFA somehow have an effect and that is why I listen to it with much trust.” – Female listener, 35, Rangoon
“Thanks so much for your great work. I am from Pekhon but now living in Yangon and regularly listening to RFA. I am very grateful to your most valuable work for the people of Myanmar by leading in the fight for the better life of the people. I assure you all my love, prayer and support. Don’t give up. Many poor and frightened people are looking up to you as their heroes and hopefully as saviors.” – Monk from Rangoon
“If there is no RFA, Burmese people will be blind and deaf. It is an eye-opener and plays an important role by broadcasting about Burma. RFA … is trying hard for the Burmese people to achieve their human rights.” – Male listener, 23, ethnic Kachin
“RFA is a very important and vital backbone for Burma. News and current affairs is not enough to raise the level of knowledge. The analysis and the commentaries are what make listeners broaden their thoughts and minds. The satire programs are also an elixir of strength that gives a healthy balance to the transmission. Its extraordinary broadcasts are what makes RFA different from other broadcasters and brings RFA closer to the people of Burma than other foreign media.” – Male listener, 29
Major News Events and Service Highlights
Burmese Embassy Hostage Crisis
On Oct. 1 in Thailand, the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors took 38 diplomats as hostages at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. Two Thai officials were exchanged for the hostages and 12 students were reported to have flown to the Thai-Myanmar border by helicopter, where they were released. The students demanded the release of political prisoners, dialogue between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi and an elected parliament. RFA aired live coverage of the crisis incorporating field staff in Bangkok and Washington studio.
On Sept. 9, Burmese dissidents in several cities abroad staged noisy protests demanding a transfer of power to the opposition National League for Democracy, winners of the last election in 1990, which was never allowed to govern.
God’s Army Storms Thai Hospital
In Thailand security forces stormed a hospital and ended a 22-hour standoff with Burmese guerrillas. Ten rebels of the notorious “God’s Army” were reported killed. The hostage-takers were executed after surrendering to security forces.
Presidential Medal of Freedom
U.S. President Clinton presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Alexander Aris, the son of Aung San Suu Kyi, on behalf of his mother who was held under house arrest.
Gods’ Army Surrender
Luther and Johnny Htoo, twin-brother adolescent leaders of an ethnic Karen rebel group, surrendered to Thai border police on Jan. 16.
A helicopter crash killed one of the country’s highest-ranking generals, Lt. Gen. Tin Oo, and left 14 missing near the Thai-Burma border.
The Fall of Royal Family
Aye Zaw Win and three adult sons, four relatives of former dictator Ne Win, were arrested and some military officers were dismissed for planning a coup. Later Ne Win and his daughter were put under house arrest. Aye Zaw Win and his sons were convicted and sentenced to death Sep 26. RFA staff interviewed sources close to the event and also talked with one of the former dictator’s sons who was living in Germany.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s Campaign Trip to Upper Burma
After her freedom from 19 months house arrest on May 6, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi began to take a trip outside of Rangoon. RFA also conducted the first interview with the leader after release from her Second House Arrest.
The Depayin Massacre occurred on May 30, 2003, when at least 70 people associated with the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi were killed by a government-sponsored mob in Burma.
US First Lady Asks United Nations Security Council to Discuss Burma on its Agenda
RFA exclusively reported on Laura Bush’s visit to UN Headquarters in New York City. She personally highlighted the plights of the Burmese people for freedom and democracy. On September 15, over strong opposition from China, the UN Security Council put Myanmar on its agenda in what US officials called a “major step forward” in American efforts to increase pressure on the country’s military dictatorship.
August-September: Saffron Revolution
Sparked by a sudden spike in fuel prices, Burma’s “Saffron Revolution” saw thousands of monks, nuns, and lay people take to the streets nationwide in peaceful protests demanding political change. A government crackdown led to thousands of arrests, beatings, and detentions. On Aug. 15 the junta removed fuel subsidies, doubling diesel price while gas jumped 500 percent, forcing an already impoverished population to demonstrate in the streets. By Sept. 24, demonstrations grew to nearly 100,00 in Rangoon, the largest since 1988 pro-democracy protests. Marches occurred simultaneously in 25 cities across Burma. The junta imposed new curbs on freedoms including curfews and bans on gatherings. It later acknowledged arresting some 3,000 people.
