INDO- BURMA FRIENDSHIPS: Visiting Burmese journalists of Mizzima in Goa at bookshop Litteratti at Candolim… exchanging notes with Divya Kapoor; (right) Visiting Ratnagiri palace and picture of descendants of the last Burmese king.
Human rights lawyer and author NANDITA HAKSAR has first person insight into the harrowing time and experiences journalists and media houses are going through in neighboring Burma, now renamed Myanmar officially, where a brutal military government wields the strings of power and tolerates no opposition.
WHEN the young journalists from Mizzima visited Goa in
February 2020 they were proud of being one of the top five media houses in their country, Myanmar. They had come as a part of their journey to discover India, establish links and foster friendship between neighbors. They were hoping to come again to India but now they are all in various hideouts scattered across Myanmar ever since the military coup of February this year.
I had invited them to Goa to stay in my flat which meant they could save on the hotel expenses and also cook their food. Even though Mizzima is counted as one of the five top independent media houses in Myanmar, they were still struggling to survive in a country which is struggling to make the transition from military rule to a democracy.
In the past there have been vibrant links between India and Burma. Unfortunately, with decades of military rule when Burma was under a brutal military rule from 1962 to 1988, those links are but all forgotten.
In August 1988 when there was a national uprising and subsequent military crackdown many Burmese took refuge in India and the ties between our countries revived. Among the refugees were Thin Thin Aung and her husband Soe Myint who started Mizzima while in exile in India. It was from that time that I have known the Burmese because I took up their cases and helped them get the protection of the UNHCR.
Mizzima, derived from the Pali for middle or moderate, and chosen for its inference of an unbiased and independent media. Mizzima operated for nearly 15 years as an exile-based media organization. While many of their comrades opted for the easier option of getting asylum in Europe, America and Australia, the Mizzima continued to struggle and grow in India.
BACK IN MYANMAR
HOWEVER, in the wake of domestic reforms in Myanmar following the parliamentary elections Soe and Thin Thin decided to take Mizzima back to Myanmar in 2012. Mizzima became the first formerly exile-based media organization to gain incorporation as a local media entity, registering in Myanmar as Mizzima Media Co Ltd.
Apart from the digital daily newspaper in Burmese and weekly English language magazine in 2017 Mizzima was awarded one of five licenses to operate an independent Free-to-Air digital TV channel (www.mizzima.tv).
On August 24, 2018 Prasar Bharati signed an agreement to share content with the Burmese media group Mizzima. It is the first such deal India’s public broadcaster has made with a private media company. A part of the agreement was that Mizzima would broadcast one-hour programs on India.
I suggested to Soe Myint we use this opportunity to explore the links between our countries. So when the Mizzima team arrived in Goa they were surprised to discover the Buddhist heritage of Goa when they visited the caves near Bicholim.
The team was excited to learn the author of Amitav Ghosh, the author of the novel `The Glass Palace’ (2000) lived in Goa and they visited Litterati, the bookshop which he frequents. In the interview with Divya Kapoor they found books on Goa, including one on Goans in Burma.
THE Burmese were thrilled with the Goan cuisines but shocked to discover how the stock of fish in the oceans had depleted and how the tourism industry brought with it many problems – a valuable lesson for a country just opening up to tourism!
The Mizzima team then visited Ratnagiri to see the palace built by the last king of Burma Thibaw Min who had lived in exile in Ratnagiri just as our Mughal emperor Bahadurshah was exiled to Rangoon. ‘The Glass Palace’ is a fictionalized version of the story of the last Burmese king and the Mizzima team were thrilled to meet some of the descendants of the royal family still living in Ratnagiri.
And they visited the home of Lokmanya Tilak, the Indian freedom fighter who was in jail in Mandalay during the freedom struggle.
Soe and I had thought of several other programs to strengthen the ties between the Burmese and Indian peoples, but on February 1 the Myanmar military raided the Mizzima office and smashed it to smithereens. Soe Myint had anticipated the raid so all its journalists had already left for various hideouts; some going into the jungles on the borders while others still in the cities.
Two Mizzima journalists were arrested and are under detention. Some have crossed the border into India. But the India they have crossed into is not the same as when Soe and Thin Thin knew in their 15 years of exile. Today the government which had made an agreement with Mizzima has directed the Assam Rifles to push back any Burmese citizens trying to cross the border – even if it means they are arrested and tortured.
For instance, some Myanmar policemen have crossed into Mizoram to take refuge. They had refused to fire on fellow citizens peacefully and if they are deported they would be imprisoned, tortured and perhaps even executed. Luckily, the Mizoram CM has decided to provided shelter to them; and the peoples of the Northeast have extended all help to the Burmese refugees.
But if Myanmar becomes a military dictatorship again it will only strengthen the growing authoritarianism in the region. The struggles for democracy in India must extend to solidarity to the Burmese fighting on the streets of Myanmar. They have come out in their lakhs and hundreds have been shot dead by snipers sitting on rooftops. One young poet, Ka Za Win (1982-2021), who was among the people was shot while singing Burmese patriotic songs, shouting their slogans for democracy and giving their three-finger salutes – this is the so called love of the Myanmar military for its country:
“They love the country
Just the way they love to grate a coconut
From inside out,
For coconut milk.”
Mizzima continues to broadcast from six in the morning to late night. Their love of their country is the love of their people and not merely the territory.
(Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, campaigner and writer.)