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Burma's exiled ethnic nationalities seminar held in North America

We were very touched by your presentation and we won’t let our beloved Venezuela go the same route as that of Burma.
Ms. Flor Burrell (Venezuela)
(By Cham Toik: Geneva, December 10, 2003)
The major problems that exist in Burma today can be traced to the formation of the Union of Burma when a diverse group of indigenous peoples agreed to work together in peace before they were freed from colonial rule.  But just months after leaders of the majority Burman and the Shan, Chin, Kachin and Karenni nationalities signed the Panglong Agreement on February 12, 1947, General Aung San (father of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) was assassinated and their hopes of establishing a Federal Union were dashed.  When Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, the government of U Nu, who succeeded General Aung San, was installed.
Almost immediately, the rights of the ethnic nationalities were rejected and civil war broke out.  As a result of the denial of basic freedoms for all people in Burma and the right to self-determination previously agreed upon, this civil war has dragged on for half a century and Burma, which could have become one of the most vibrant countries in Southeast Asia was reduced to a Least Developed Country (LDC) in the world.  To this day the Burman military government blames the ethnic nationalities for the country’s failure to develop on par with other countries of Southeast Asia.
Lack of fundamental freedom (Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Things went from bad to the worse when General New Win seized power in a coup d’etat in 1962, he immediately introduced restrictions on freedom of expression; the free press has been silenced ever since. The country was ruled through a draconian one-party system known as the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and other political and social organizations including those of the ethnic nationalities were forcibly disbanded and muted.
Under one form or another, state censorship continues to this day.  Under the present military government, the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB), a division of the powerful Ministry of Information, scrutinizes every single publication considered to be ‘anti-government’ and is consequently perceived as a threat to the military state. Similar censorship boards retain stringent control over art, music, film, performance and all other forms of artistic expression. All authors, publishers, journalists and poets must submit a personal biography to the board of literary censorship.
The board then investigates to find out if these individuals have any association to opposition political parties or connections to other people or groups deemed a threat to the regime. Anyone suspected or proved to have ‘undesirable’ connections is placed on a blacklist and their work is banned. (See chapter on. Freedom of Opinion, Expression, and the Press in the Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2002-3 at,%20Expression,%20and%20the%20Press.htm 
As part of their overall effort to control information, the present military regime restricts all forms of communication. Without a government permit, which is expensive and difficult to obtain, individuals can be arrested for possessing or using a fax machine, mobile phones, photocopier or computer; and imprisoned for years. (See, for instance the Computer Science Development Law of 1996 at
In the past month alone, a court in Burma sentenced nine people to death for high treason, including the editor of a sports magazine, Zaw Thet Htwe, and some Mon leaders, Nai Min Kyi, Nai Yekkha and Shwe Man, who the junta claim planned to create a mass movement in collusion with members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. (AP: Rangoon December 3, 2003)
There are only two Internet service providers in the country: a department of the Government’s Telecommunications Ministry and Bagan Cybertech, a company controlled by the son of the military government’s Prime Minister and top ranking military officers.   Access to many parts of the Internet is blocked and only about 10,000 subscribers have been approved to use email. (Open Democracy Website, Power of Corporations, June 2003)
Civilians are forbidden to communicate with the outside world freely, and although many have access to foreign radio and telephone services, no independent media group is allowed to operate inside the country. This situation has marginalized people depriving them of all forms of information, their only source being the propaganda apparatus of the state-run media, which is next to useless as a reliable news source. 
Radio and TV programmes (there are only a few radio stations in Burma) are state-owned and most are the mouthpieces of the regimes propaganda machine—no ethnic and indigenous language programme is broadcasted apart from 30 minutes a day for the 7 major ethnic groups combined (Shan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Arakan and Mon) in their languages.
 Assimilation policy
Centralization of the government has affected the life and culture of all indigenous peoples in Burma.  The non-Burman communities have systematically been deprived of their birthright to teach in their own languages and produce creative literature to preserve their cultural heritage.  Under the Burmanization policy exercised by successive Burman governments in Rangoon, the indigenous peoples are not allowed even to study their own literature in their own language in schools, whereas the Burman language is made the dominant and only official language to assimilate and drown out all other ethnic voices.
In the case of the Mon people, who lost their sovereignty more than two centuries ago in 1757, Buddhist monasteries now serve as the centers for preserving old Mon palm manuscripts and provide a venue for community schools as well.  Over the last few decades, patriotic young Mon people and the monastic community have taken a united stand by undertaking self-help Mon literacy campaigns throughout the Mon region. 
