By Katharine Webster
This year’s Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, a Burmese journalist in hiding from the military regime ruling Myanmar, told students that the fight for media freedom and democracy is a lifelong struggle – but one worth waging.
“It may not be possible to achieve what you believe in,” Soe Myint said during his speech for the annual Day Without Violence, an event observed at more than 100 college campuses across the country.
“It is not easy; it is very painful. But when you fight and when you struggle for what you believe in and what you want to be, then it is meaningful – your life is so meaningful.”
Myint, the founder of Mizzima Myanmar News and Insight, an independent news organization that went underground after the military coup in February 2021, was brought to campus by the Greeley Scholar Program within the Peace and Conflict Studies Institute. The Greeley Scholar award is named for the late Unitarian Universalist minister Dana McLean Greeley, an advocate for peace and human and civil rights.
Myint shared some personal experiences, a brief history of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and his views on the current political situation in his Day Without Violence speech and a question-and-answer session that followed. Both were conducted over Zoom from an undisclosed location because of concerns for his safety.
Myint was nominated as the Greeley Scholar by Political Science Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung, his former classmate at the University of Rangoon in Myanmar, the country known as Burma until 1989. Thawnghmung introduced him and played a video showing how Mizzima News operates in hiding from the junta.
She and Myint were in the first cohort of students at the national university to study international relations and had nearly completed their degrees when student protests broke out in March 1988 against the authoritarian government led by Gen. Ne Win.
The military responded with violence and shut down the universities, igniting protests across the country and turning Myint into an activist. Ne Win resigned in July that year, but the mass demonstrations continued, culminating in a general strike on Aug. 8, 1988. Soldiers shot thousands of demonstrators that day, known as the 8/8/88 Uprising.
The country’s civilian Congress voted overwhelmingly to establish a multiparty system of government. But in September, the military revoked the country’s constitution and imposed martial law. The day after the coup, Myint went to take photos of the protests for a university students’ magazine.
“As soon as I clicked my camera, a soldier hit me and I was on the ground ... and I was arrested,” he said. “I saw young student protestors being shot; I saw soldiers shooting into the crowd in front of us.”
After his release from jail, Myint joined other students in jungle areas that were controlled by armed rebel groups representing some of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Food, clothing, equipment and medicine were scarce, and Myint suffered repeated bouts of malaria.
Ultimately, he went into exile in Thailand. In 1990, desperate to bring Myanmar’s plight to the world’s attention, he and a fellow activist hijacked a plane using a fake bomb – a bar of soap wrapped with wires and hidden inside a Buddha figurine.
When they landed in India, they got the media attention they were seeking – and support from Indian authorities. But in retaliation, the military junta in Myanmar went after Myint’s family. His mother was sentenced to three years of hard labor and became paralyzed, he said.
Myint said support from Indian pro-democracy activists, especially a human rights lawyer he called his “second mother,” kept him going, and ultimately inspired him to found Mizzima News in 1998. A new Indian government charged him with hijacking in 2002, but he was acquitted.
Mizzima operated in exile for 14 years, broadcasting from border areas, mostly via radio. After Myanmar’s military ceded some control to a nominally civilian government in 2011, Myint and his staff at Mizzima decided to return to Myanmar.
“We knew clearly that it was not a democracy. It was a democratization process that had just begun, and we wanted to participate and contribute to nation-building,” he says. “We strove to maintain our independence and stand up for our journalistic beliefs.”
Mizzima News rose to be the third-most watched TV station in the country by late 2020, despite a “highly unequal playing field” tilted in favor of government-controlled media, Myint said. Just a few months later, the military staged another brutal coup – and Mizzima was forced underground again.
Myint asked his young staff if they wanted to remain journalists or fight. Most said they wanted to fight, he recalled. Myint is mentoring those who remain and new recruits who want to combat the junta’s disinformation.
The young journalists are adept at using new, digital broadcast technologies and social media to get Mizzima’s news reports directly to people’s smartphones, he said. Mizzima now has nearly 21 million subscribers in a country of 55 million people, and nearly 30 million subscribers worldwide.
The current fighting and protests differ in some ways from the 8/8/88 Uprising, he said. The young people now leading the anti-junta movement grew up in a more liberal Myanmar and are determined to win back their freedoms and futures. There is also much greater recognition that ethnic minorities need to be part of a new, federal system of democracy, he said.
Media has a major role to play in fighting disinformation, he said, and one of Mizzima’s more popular shows is called “Misinformation Busters.” But the price is steep. Myanmar is now ranked as the second-worst jailer of journalists in the world, after China. More than 120 have been arrested since the coup, including some from Mizzima; many remain jailed, and at least three have been killed or died in prison.
That hasn’t deterred the journalists of Mizzima, several of whom could be seen behind Myint in the studio. Mizzima is now reporting from rebel-controlled and border areas around Myanmar and helping ethnic minority communities start FM radio stations.
“Media may not fully fight for democracy, human rights or a genuine federal union, but it can supplement and contribute to these causes,” he said. “And media must fight for its own freedom.”