Saw Wai is a Burmese poet known for his love songs. His eight-line Valentine's Day ode, about a brokenhearted man in love with a fashion model, was a particularly tender one. But there was one problem.
If read vertically, the first word of each line formed the phrase: "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe."
The senior general himself, head of Burma's (Myanmar's) military junta, could not have been amused. The head of the censorship board was urgently called to the capital; the weekly "Love Journal" has been shut down and copies of the offending edition were yanked from newsstands.
Saw Wai is now in jail, where apparently he will spend Feb. 14 in isolation, behind bars.
Extreme government censorship is as much a part of life in today's Burma as rice and pagodas. Everything from TV programs to newspaper ads goes through a rigorous vetting board. But the junta is fighting a losing battle against a population hungry for information, armed with tools ranging from transistor radios to sneaky editors and myriad ways to bypass blocks on Internet sites.
Since last September's monk uprising, the censorship has increased. And criticism of the ruling junta is not all that is wiped out – so is most bad news, including reports on natural disasters and defeats of the national soccer team. Even good news can be cut if it's about countries out of favor with the government.
Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) Press Freedom Index placed Burma 164th out of 168 countries last year, just ahead of Cuba, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea. This year, the country might do even worse.
"The police and army continue to hunt for journalists and activists who photographed and filmed the [September 2007] crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations," RSF says in its January report.
All TV and radio stations in Burma are government owned. The same is true for the country's three daily papers, which routinely run front-page stories along the lines of "Maj-Gen Khin Zaw of Ministry of Defense inspected bridges on the railroad yesterday," or Maj- Gen Tha Aye of the Ministry of Defense attended a ceremony to broadcast fertilizers for summer paddy."
Far more popular than the dailies are the 80-odd privately owned weekly and monthly magazines here – which are read, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) World Service Trust, by some 40 percent of the urban and 20 percent of the rural population. Yet these have to submit everything from their editorials to cartoons to a government censorship board before publication. Falling afoul of the board results in immediate punishment ranging from having the paper closed, to years of imprisonment (see sidebar story).
Very slow Internet access – which, in any case, is found only in the biggest cities – while cheap, is still a luxury for many. It, too, is under government control. Officially, all e-mails go through the authorized government-run Internet service providers, where detailed data on users is collected, and the mail itself is scoured, sometimes causing days of delays. Popular e-mail sites such as hotmail.com and gmail.com, along with foreign newspapers and a long list of other supposedly undesirable sites, are blocked.
Following last year's riots, all Internet access was cut off for three weeks. And, according to several Internet café owners, since then, they have been pressured to register the personal details of all customers and save screen images every five minutes on each computer – all of which could be demanded at any time by authorities.
So how does news actually get in, out, and about? The commercial papers are locked in a never-ending game of cat and mouse with the censors, explains an editor of one popular weekly here, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. For example, newspapers typically re-send the same stories to the censor board a few weeks later, rewritten, with a new headline. "If we fail the first time, we restick the main point about three quarters of the way down in the story and surround it with very technical language to get the censors bored. We can still say a lot," he explains.
"Journalism is a vehicle for doing what we care about – which is actively advocating for social and economic change," admits the publisher of another weekly, who also asked his name not be used.
Meanwhile, foreign shortwave radio services are enormously popular here, with an estimated 40 percent of Burmese tuning in to the BBC, Voice of America Burmese broadcasts, Radio Free Asia, and the Democratic Voice of Burma. Small Chinese-made radios cost as little as $5.
Watching satellite television is harder because of frequent electric outages, and the expense. Nonetheless, it is popular with Burmese gathering in tea shops to watch sports and catch news.
"My constituency is a small town in upper Burma, but even there we have small satellite dishes and radios, and everyone is listening to the radio or watching the tennis," says U Han Tha Even, spokesman of the opposition NLD. "Even the military is listening to the BBC. Where else would they get information?"
In addition, in Rangoon and Mandalay, months-old copies of The Economist or Time magazine pass like gold from hand to hand. At night, under generator-run lights, locals crowd into makeshift outdoor secondhand book markets, browsing.
The Internet cafes in these main cities are packed with youngsters overriding the blocks with endless formulas to reach proxy servers – and freely surfing the web, in open defiance of the law. They chat with friends across the border in Thailand, check gmail accounts, read news, search for scholarship opportunities overseas, and follow American celebrity antics.
"I think there as many ways to enter gmail through side portals as there are ways to block it," says Zaw Zaw, a young Internet cafe owner, who admits he does not follow rules about tracking customers, and, so far, nothing has happened.
"Media from the outside is so very important," stresses Burmese monk in exile Abbot U Uttara, who heads the Sasana Ramsi Vihara in London. "Not only to stay informed, but because it conveys to those within Burma that the world has not forgotten them."
The flow of information goes both ways. While Burma is notoriously strict about letting foreign journalists into the country and restricts travel within Burma, many do enter, and a lot of what the junta is trying to cover up is reported anyway. Meanwhile, courageous local journalists reporting for outside media are very active. Burmese news sites based outside the country – such as Irrawaddy.organd Mizzima.com – put out daily reports using journalists within.
During September's demonstrations, despite a heavy crackdown on media, and the shooting to death of a Japanese journalist (which the government claims was accidental), images of the beatings and shootings of unarmed protesters crossed the world within minutes of the events – courtesy, mainly, of local activist journalists who rushed to nearby cafes or embassies with photos and reports. Mobile phones, while more expensive in Burma than almost anywhere else, are also becoming popular – allowing for immediate sending of both photos and text messages.
Valentine's Day poet Saw Wai remains in jail, says the weekly publisher, but there is no doubt others will continue fighting the boundaries here by cheekily sending out subversive messages, flooding the censors with reworded news stories, buying more radios, and bypassing blocked sites. "The times where you could isolate a whole country will never return. It's just not possible," he says. "Ours are small victories, but they are still victories."