Every summer when the government schools close down, large numbers of Mon children and adults enroll in these schools in the monasteries to learn the basics of Mon literature.  This self-help Mon literacy movement provides a glimmer of hope for the Mon people to learn their own language and literature in parts of the country where their homeland is located.  However, even this self-help Mon literacy movement is constantly under surveillance and cannot grow freely under the rule of the Burman-dominated, racist military dictatorship. (See the Mon Unity League’s: The Mon, a people without a country at )
Some monastery communities and students have applied to the military government’s Press Scrutiny Board for permission to publish in the Mon language but they are regularly refused permits to print Mon books, even though the contents pose no threat being simply articles from Burmese-language magazines translated into Mon.  These writings are not remotely related to politics, yet the PSB still refuses to give permission because of the assimilation policy towards the indigenous peoples.
Only a few Mon magazines endorsed by senior and revered monks have been granted publication rights by the regime after waiting through a long censorship process directed by various levels of the administration.  At least six months are required before approval is given and often the authorities do not issue permission or offer a rejection, but simply ignore the application.
Ethnic journalists and publishers have also been arrested and imprisoned by successive military governments in Burma.   In 1976, a well-respected Mon abbot, Rev. Palita, was arrested and sentenced to 7 years for publishing the Gatub Khit Mon magazine.  Rev. Palita, 79, has written more than 30 books in Mon and heads a monastery at Kamawet village, Mudon Township, and chairs a summer school program in Mon literacy, and through his work has inspired hundreds of young Mon to continue writing in their native tongue. 
When on trial in Moulmein in 1975, he refused to speak in Burmese, even though he knew it well enough. "This is Monland," he argued, "where I should be able to speak Mon in official matters."  Rangoon has continued to control state's affairs and insisted that Mon speak Burmese in all official matters.  (See “Mon Culture: Dying or Reviving?” by Min Zin / The Irrawaddy, October, 2003)
Nai Soe Aung, a leader of the Mon Literature and Culture Committee was arrested for publishing a poetry book and the authorities shut down Kaung Mon Press in Rangoon in December 2002 after printing poetry without the approval of the Press Scrutiny Board. (Kao Wao News No. 38)
Another example of ICT in Burma is the setting up IntraNet centres in the high schools (Basic Education High School), in which computers in Kamawet village, Mudon Township belonging to private business were gathered up by local authorities to equip the village school for media and computer training due to a computer shortage in the school.  Senior military leaders Maung Bo and Thura Myint Aung came to the village school to hold a ceremony to open the computer-training programme. 
The authorities needed 10 computers but the school has only 5 and another 5 were taken from the village’s various printing businesses.  Kamawet is the largest Mon community in Mon State with about 10,000 households.  The computer businesses operating in the village are forced to provide computers during the training course, most students in other schools do not have the chance to access computers even after training, because the number is so limited and teachers do not allow them to be used. (IMNA news report: 24-11-03)
The new challenge, a constructive approach
In 1988 the Burma Socialist Programme Party government formed by General Ne Win collapsed as a result of a popular uprising.  The people’s movement was bloodily suppressed and a new military clique seized state power.  Many civilians and students fled to the border areas and neighboring countries where they continue today to languish in refugee camps or small enclaves known as the liberated areas.
Poor communication has overshadowed all sides in past and present negotiations; recently however some media groups have emerged in these liberated areas (border areas) among Burmese democratic groups and indigenous peoples during the ‘90s.  But very few publications, journals and magazines in the border areas are distributed in the Chin, Karen, Kachin, Arakan, Shan and Mon languages. For the most part, the democratic Burmese media groups who use Burmese have gained the advantage in having access and thus have an edge in playing a larger role in negotiations with the military government and a third party.
Access to information of course is vital for a democracy to flourish, but in a country in which the population is a deliberate target by both rebels and the military, speaking out is a risk none want to take. Few details about what is happening in Burma hamper real development in the peace and democratic process.
The seven million people of Mon ethnic origin in Burma and Thailand have no radio station or daily newspaper in their own language.  Two monthly news journals (Snong Tang and Khit Poey), with a circulation of about 2,000 copies are the only Mon language publication to serve the migrant community and the remote areas in Burma.  Otherwise the Mon community must follow the news through Burmese and the Thai language media.  Kao Wao Newsgroup was founded in 2001 to provide information about the situation in the Mon areas to the international community regarding ethnic, indigenous issues, forced labour, land confiscation and other human rights violations in Southern Burma to provide a clearer understanding of the situation in Burma and hence build a more constructive peace policy.
The small indigenous media groups depend for survival on self-reliance and the donations of a small band of patriotic-minded supporters.   Some receive limited funds from NGOs and donations from the local community.  Without proper training and government funding, indigenous media groups are facing a new challenge to keep on par with major and international communities.
Sustained support will be necessary if fledgling independent media groups are to survive and increase their news coverage on issues affecting the indigenous peoples, ethnic nationalities, and isolated communities that they seek to serve.  Above all, we indigenous people need to have the freedom to exercise our fundamental rights in order to enlist support and to increase awareness in the international community, all of which are crucial to making peace a reality.


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Kaowao Newsgroup is committed to social justice, peace, and democracy in Burma. We hope to be able to provide more of an in-depth analysis that will help to promote lasting peace and change within Burma.
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