With Burma's election just days away, Dateline's hidden cameras reveal rigging and strict political controls to ensure the military maintains its rule.
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Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 20:32
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Burma's election on 7th November has been described by world leaders as a 'sham', 'deeply flawed' and 'lacking credibility', and Dateline has arranged for hidden cameras in Burma to capture vision and interviews to prove it.

Over two months, the Democratic Voice of Burma gathered evidence of elaborate election rigging to ensure the military maintains power; strict controls and surveillance of political parties and meetings; and punishment for anyone speaking out in opposition.

This is on top of the ban on foreign journalists entering Burma, which meant video journalist Evan Williams had to meet his contacts in Thailand to put together his report.

He also follows the efforts by human rights groups to broadcast to people inside Burma to try and break the military's control of information and ultimately its 50 year rule.

WATCH - Click to see his report.

BLOG - Evan writes about the difficulties of reporting from countries, where foreign journalists are banned or severely restricted.

WORLD NEWS AUSTRALIA - Follow Burma's election results and the reaction to them with SBS's World News Australia.

Photos (protest/flag): Getty

Blog

Evan Williams writes for the Dateline blog about the difficulties of covering stories in countries like Burma where foreign journalists aren't allowed...

Filming inside a country that doesn't want you there presents challenges. But they can be overcome with the right persistence, creativity and most importantly - the right local contacts - and it doesn't always go according to plan.

Burma's ruling generals are about to hold that country's first election in twenty years. They are completely controlling the process and will win. It is to many a window-dressing exercise to prolong the military's grip on power.

But there are some small parties that are trying to run and do what they can and there are many issues that remain unresolved. Also there is no guarantee about what might happen in the months after what many pro-democracy activists call a military-rigged poll.

Two months ago I started working with the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exiled Burmese media group that runs a team of covert camera teams throughout the country who brave the chance of ten years in prison for their work, who smuggle the material out where it is edited and fed back into Burma via satellite.

Together we drew up a list of characters, questions and filming guidelines for their teams to follow and for teams who have to operate completely covertly - they achieved remarkable results, reaching many candidates, who want to run in the election to capitalise on what they see as a small chance for some change, to pro-democracy supporters, who have boycotted the poll because they say no part of it is in any way democratic.

Among the interviews and shots I received, there was the odd surprise - like the  tapes that were out of focus due to a technical problem with one of the cameras, the people filmed against the bright light of a window or the very rushed moments of set up that would allow me to introduce the characters.

All of these are due to the extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances in which they work. In between them is the remarkable access and vision they managed to achieve.

Each country is different but many places I have worked on, such as Zimbabwe, parts of southern Russia, Iraq and North Korea, could learn many lessons from the covert structure of this remarkable organisation.

Some new organisations question using a group such as this, they question whether it is appropriate to use a group that some may consider an "opposition" group rather than a media organisation. DVB is doing everything it can to try and operate as a professional media group.

And my question is also this - in a military dictatorship where all information is state controlled, is the attempt at independent news an act of opposition or simply the search for truth?

Click to read more blogs from Evan Williams.

Resources

Transcript

Well, according to Julia Gillard she has got "strong concerns on human rights questions on the matter", Indonesia's Foreign Minister talks about credibility deficit, and our man Rudd says an absence of democratic norms is a major challenge for the region in the future. Where else could these political heavies be carrying on about other than the curious state of Burma, the long-running sore of the region, firmly on the agenda this weekend at the high profile East Asia Summit in Hanoi.

Meanwhile, the military junta that rules Burma, has called an election it claims will be democratic, despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi - the leader of Burma's main Opposition party is still under strict house arrest.

Dateline's Evan Williams has been tracking the secret of generals of Rangoon for years and tonight, from the Thai Burma border has pulled together this exclusive report for us.

REPORTER: Evan Williams


This river marks the border between Thailand and Burma. I'm on the Thai side because foreign journalists are banned from entering Burma. Capturing scenes from across the river is as near as I can get. I've come here to meet my contacts, brave Burmese who, for the past two months have been filming secretly for 'Dateline' inside Burma.

Burma is about to hold its first election in 20 years, the military government says this is the first stepped towards a guided disciplined democracy, the Opposition group says it's legitimising continued military control.

Burma's military government keeps a tight rein on what people watch, read and hear especially in the run up to this election, from a safe house inside Thailand a team of Burmese journalists gather news from throughout their country, and feed it back via satellite. They are the Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB. For years they've been defying the generals and despite incredible dangers to their operators inside Burma they keep broadcasting their bulletins. It's been their camera teams I have used to film secretly inside Burma.