Sittwe Monk Protest
Supporting fuel price hike protesters, Buddhist monks in the Rakkine State capital of Sittwe, marched through the streets and took over city hall. They were stopped by authorities.
Gas Price Hike Protests led by 88 Generation Students in Rangoon
Bystanders and passengers from buses joined 88 Generation leaders for a protest against raising gas prices. All of the student leaders were detained in the following days. RFA aired the first exclusive report to Burma about the events.
On Sept. 5, the regime’s authorities allegedly tied up and beat some Buddhist monks for fuel hike protests in the small town of Pakkoku, near Mandalay. RFA stringers and staff exclusively reported first hand and offered witness accounts of the incident later known as Pakkoku Incident in Burmese political history. The leader of the Saffron Revolution, later known as Ashin Gambira, emerged from mass protests. Only RFA identified and aired his voice in the days of the protests.
The Burmese junta continued to orchestrate compulsory pro-government rallies throughout the country following its violent response to the democracy protests. In the month since the government pulled the plug on the Internet and shot, beat, and arrested several thousand protesters, RFA Burmese reported on government measures to further intimidate the populace of Burma. These measures included intensive manhunts for anyone participating in protests, middle-of-the-night arrests, and deplorable and degrading treatment of prisoners, including monks. RFA carried interviews with released prisoners who told of mock suffocation, sleep deprivation, beatings, solitary confinement, and medical neglect while in detention. Augmenting the released prisoners’ accounts on what happens after detention are numerous interviews with people in hiding and families whose members are still missing.
RFA also reported on international diplomatic measures to pressure the government to negotiate on change, as well as the pleas for help from inside Burma. U Gambira, a leader of the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance that spearheaded the nationwide protests said from hiding, “Many people are being killed, imprisoned, tortured, and sent to forced labor camps. I hereby sincerely ask the international community to do something to stop these atrocities.” The government meanwhile continued its attacks on RFA and other international news organizations blaming them for instigating the protests and “airing a sky full of lies.”
Burmese Detainees Describe Abuses
As the Burmese military continued to raid monasteries and make arrests, RFA’s Burmese service broadcast a series of interviews with monks, activists, and relatives of activists. They described the human toll that has been inflicted by the raids, arrests, and interrogations that have taken place throughout Burma. The interviewees included an AIDS activist who is on the run, the wife of a rights activist who was invited to have tea with security officials and then never returned home, and a monk who described how the soldiers arrived in trucks at his monastery late at night, kicked open windows and doors, and dragged off about 100 monks.
Perhaps the most moving interview was with the mother of U Gambira, one of the leading monks in the protests. She confirmed that the military had arrested her son. She said that she was worried about him but also about her husband, and their other son and his wife, all of whom were on the run. At the same time, she expressed pride in their love for their country and that there are many other sons like Gambira who are willing to sacrifice for the country.
May: Cyclone Nargis Tragedy
Two natural disasters with devastating consequences for RFA Burmese’s audience took place in May 2008. On May 3, cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy delta affecting as many as 5.5 million people. RFA exclusively warned of the danger of Burma’s deadliest tropical storm in history 48 hours ahead of its landing. Cyclone Nargis killed nearly 150,000 people in Burma’s delta region. RFA Burmese first warned of the approaching storm broadcast on April 29, a full day before state-sponsored media even mentioned it. On April 30, the service interviewed the Director General of Burma’s Meteorology and Hydrology in which he down-played the approaching cyclone. On May 1, RFA interviewed a sociologist and a journalist who sounded alarm that the government was not properly preparing the people for the 125 mph winds and rains. He said, “Nothing is happening because the officials are waiting for orders from their seniors. But there is no reason to wait because this is an emergency situation and the radio and television should be repeating warnings frequently.” He noted that the US government on the other side of the world recalled its citizens to safety by sending email to the tourist hotels while the Burmese newspaper covers were photos of Burmese generals.
