Burma: Shooting, owning, sharing, watching video, shouting with glee at a TV broadcast...can earn you years in jail

Regions: Myanmar

Issues: Independence of the judiciary, Justice, Slavery & forced labor

Tags: burma, forced labor, freedom of expression, land confiscation, myanmar, saffron revolution

In Burma, shooting video, owning a video, speaking in a video, sharing a video, or even shouting out in glee after watching television, can earn you years in jail.

Today the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) circulated an urgent action call for Ko Zaw Htay from Burma (Myanmar) - found guilty of giving out official secrets and sentenced to ten years in jail for allegedly arranging to film land where famers had lodged complaints about land confiscation by the military to the International Labour Organization (ILO), and for then sending this footage abroad. You can act on this call at:  http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2009/3104/

Of course, the video footage we're most familiar with from Burma over the last few years has been the footage courageously shot by people inside Burma of the 'Saffron Revolution' movement of autumn 2007 when the people of Burma rose up in mass, peaceful protests against the military regime that has ruled Burma for the past two decades. And a film that has just won a big prize at Sundance, Burma VJ, takes us inside how this footage was shot - I'll be looking out for it (it opens in the US in May).  You can read more about it on the film's website.

Less well-known is how the military government in Burma systematically hunted down the people filmed and the people who filmed and distributed the material.  Over 1,000 people were arrested last year, and many of them have received sentences of up to sixty-five years: you can learn more about their situation on the website of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP, Burma). And the setting of examples continued after ther protests. For example, one blogger - Nay Phone Latt - was sentenced to twenty years in jail including fifteen years for offenses under the Electronics Act, two years for creating "public alarm" and three and a half years for offenses under the Video Act.

A little background on these laws... the 'Electronic Transactions Law' provides for up to fifteen years in prison for anyone who uses the internet to distribute information that is 'detrimental to the interest of or that lowers the dignity of any organization or any person', while the Video Act carries penalties of up to three years for - amongst other crimes - 'copying, distributing, hiring or exhibiting video tape that has no video censor certificate' as part of its purpose to 'cause the emergence of video tapes which will contribute towards national solidarity and dynamism of patriotic spirit... and prohibit and ban decadent video tapes which will undermine Myanmar culture and Myanmar tradition". Needless to say, the definitions here are sufficiently broad to allow the Burma regime to use them wherever it needs to.

And Zarganar, one of Burma's best-known comedians was sentenced to forty-five years in jail in November 2008, including fifteen years for violations of the Electronics Act when he spoke to foreign news organizations, expressing criticism about the governments's slow response to Cyclone Nargis.

But it's not just filming or being filmed, or being at the center of international attention, that puts someone at risk.

In 2007, AHRC highlighted a case where two men were imprisoned for allegedly possessing videos showing the wedding of the daughter of Burma's most senior army officer, Senior General Than Shwe. They received two years and four and a half years imprisonment respectively for intention to incite public fear and for violations of video censorship regulations for possessing CD videos that showed footage of the lavish, over-the-top, dripping with diamonds wedding of Than Shwe's daughter, contrasted with the images of poverty and children begging in the streets. By some estimates the wedding cost up to $40 million; in a country where the government spends less than 50c a year on education for its children, and where people struggle to afford to buy basic food staples like rice. These videos had widely circulated in Burma in late 2006 - creating real uproar and laying the ground for the popular protests in 2007; demonstrating why the regime fears the uncontrolled circulation of images.

Both this case and the land seizure case cases at the top of this blog were prosecuted under the incredibly broad latitude of Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code which allows that  "Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report... (b) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility... shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years, or with [a] fine, or with both."

And even reacting as you watch a television can do it... After the Saffron Revolution events of 2007, AHRC also reports the case of  Ko Kyauk Hke, an artist who was watching satellite television footage of the crackdown on protests in Rangoon at a street-side video stall when he leapt up and yelled, "Long live Theravada Buddhism!" As AHRC notes, he was arrested shortly after, charged under 505 (b) and sentenced to two years after the prosecution accused him of also shouting anti-government slogans.

So what does this tell us about how the Burma regime is responding to the threat of information distribution and citizen media generated both during the Saffron Revolution and around Cyclone Nargis? Much of the discussion and analysis around the events in September 2007 has focused around the use of the internet and censorship/control - for example the two excellent reports from the Berkman Center at Harvard. And do check out this excellent video from our friends at GOOD magazine on internet censorship. But here, it's brute force that's being used - who will be the citizen journalists, the heroes online, when they face sixty year in jail? It's a depressing thought.

PS - If you're interested in learning more about how the Burma military government treats its villagers do take a look at the video, Entrenched Abuse, produced by our partner organization, Burma Issues, which shares villagers testimonies on forced labor, and property seizure, and was made for a screening at the ILO.