Filming without government permission in Burma can lead to 10 years in prison. That includes political gatherings like this, a campaign meeting for the Democratic Party, a small party fielding 50 candidates for the more than 1,500 seats up for grabs. The military wants the world to believe this election will be free and fair. Until now meetings like this would have been unthinkable in Burma but Party leaders here say they continue to battle tight military control.

U THU WAI, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC PARTY (Translation): With regard to the practical problems, the system has been in place for such a long time - and by the system I mean military rule. The intelligence agency knows everything - they keep our activities under surveillance - they investigate - they ask about everything. People become afraid of them.

Cho Cho Nyein is the daughter of a former government Minister. He, and her mother, husband and brother, have all served several years in jail for political work. Cho Cho Nyein was recently released from seven years in prison. She still believes the election is a small chance for change.

CHO CHO NYEIN (Translation): Lots of people, lots of students went into the jungle to use guns to try to get it. Many died - I have seen many dead on the streets as well and many died in jails. So what ever the reason - good or bad - that this government had for announcing it would hold an election, I decided that this is something that needs to be done for the people and the country. Whether people belittle me or blame me for it, as a person who understands politics, I believe one can use this election to change the system. That is why I have entered the election.

But she bravely reveals the restrictions they have to operate under.

CHO CHO NYEIN (Translation): During those days it was not difficult to go out to organise in the countryside, the monks would welcome us to the monasteries. The next day they would ask "œWhy did you welcome those politicians?" The next day monasteries were forbidden to let politicians in. The people have been living like scared frogs under a log - we have to rid them of that ingrained fear first.

That fear has been created by five decades of brutal military rule which has ruined a once prosperous nation. The generals crush all dissent and control most of the business - corruption, repression, forced labour and official abuses are rife. Now the military is using the election to try to change its image. It's formed its own political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party or USDP. It's running more than 1,100 candidates across every available seat, many times more than any other party, many of them are recently retired military officers, men like Rangoon Mayor, former general Aung Thein Linn.

REPORTER (Translation): How many seats do you think you will win? Everybody is expecting the Party to win, if it does win - will the international community accept the result?

AUNG THEIN LINN (Translation): That does not matter as long as our community accepts it.

In addition to having their own mass party, the army guaranteed itself key seats and ministries through a new constitution that the generals drafted two years ago. David Mathieson is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Thailand.

DAVID MATHIESON, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: The constitution grants the military sweeping powers in terms of assigned ministerial portfolios. They grant serving military officers 25% of the lower house seats in the National Parliament, one-third of the seats in the Upper House, and about 12-20% in the regional parliaments, there'll be 14 regional parliaments throughout the country. Out of about 1,500 parliamentary seats that will come out of the elections, about 500 of them, 400-500 of them, will be reserved for the military.

This is an authoritarian system, Burma is still an authoritarian country, it's illegal to criticise the elections. Most of the Opposition are excluded through electoral laws or in prison. It's quite an astonishing sophisticated electoral rigging process, to ensure the results that the military wants which is perpetuating their role.

In Burma our camera teams reach Aung Thein, a noted Rangoon lawyer.

AUNG THEIN, LAWYER (Translation): The main reason for drafting the 2008 constitution was to prolong the life of the military regime. Those people have been installed by the military regime will have the majority in the parliament. The new parties contesting the election, the small parties, with their negligible rights stand no chance.

The main political prisoner many want released is this woman, Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. In the last election in 1990 her National League for Democracy Party, the NLD won more than 80% of the vote. The military never allowed them to take power, instead, Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the past 20 across under detention.

The army's election laws meant Aung San Suu Kyi and many party members would have been expelled to allow the NLD to run. At this NLD meeting in March, filmed by NLD, the party decided not to contest the election.

MAN (Translation): The unfair and biased laws are not acceptable. The rules made under the electoral laws are undemocratic.

Among those at the meeting is 81-year-old U Minh Thim, Burma's best known journalist, two years ago he was released from prison, our camera teams found him at home. Despite his long incarceration, he was still prepared to speak out.

U MINH THIM, JOURNALIST (Translation): We've said "œ Please review the 2008 constitution, please review, please alter, please change, and redraft", this is what we have been saying - if that is not done then there is no reason for us to take part in the election. If we could just get a sniff of democracy, even it is not full democracy, if it smells of democracy we would probably take part in it. But the current 2008 constitution is completely lacking in democracy. The self - determination that the ethnic national groups want is also lacking.

With virtually no Opposition, Burma's military is using the state controlled airwaves to sell it's USDP party.


SONG (Translation): We, the USDP, are for the people. We will always be helping and caring, we are always there among the people. We will carry out the work for the good of the country.

We will strive to defend the country from internal and external threats.

USDP, USDP, USDP, USDP, USDP, USDP with the symbol of the lion, USDP.