The Burmese radio and television did not start issuing warnings until the evening of May 2 – and even then, there were no directions given to citizens on how to protect themselves. First Lady Laura Bush spoke out immediately after the cyclone damage was reported in Burma and credited RFA’s continuous coverage of events in Burma with keeping the people of Burma informed.
Disease Hits Cyclone Refugees
More than 1 million Burmese survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis were still living with scant food or water as the threat of infectious disease mounted. Many say they had yet to receive any official aid and were managing as best they can on handouts from well-wishers and non-government groups.
Burma: What Witnesses are Saying
Witnesses in Burma contacted RFA Burmese service staff with heartbreaking accounts of devastation, death, and a major humanitarian crisis in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Nargis. RFA made use of citizen reporters’ photos, publishing a number of slideshows as well as video. The first earthquake video to reach RFA Burmese, shot by Chengdu university students in their dorm as objects were falling around in the room, drew 50,000 views.
Burmese Comedian Detained
Authorities detained Burma’s best-known comedian, a critic of the junta, who was involved in private efforts to aid victims of Cyclone Nargis. Family members of Maung Thura told RFA that authorities searched his home before detaining him when he returned from the devastated Irrawaddy delta region where he was helping cyclone survivors. His mother deplored the fact that he was being punished for doing good. “People who trusted him donated also – people from Bago sent some bags of rice, and from all over, people started to send 10, 15, 20, 100 bags of rice.” Zargana’s sister-in-law told RFA that the authorities were “searching for anything related to politics yesterday. They didn’t find anything, so they took away CDs, 30 foreign exchange certificates, and 10 hundred-dollar bills that they registered on an official form. They didn’t find anything. He’s just doing social work,” she said. Maung was detained in September 2007 after the “Saffron Revolution.” In October, he said, “I believe I will have to participate in the areas where I’m needed. I would like to say that artists, including me, should not be reluctant to work for the people.”
Key Dates in Burma’s Saffron Revolution
One year after Burmese monks joined widespread protests against the ruling junta, RFA features a slideshow chronology of key dates in what became known as Burma’s “Saffron Revolution.”
RFA Burmese continued to report on the post-Saffron Revolution crackdown.
Burmese Activists Get Stiff Sentences
RFA Burmese reported that Burma’s courts sentenced members of the country’s pro-democracy movement in a closed-court session. According to relatives, 14 members of the “88 Generation” student pro-democracy movement were given prison terms of 65 years, while 10 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition movement received eight to 24 years each. The 14 were convicted of four counts of illegally using electronic media and given 15 years on each charge, plus five years for forming an illegal organization.
The mother of De Nyein Lin, one of the students sentenced to 65 years, told RFA that her husband had also been sentenced to 65 years in prison on an unrelated charge. She said she still believed in what they were fighting for. “I’m not upset – I am honored and proud. They are fighting for the truth and, because of this, I am proud of them,” she said. “It’s not only my husband. Now [the authorities] have my son as well. Let them do what they want; our family won’t be discouraged. I told my son and my husband that even when I grow old with grey hair, and am walking with a cane, I will keep coming to see them.”
Burmese Prisoners Killed After Cyclone
The Burmese service learned from sources, who asked to remain anonymous, that guards at Burma’s Insein Prison beat scores of inmates following a prison riot nine months earlier. Nine of the prisoners later died from their injuries, the sources said. The guards beat the prisoners while trying to identify those who rioted after Cyclone Nargis damaged the prison. After being beaten, the men were denied water for four days and food for 11 days. “They told us they would give us food if we confessed,” a prisoner said. “But even after some confessed, we didn’t get any food. Then, 11 days later, we began to receive a spoonful of rice puree twice a day.” On January 11, a special court inside Insein handed down sentences of two years each to 28 participants in the riot. Seven others were given 12 years each for arson, damaging public property, and leading the riot, according to sources close to the trial and the prisoners.
