|Getting accurate information to voters isn't easy, as the country's press is heavily censored by the military [AFP]
As military-ruled Burma heads towards its first general election in two decades in November, its citizens are tuning in to their enduring faith in the old communication order – the power of the radio.
The key role that radio plays – more than newer communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter – is at the heart of an Amnesty International campaign that has been seeking to "break the silence" in the South-east Asian nation.
By polling day on November 7, London-based Amnesty International hopes to have distributed over 4,000 radio sets to people living in a country under the iron grip of a military regime.
"Amnesty International just wants people in Burma to hear the truth," said Niall Couper of the British branch of Amnesty. " It is the first time we have done a campaign like this."
Amnesty International’s supply of radios, in addition to 60 walkie-talkie kits and six satellite kits, is being directed towards people living in the hinterland where "there aren’t that many radios", Couper said. But details such as the brand of the radio units and how they are being delivered are being kept a closely guarded secret because of "security reasons".
This faith in a traditional medium is echoed by Burmese pro-democracy activists familiar with its dominance as an information source in the country’s media landscape. A flourishing border trade with China has been a driver behind the supply of cheap Chinese-made radios across the country.
"Radio is a very powerful tool to open the iron curtain of a closed-door society like Burma," said Aung Din, head of US Campaign for Burma, a Washington DC-based lobby group. "It is also a major threat to the regime, effectively undermining its ability to control the flow of information in the media."
Regular radio broadcasts have been pivotal to keep the people informed about the "2008 constitution, electoral laws, election campaigns and the illegal campaigns of the regime’s party," Aung Din said. "They have also broadcast voices of NLD (National League for Democracy) leaders and ethnic party leaders who have been calling the people to boycott the poll."
The NLD, headed by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was disbanded in mid-September after it refused to re-register as a political party contesting the coming poll.
The NLD won the last general election in 1990 with a thumping majority, but the military leaders refused to recognise the results and denied the elected civilian government the opportunity to replace successive military regimes that had been in power since a 1962 coup.
The two decades since the last poll have also seen a shift in the media outlets that dominate the airwaves. The Burmese language services of the British Broadcasting Corp and Voice of America, which held sway during the 1990 poll, now have stiff competition from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based broadcaster run by Burmese journalists in exile.
"Various kinds of election programmes are being produced and aired by DVB radio," said Khin Maung Win, deputy executive director of the station. "Programme themes range from … criterion of a democratic general election in other countries to (the) undemocratic nature of elections in Burma."
"DVB itself is not taking any sides editorially, either pro- or against elections," he said in an e-mail interview. "While we broadcast pro-election campaigns and preparation for elections, we also broadcast voices of those against the elections."
It has not been an easy journey for this radio station, set up by exiles in 1992, to offer news, analysis and commentary to counter the propaganda machine of the regime.
Burma’s jails have an estimated 2,190 political prisoners, of whom 17 are DVB journalists. Hla Hla Win, who received a 20-year sentence in January, is among them. Her crime: violating the draconian Electronic Act, which bans the unauthorised use of electronic media.
'No space' for freedom
The junta’s oppressive record is also confirmed in this week’s release of the ‘2010 Press Freedom Index’ by Reporters Without Borders, the global media freedom watchdog. Burma was placed among the five worst abusers of media freedom, ranked 174th out of a list of 178 countries, according to the Paris-based watchdog.
"Freedom is not allowed any space in Burma, where a parliamentary election is due to be held next month, and the rare attempts to provide news or information are met with imprisonment and forced labour," the annual report revealed.
A Burmese political analyst inside the country expects the junta to suppress reportage around the election as it did in September 2007, when Buddhist monks led a peaceful anti-government protest that was crushed, and in May 2008, when the powerful Cyclone Nargis tore through the south- western delta and killed over 140,000 people.
"They have already announced that foreign journalists would not get visas, so they want this election to be held under a cloud of secrecy," the Rangoon-based analyst said on condition of anonymity.
But this seems to be just the challenge that the likes of DVB are preparing for – to assert the power of radio against the junta’s propaganda and censorship on polling day.
"We anticipate there would be obvious and unknown threats from the government to supporters of opposition parties and candidates. And there will be cheating in many places," said Khin Maung Win. "We will try to document and report all about these."
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.