Anyone who criticises the election or the constitution can be jailed. The military tightly controls all information and decides which parties will get election coverage. But some groups are determined to subvert the army's grip on information. To give people access to independent news, Amnesty International has brought thousands of radios it wants to smuggle across the border. Youth organisation members of the Burmese ethnic Karen minority are taking some of the first radios in, it's a dangerous mission - they have to choose their crossing carefully.

MAN (Translation): There are a lot of landmines in that area and the villagers who cross the border do not dare to go back to the fields to plant the rice.

Being found with hundreds of radios would lead to arrest and torture. Carrying the sack of radios, their first stop is a camp of several thousand refugees. In these remote parts of Burma people don't have the cash for luxuries like radios. That night, they get their first chance to hear independent news or any news about the election. Day Wah Htoo is writing down the news that she'll share with her class and other villages the next day.

DAY WAH HTOO (Translation): At school we are divided into four groups, every evening we listen in groups to the radio - the next morning we share this and have a discussion.

BURMESE RADIO (Translation): The aid provided by the international community is to help raise the standard of living of the people. The Burmese government will use that aid in its own way.

A revolt against their strong military rule is what the army fears most. In 2007 thousands of Buddhist monks led an uprising that shook the foundations of military rule. These last moments were filmed by DVB camera teams. The army moved in and opened fire, killing 138 and arresting hundreds more. Monks were among those beaten and killed, many remain in prison or under surveillance.

Secret internal police files have been leaked to DVB revealing how the military is trying to ensure there is no similar disturbance around the election. The Democratic Voice of Burma says the files show how a large delegation of senior Burmese police officers, were sent to China to see how it controls troublesome riots.

MAN: Depending on the document that we got from the police source, some of their senior police officers are getting training in a foreign country - especially in China - they are getting training, especially about how to cramp down demonstrations, especially riot police.

At the border I meet Thihar, a contact who can take me to some of those involved in the '07 uprising, Thihar was jailed for political activism, the last six years spent in solitary confinement. But as he explains, the cost was a lot more than his freedom.

THIHAR: They sentenced me to death first but on the first of January in 1993, my sentence was commuted to life - 20 years. I spent my life in prison for 17 years, six months and 16 days total.

REPORTER: Do you have a family?

THIHAR: Yes, but now my family has - has been broken because when I got arrested my daughter was just three months old baby and I - so we didn't - we didn't meet each other. We never met each other till I was released. So when I was released, my daughter was just about to be 18, so when she saw me first time in Rangoon, after being released, she told me I said "You're my daddy but I don't know you, sorry". I have past my childhood without parents because mum die in 1997, because of you daddy". She told me like that. But I met her five times in Rangoon. Now she is 20, so gradually I think she understands me, gradually.

We travelled to Um Piem Camp, home for 30,000 refugees from Burma, including 50 former political prisoners. Many of these monks were involved in the Saffron Revolution, they escaped after many years in prison. Senior monk U Nyaneit Tharya says the monks are still organising.

U NYANEIT THARYA, SENIOR MONK (Translation): We do whatever comes up, sticking up posters and organising. We are trying our best to oppose the election which the military government is trying to use to transform itself from a military government into a legal one.

He said military intelligence is infiltrating the monasteries and arrests continue. He told me a senior monk was just jailed for 15 years for having a laptop and video camera in his monastery.

U NYANEIT THARYA (Translation): Since the elections aim is merely to make an illegal government appear to be a legitimate one, after the election they will just go on oppressing the people.

As the election nears, the information war intensifies. Further north on the Thai-Burma border a team from Amnesty International has flown in to check the progress of their radio project. The next batch of several hundred radios is ready to go in. For Amnesty International, this is a dramatic new step from defending human rights to actively intervening in the defence of human speech.

VERITY COYLE, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: We are lobbying at international level for people to participate in the political processes here. We wanted to do something that would have an impact on the ground as well. Media censorship was identified as a key issue for people not being able to access their rights.

To understand the dangers involved they reviewed video the Karen took of their journey.

VERITY COYLE: This is you going to buy the radios?

MAN: Yes, yes.

VERITY COYLE: There's so many factors, aren't there, that are involved in you doing this work.

Finally, it gets too dangerous for the couriers to go alone. To get these radios deeper, they have to hand over some of them to armed members of the Karen National Liberation Army. It's a confronting issue for Amnesty.

REPORTER: Is there an issue for Amnesty in the fact that you have at least two armed guys taking them in?

VERITY COYLE: Amnesty doesn't endorse the political views of any armed groups operating within Burma, we are working with community based organises to get radios into the hands of the people that need them, as safely and as effectively as possible.

In Um Piem refugee camp former political prisoners have gathered to discuss the election, they tell me Thailand's Foreign Minister has just said that Burmese refugees can be sent back after the elections, Thailand has since retracted the statement but these stateless, unregistered refugees feel vulnerable.