Jailed Burmese Reporter Honored
RFA’s Burmese service interviewed a close friend of imprisoned woman journalist Eint Khaing Oo, who was awarded the first Kengi Nargai Journalism Award from the Burma Media Association for her public-interest journalism work. And a special program aired this month: “Memories of General Aung San,” Burma’s independence hero and the father of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, on his birthday. RFA interviewed several people who knew the general, including Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw, poet Dagon Taya, and veteran politicians, Thakhin Thein Pe, and Thakhin Chan Tun.
Boycott Fails to Halt Gem Trade
RFA Burmese broadcast a seven-part investigative report on the impact of the United States’ ban on importing gems from Burma, which went into effect in October 2008. RFA interviewed the president of the Thai Gem Association, Burmese gem traders, and gem market vendors along the Burmese and China border. Despite US sanctions aimed at restricting the gem trade, RFA reporter Tin Aung Khine found that it was pretty much business as usual for traders working in Thailand and along the border.
Lead, Arsenic in Burmese Medicines
RFA Burmese featured a report on Burmese folk medicines being identified as potential sources of lead and arsenic poisoning to Burmese refugee children in Indiana. The two medicines ‘Daw Tway’ and ‘Daw Kyin’ have been taken off the shelf in Indiana Burmese market stalls; RFA contacted the Federal Drug Administration in the Ministry of Health in Rangoon, and was told to contact the Department of Indigenous Medicines. Their Director General responded to the reporter’s questions saying, “I don’t think these medicines are what we have in the market today; most likely to be medicines of earlier times, i.e. before 2007”. The packages in Indiana bear the date of September 2007 on their labels. The Ministry of Health said that he issued a warning on April 4 about these two medicines in their newspaper; however RFA’s follow up revealed that they were still being sold in well known pharmacies.
Opposition Leader’s Trial Under Way
RFA’s Burmese service covered the Aung San Suu Kyi trial. RFA interviewed her lawyer, U Kyi Win, whose request for the trial to be open to the public was denied. Aung San Suu Kyi pleaded “not guilty” to the charges that she violated the terms of her house arrest when American John Yettaw sneaked onto her property without her knowledge. RFA also interviewed the elder daughter of the woman who lives with Aung San Suu Kyi, who, along with her other daughter, is also on trial. This spurred much international outcry, with President Obama calling for Suu Kyi’s release as well as for reviewing US sanctions against Burma.
The Burmese service aired a series on “Trafficking of Burmese/Rohingyas into Malaysia and Thailand,” which revealed the vicious cycle of Burmese people being trafficked as slave labor. The reports disclosed that the traffickers are working with authorities, and the illegal immigrants are being sold repeatedly. One undocumented individual had been sold five times, according to RFA’s sources.
‘I Worked For Human Traffickers’
In an exclusive interview from his hiding place in Malaysia, Burmese refugee Ko Wunna told RFA how he was forced to work for human traffickers who engage in cross-border slavery with the help of police. Ko Wunna is a 28-year-old resident of Rangoon, who was trafficked to Malaysia by gangs importing illegal workers in a constantly revolving racket in which, former participants say, the Malaysian police are also complicit. In the second part of this in-depth interview,he spoke about his experiences working for a trafficking gang in the region in and around northern Malaysia’s Kedah province, which borders Songkhla and Yala provinces in Thailand.
U.S. Senator Jim Webb’s Visit to the Burmese Capital of Naypyidaw
RFA’s Burmese service covered U.S. Senator Jim Webb’s visit to the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw and his meeting with Senior General Than Shwe. Senator Webb was granted his request for the release of John Yettaw, the US citizen who trespassed onto Aung San Suu Kyi’s property, resulting in the two being arrested and tried, and ending in the sentencing of Mr. Yettaw to seven years of hard labor. Sen. Webb was also allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). RFA interviewed an NLD Central Executive Committee (CEC) member and a Shan group leader, and reported on the conflicting feelings and views, even among NLD leaders, on Senator Webb’s trip and what it might accomplish for Burma.
