By Vanita Prasad:
Pacific Media Centre
Risking your life is a given when reporting in and around Burma, says the Pacific Media Centre’s first Asian journalism fellow.
A moving seminar and film screening held by the centre at AUT University this week documented the perils of being a dissident Burmese journalist.
The seminar was delivered by Violet Cho, one of Burma’s “young heroes” – as she was described by an AUT academic in the audience - who spoke candidly about her life as an exiled reporter in the border territories of Thailand and Burma.
Cho, 25, an indigenous Karen, was born in Burma and has spent most of her life exiled in Thailand.
She learnt English in a refugee camp and worked for Irrawaddy magazine and an underground radio station.
She spoke of the secretive nature of journalism in a land where the media is suppressed and information must be smuggled to the outside world for fear of being thrown into jail or death.
“It’s hard to be an ethnic minority journalist in a conflict area because it’s secret and illegal,” said Cho.
She spoke of a trip she made back with a small group into Burma to document a mountain village on the border, a trip that should only take a few hours but because the travelled by foot it took days.
Cho described the intense fear of being caught at a checkpoint and shot for carrying a camera and film equipment.
“It was very dangerous, we couldn’t use torchlight, we walked quickly and we couldn’t stop.
“It was even too dangerous to go to the toilet, so we had to just keep walking,” said Cho.
The film that followed Cho’s seminar echoed this plight.
Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country, directed by Dan Østergaard, documented the struggles and achievements of the underground journalist network Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), whose reporters risked their lives to give a voice to the silenced people of Burma.
They ran a bare bones operation using only handicams hidden in backpacks and sending their data to Oslo, Norway, to be compiled.
Their footage of the 2007 peaceful demonstrations led by monks against the junta - and brutally crushed - was used by major news networks worldwide to inform people about the dire situation of the Burmese people.
The junta then targeted DVB to shut down the operation which had exposed their brutality.
This meant that like the uprising which brought so much hope to the people of Burma, the DVB had to disband for safety.
Three of the members of the DVB were captured and are currently serving life sentences.
After the screening a discussion was held about the current situation in Burma.
Senior lecturer Alice U, an expatriate Burmese academic inAUT's School of Languages, said education was fundamental to the progress and liberation of Burma.
“Before the military seized control Burma was considered the ‘rice bowl’ of Asia.
“Education was high and Burmese English set the precedent for neighbouring Asian countries.”
Naing Ko Ko, a prominent Burmese spokesman and council director for the Union of Burma, said the military regime in Rangoon spends less than one per cent of its budget on health and education.
Ko Ko, who spent nine years in jail as a political prisoner learnt English from a dictionary that was smuggled into his cell.
He has since gone on to complete two Bachelor of Arts degrees with honours, and is currently working on a Masters in International Relations at the University of Auckland.
Alice U said: “People who are still in the country and people who get out of Burma and get educated and risk their lives to expose the atrocities of the junta - like Violet and Naing Ko Ko - are the heroes.”
Violet Cho arrived in Auckland two and a half months ago and is doing a Bachelor of Communication Studies (Honours) at the Pacific Media Centre.
As well as her studies, she files stories for the PMC website and for Irrawaddy.
Her fellowship is funded jointly by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and AUT’s School of Communication Studies.
Vanita Prasad is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student.
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Underground 'VJs' expose Burmese horror
Pacific Media Centre's Asian Journalism Fellowship