THIHAR: I'm afraid of being deported back to Burma. We cannot trust this military government even if they change democratic government - Same people.

MONK (Translation): We political prisoners cannot go out to work and we can't get enough to eat but after five years we have not completely lost faith but what we are lacking is hope and if we are sent back to the killing fields it means something worse for us.

On the Thai border David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch has come to the office of an association helping political prisoners in Burma.

DAVID MATHIESON: This is the total number of political prisoners, 2,193 that have been documented by the assistance association for political prisoners.

The election is held with 2,100 political prisoners still in jail. Many of them are key members of the democratic Opposition. He says many Western countries are ready to use the elections as a way of getting rid of sanctions and gaining access to Burma's rich resources of gas, oil, teak, gold and timber.


DAVID MATHIESON: I think there's a lot of business interests that want to expand, they want to head off the extent of Chinese and south-east Asian investment. Things like that I think will change. There'll be an illusion of openness in a democratic system. Then, I think, slowly there'll be more and more business engagement, a toning down of some of the more human rights and political criticism, which I think will be disastrous, it will be a betrayal of the people.

For the Burmese one thing is certain - no matter what the people want, the outcome of the election is assured. The generals have seen to that.

GEORGE NEGUS: Audacious and intriguing, two other words you could use to describe Evan William's report, with more than a little help from the brave folk of DVB, Democratic Voice of Burma. And Evan joins me in the studio - Evan, good to see you.

You are not so old Burma hand, you have been there a lot covering the story for ages now, I mean, what is with these guys - we just call them mad now.

EVAN WILLIAMS, VIDEO JOURNALIST: If you look at it, actually they are a clever group, a small group, a kabal, a clique of military generals maintaining their grip on power for more than 50 years, in various permutations. They are now trying to change their image, their clothes, so the international community...

GEORGE NEGUS: They don't think they are fooling everybody.

EVAN WILLIAMS: They do. People like David Mathieson, has seen indications from the European Union, countries that want an excuse to allow them to go into Burma.

GEORGE NEGUS: They have got stuff that people want so they are prepared to do deals with them.

EVAN WILLIAMS: They are and they have resources, they are in a very strategic position. China is all over them. The Europeans definitely want to get back in there. America is not quite sure what to do. People may want to keep up the human rights pressure, but at the same time they want contact with Burma.

GEORGE NEGUS: What about the idea of regime change, I mean, is it possible when people are prepared to do deals - these are a repressive, undemocratic regime with military juntas, dictatorships, call it what you will, I mean it makes a joke of the whole thing if we are prepared to cop it with this sort of country, and not others.

EVAN WILLIAMS: As people have been saying, in this election, if it goes ahead the way they want it, if it gives it a fig leaf of legitimacy, which is what they want, it means the generals have got away with it, torture, repression, jailing and killing dissidents who represented the movement for years. The regime change idea has been discussed and asked for by many democratic groups inside the country for years, it's not been heeded. After Iraq, frankly, the West is terrified of doing that.

GEORGE NEGUS: There are four countries I could name off the top of my head, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Burma where we throw our hands in the air in shock horror, and tut tut - but they go on as though nothing really matters, do you think the world has this in the too hard basket politically and that's what we have to live with.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Burma has been very clever about playing the world against each other. China and Russia protects Burma at the United Nations and when there's a serious move against it, the West is unable to do it because of that. It does underline the failure of the United Nations to make any effective change in a country like the ones you have discussed, where people are desperately crying out for some sort of help.

GEORGE NEGUS: Of course, there's the ongoing saga, the Melodrama almost of Aung San Suu Kyi, who you introduced in the past yourself. She's still there, still under house arrest. What is the score with her?

EVAN WILLIAMS: She's been, if you like, sidelined by the military. Yes. Again, the military made the condition that she would have to be expelled from the party if they ran in the election. That's a good indication of the type of democracy we are about to see in Burma. 435 other members would have to be expelled. The party withdrew. But they are not engaged in the process. There's division about whether that is the right thing to do or not. What is about to happen after the election, the military is going to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest about a week after the poll. This will be seen as a sign to the West "Look, we are democratic, we have let her out".

GEORGE NEGUS: I would have thought letting her out before the election may have been the way to go.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Indeed.

GEORGE NEGUS: It's a strange situation, keep us up to date. Good to talk to you.

Reporter/Camera

EVAN WILLIAMS

Additional footage

Burma Issues

Producer

ASHLEY SMITH

Researcher

Eve Lucas

Editors

NICK O'BRIEN

DAVID POTTS

Translation/Subtitling

Sao Hso Hom

Original Music composed by

VICKI HANSEN


Produced with the assistance of The Democratic Voice of Burma.

31st October 2010