Refugees Tell of Harrowing Escape
RFA broadcast a news item about a meeting between the leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU) and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a breakaway group backed by the military government, over the possibility of reunification after five years of in-fighting. The KNU is the longest-surviving armed ethnic group that has been fighting for autonomy against the Burmese regime. Karen refugees continue to flood over the border into Thailand. DKBA has tried to convince the refugees at the camps that it is now safe to return to Burma, but the refugees fear returning because they are clearly aware that DKBA continues to recruit soldiers among the population and both boys and girls as young as ten years old are being forced into work as porters for military needs, including munitions.
Burmese ‘Trafficked’ To Thailand
RFA Burmese produced a five-minute video report on a human-trafficking ring, based on inteviews with Burmese refugees in Thailand. Victims in Burma were lured into paying brokers for what they thought were good jobs in Thailand. But they end up caught in a vicious circle of exploitation when they are resold to other traffickers once outside of Burma. The video skillfully tells the story without compromising the victims’ identities. Available on RFA’s YouTube video channel in Burmese language only, the video received 2,000 views during the first five days.
Child Soldier Released
Magwe Division military authorities returned a 14-year old boy from Taungdwingyi to his parents, four days after RFA’s Burmese service reported his forced recruitment.
Youths Held by Army
RFA’s Burmese service continued its in-depth reporting on child soldiers. In June, the service reported that Burma’s army moved a minor beyond the reach of his parents after he tried to flee forced military service and was holding another youth in a mine-clearing school. Maung Aung Myo Zaw, 16, had earlier disappeared after quarreling with his family, and was later located at an army training center. “We got there as they were finishing the training,” his mother told RFA. “When we got there, our son said that he was unhappy and tried to run away. But the army caught him as he tried to flee, and then they beat him on his face and ears … Now, we have not been able to establish contact with our son at all.” Maung Aung Ko Khant, also 16, went missing after his mother died and was later found to have been forced into military service. His uncle told RFA that Maung was being held at a field engineering school, where he was forced to blow up mines.
Military Officer Ordered Killings
RFA’s Burmese service reported that soldiers gunned down two local youths in Bago, about 50 miles from Rangoon, following an argument. RFA spoke to the mother and an aunt of one of the youths.
Rights Abuses Fuel Deaths
Human rights abuses by Burma’s military junta cause massive health problems and increasing numbers of deaths among children, according to a new medical study. RFA reported that the survey of about 30,000 people, conducted in conflict-ridden eastern Burma by community health groups, including the Backpack Health Workers’ Team and the BurmaMedical Association, revealed that households suffering rights violations had “worse health outcomes,” according to their report.
Former US First Lady Calls for Release of Aung San Suu Kyi
Former US First Lady Bush, in an interview with RFA, said “I think what the world can do is speak out and speak straight to the people of Burma in any way that is possible.” Bush wants the world to speak up on Burma and the various restrictions imposed on its people by the ruling military junta, which is holding elections this weekend that are being criticized as not free and fair.
Suu Kyi Freed
Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. She immediately told her supporters to unite in her struggle to bring freedom to her reclusive country. RFA Burmese reported that she met with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun shortly after her release. She discussed national reconciliation and a controversial proposal to convene a conference to bring all ethnic groups in Burma together for discussions. Yun met with other political parties and visited Naypidaw, the new capital.
Quake Toll Climbs
RFA’s Burmese service reported that a 6.9 earthquake hit Burma’s Eastern Shan state. RFA’s coverage included the quake’s impact on the Burmese and relief efforts. As in the Cyclone Nargis tragedy in 2008, the army did not allow volunteers and NGOs to bring aid to the worst-hit areas. RFA reported that a Burmese volunteered to bring in instant noodles and other supplies but was stopped by soldiers and forced to turn everything over to them. The main Shan State hospital in Tachilek was jammed with people injured by the quake, and many of them had to be left outside the hospital.
