New Delhi: There are no nameplates at the entrance of this nondescript two-storey building in the Delhi suburb of Vikaspuri—just an array of bells for different floors, none of which elicits a response.
But two flights up, the newsroom of Mizzima, one of the three largest independent Myanmarese news agencies, buzzes with activity. A line of reporters sit stacked next to each other along the walls. Above them are images from the monks’ protests of 2007 in Myanmar—the Saffron Revolution, as it was called. A caption to them reads: “Days of defiance, 2007.”
Humble beginnings: (top) The recording room and (above) newsroom of Mizzima. The agency started 12 years ago with a laptop and three reporters, all student activists who had fled Myanmar soon after the 1988 uprising. Photographs: Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Defiance is Mizzima’s stock in trade. These exiled journalists produce a monthly journal and run four websites—one each for news in English and Myanmarese, one for video, and one for photos. According to Soe Myint, Mizzima’s editor-in-chief, the sites get a total of 15,000 unique daily visitors. Apart from the Delhi office, Mizzima also has bureaus in Kolkata and Thailand.
Late last month, the head of the Myanmarese junta, Than Shwe, came to India for a five-day state visit, symbolic of the increasing closeness between the two countries. In order to not embarrass their guest, who heads one of the world’s most repressive regimes, the Indian government kept the media at bay. There were no press conferences, and journalists weren’t allowed into the venues he visited.
But for Mizzima, journalism has always been challenging. Its premises, for instance, are spartan, but they work. An air conditioner barely cools the room, but nobody seems to mind. The murmur of conversation fades in and out between the frenetic sound of fingers flying over Myanmarese and English keyboards.
In another part of the office, the three-member video team, crammed into a narrow corridor, works on clandestine footage from the full moon ceremony at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon that has just come in, turning it into a short video.
Every room of the apartment, in fact, shows a new enterprise. The design department, the administrative wing, a small studio and a room for interns, who sit cheek-by-jowl with each other.
There’s little fuss or ceremony here. There are no televisions, the reporters don’t have visiting cards, the small lobby is also used for interviews and the editor’s desk is just a little larger than those of the others. The work at Mizzima is quiet and no-nonsense—and, like the country that it tracks, stealthy.
The apartment has been filling up gradually over the years. Mizzima started 12 years ago with a single laptop and three reporters: Myint, his wife Thin Thin Aung, who handles the bureau in his absence, and Win Aung. All of them were student activists who fled Myanmar soon after the 1988 uprising.
“We didn’t even have an Internet connection,” reminisces Myint about the early years, over video chat from the Thailand bureau, where he is at present. “We’d have to go to STD booths in the local market to work.”
Gaining a foothold: Soe Myint’s wife Thin Thin Aung (right), who handles the bureau in his absence.
Myint’s exit from Myanmar was dramatic. He’d fled Yangon after the crackdown and lived “in the jungles” for the next two years. Then, in 1990, he hijacked a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Yangon, forcing it to land in Kolkata. He received a lot of sympathy for his cause and was imprisoned only briefly.
In India, he started working with the Myanmarese service of Voice of America, and in 1998, with money he’d managed to put aside, he started Mizzima. The name derives from a Pali word, referred to the middle or moderate path.
Mizzima’s initial work consisted of organizing seminars on media and democracy. The “real work”, Myint says, started in 2002, when with funds from friends the agency started hiring people and exploring new media.
Their recruiting ground was the small refugee community in Delhi, mostly settled in Vikaspuri. These migrants were desperately poor, surviving on meagre stipends from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They had no reporting skills, and they needed to be trained. But Mizzima offered not only work, but a refuge in a new, hostile city, and even a way of dealing with the realization that they’d probably never be able to return home.
Flight to freedom
The petite Khaing Su is Mizzima’s newest hire. Her journey mirrors that of most Mizzima reporters, but she’s also an exception, having been a journalist with a weekly journal in Yangon before she fled to India last August.
In Yangon, Su’s official reporting had been innocuous, but secretly she’d send photographs and videos to her brother, who worked with Voice of America in Thailand.
Her first batch of reports on the effects of cyclone Nargis on towns along the Yangon river went unnoticed, and emboldened, she did a set of interviews of people displaced by the cyclone. That was her undoing. Police landed at her doorstep. They didn’t arrest her, but the visit scared her parents enough for them to ask her to flee Myanmar.
Thus began a cross-country journey, sleeping in hostels in small towns, avoiding police informers, finally entering India through the Mizoram border and arriving via a network of friends in Delhi.
Su came across Mizzima by chance, when on a visit to the Bodella market in Vikaspuri she came across one of their advertisements. Today, she reports in Myanmarese on a variety of stories. “The reporting is very difficult,” she says in halting English. “Most Burmese are reluctant to talk on the phone.” Even the shortest stories can require 10-15 phone calls. “But now”, she says, “I can write what I want to write.”
Life in Delhi isn’t easy. Her salary of Rs6,000 from Mizzima is meagre, and she and her husband, also a political refugee, are hoping that the UNHCR resettlement programme will take them to either Europe or the US. “Please don’t print my photograph,” she says. “It could put my family back home in danger.”
By 2005, Mizzima had established a hidden network of reporters inside Myanmar, “all recruited through a network of friends and family”, according to Myint. For the enormous risks they were taking, reporters were paid between $150 and $500 (Rs.6,945 and Rs.23,150) per month.
In the mainstream
The Internet made getting information out of Myanmar much easier. Mizzima’s reporters now use a network of proxy servers and social networking sites to evade strict government controls.
Mizzima’s biggest achievement, according to Myint, was its coverage of the Saffron Revolution and the devastation wreaked by cyclone Nargis as it tore through Myanmar in May 2008.
The reportage shocked the world, and it brought Myanmar and Mizzima into notice. “In 1998, we had no clue about what was happening in the country,” Myint says. “But just 10 years later, we’d managed to bring Burma into the mainstream media.”
That attention also brought funding from agencies such as Washington DC-based National Endowment for Democracy and London-based Open Society Institute, as well as an award in 2007 from the International Press Institute.
“The work they’ve done has helped paint a completely different picture of Burma from the official one,” says Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a Myanmar-watcher and a political scientist at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.
Do Mizzima’s activist roots affect the credibility of the news it puts out? “No,” says Chaudhury, “but it does occasionally make them paper over some of the deep ethnic divides that exist in Burmese society.”
Reporting on Myanmar has been, and continues to be, challenging. “Every so often, the Burmese government applies pressure on India to shut us down,” Myint says. In 2003, this led to the reopening of charges against Myint in the hijacking case. In 2007, a series of crippling cyber attacks, which Myint suspects were orchestrated by Myanmar’s junta, brought down Mizzima’s websites.
Than Shwe’s visit, he believes, does not augur well; life will only get more difficult for Myanmarese refugees in India in the next few years. “But these are problems we’ve faced in the past, and are ready to face again,” he says.
What about a long-term plan? Where do both of them see Mizzima five years from now? “We’ll be back in Burma,” says Myint emphatically. “We’ll be home.”