Kachin Demand Power, Rights
On a rare trip inside Burma, RFA Burmese reporter Khin Maung Soe interviewed La Nan, the joint secretary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Kachin rebels, who resumed fighting for an independent state north of Burma after a 17-year ceasefire, have said they will not lay down arms until the newly elected Burmese government agrees to the ethnic group’s demands. “We want our own rights and own rules,” La Nan told RFA. “They always tell us to do what they want us to do and won’t negotiate with us,” he said. The KIO is the political wing of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), a group that claims to number as many as 50,000 fighters, including soldiers on reserve service. Other estimates trim the number to around 10,000. According to sources within the KIA, the group has its own facility for producing AK-47 rifles. Much of the army’s funding comes from the sale of jade and timber in the region. La Nan said that even though it is waging an armed struggle, the KIO does back non-violent pro-democracy movements within Burma, such as the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Burma’s Top Diplomat in Washington Defects
A top Burmese diplomat’s decision to defect and seek political asylum in the U.S. shows that the country’s new quasi-civilian government has no intention of enacting long-awaited reforms. On July 3, RFA broke the story that a top Burmese diplomat was defecting to the United States. Kyaw Win, a veteran career diplomat and number two official at the Burmese embassy in Washington, D.C., told RFA that he decided to defect because he saw little hope for Burma’s future and because he feared that he and his family might be in danger. Kyaw Win said that his reports questioning the actions of the Burmese military authorities and urging dialogue and reconciliation resulted in his being “deemed dangerous” by the Burmese government. The story of Kyaw Win’s defection was picked up by all major international wire services as well as by the BBC and leading daily newspapers.
In an exclusive interview with RFA — his first ever talk with foreign media — Khin Aung Myint, Burma’s parliament chief, said that he has no objections to Aung San Suu Kyi joining the legislature. He has been linked to a group of hardliners within the cabinet against reforms being introduced by the nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein that could see greater political and economic freedom.
Mega-dam Project Halted
President Thein Sein announced to Parliament that the construction of the controversial Myitsone Dam will be suspended during his tenure. RFA’s Burmese service reported that Aung San Suu Kyi and members of other political parties and NGOs welcomed the announcement, saying this is the only decision made by the authorities in the past several decades that is in accord with the people’s wishes.
Burma’s Censorship Czar Calls for Press Freedom
Tint Swe, director of the Burmese Press Scrutiny and Registration Department told RFA in an exclusive interview that “Press censorship is non-existent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors and as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future.” The surprising admission was picked up by numerous sources worldwide with an eye toward reform in Burma.
Burma Frees Some Political Prisoners
Burma released several hundred political prisoners as part of a mass prisoner amnesty program amid reforms touted by the new nominally-civilian government but some key dissidents remained locked up. Among the most prominent dissidents freed was comedian Zarganar, who was arrested in June 2008 and sentenced to 59 years in a remote prison. He had criticized the then-military junta for their weak response to a cyclone disaster that killed more than 140,000 people.
US Envoy Meets ‘The Lady’
RFA’s Burmese service covered U.S. State Department Special Envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell during his second trip to Burma. He met with Burmese cabinet ministers and some members of parliament in Naypyidaw and visited an AIDS center and Free Funeral Service for the Poor, an organization founded by ex-film actor/director Kyaw Thu. Mitchell also held separate private talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic leaders, and former political prisoners.
Monks Hold Rare Protest
On Nov. 15, group of monks risked arrest to demand further reform in Burma. Five Buddhist monks staged a rare protest in Burma’s second largest city on Tuesday, saying they wanted the government to release all political prisoners, end a longstanding ethnic armed conflict and allow freedom of speech. They gathered at the famous Maha Myatmuni pagoda in Mandalay to announce their demands written in banners which they unfurled and put up at the building, drawing at one stage about 500 fellow monks and onlookers.
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