Tracking the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis
Mizzima was to come into its own during the crises that befell Myanmar in the early 2000s – one man-made, the other a force of nature.
Memories fade and it is easy to forget that when Buddhist monks took to the streets of Myanmar back in 2007, the country was still under military rule and the ability to get news out to an inter-national and local audience was extremely limited.
By the time Burmese troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in September 2007, the vio-lent culmination of weeks of pro-democracy protests, Mizzima was well underway publishing break-ing news to the outside world.
In terms of overthrowing the military dictatorship or bringing drastic change to the politically frac-tured nation, the Saffron Revolution ultimately fell short of its immediate goals. However, it was also very much a success story. One aspect of that success was witnessed in the form of Mizzima and the other exile-based media, through which the unfolding events in Burma in late September were remarkably and extensively captured in words, pictures and video thanks to the heroic efforts of stringers on the ground.
This stood in stark contrast to the earlier throes of the democracy movement in 1988, when imag-es and news from the streets of Yangon failed to assert themselves onto television screens and the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The stories and images of the 2007 uprising captured the hearts and minds of not just Burmese, but people from all corners of the world.
And Mizzima, stretching its then existent assets to their fullest, was one of the leading news agen-cies that brought the stories to the public.
At the height of the protests and the military’s ensuing crackdown on protesters, daily reader visits to Mizzima’s English language website rose dramatically from some 2,500 per day before the monks took en masse to the streets of Burma, to 300,000
on September 27, the day when the Myanmar military and riot police brutally put an end to any hopes for change.
People from all corners of the world turned to Mizzima for news, pictures and analysis of the events unfolding inside Burma, with visitors from Singapore, the United States and Thailand topping the list.
Subscription requests came in from as far afield as Hawaii in the United States and Ankara, Turkey. There was an offer for editorial assistance from South Africa, well-wishers from Australia and mes-sages of solidarity with the work of Mizzima’s team from readers in Italy and France. From Germany a reader wrote in the midst of the ongoing military crackdown: “I am struck by the poignancy of your reportage and photography. I am deeply proud of the Burmese monks and their supporters.”
Myanmar government censors closely monitored Internet activity, blocking several news services – including Mizzima’s local service. Mizzima itself had been publicly condemned prior to the dramatic events of 2007 by the junta’s Information Minister. Yet inside Myanmar, at a critical juncture for the country’s future, a person, or persons, took it upon themselves to create a replica of the Miz-zima Burmese webpage to allow Internet users in Myanmar to view coverage of the protests via proxy.
Additionally, major international news services with budgets and resources far outstripping any-thing Mizzima could dream of, turned to the Burmese exile-run media for content on what was transpiring in Yangon and throughout the country. Reuters, BBC and CNN all requested material and interviews with Mizzima editors at this volatile time in the country’s history.
The BBC, having circulated a request for images from the streets of Myanmar, was greeted with suggestions to reference Mizzima’s photo blog site.
But it was not only major news publications. The story of tens of thousands of Burmese citizens ral-lying around a pillar of monks, civilians linking hands on either flank of a river of saffron robes, touched people around the world. Requests for information and the right to reprint Mizzima mate-rial came forward from the likes of Worker’s Cause, a leftist Brazilian publication, as well as from “the biggest daily newspaper” in Slovenia.
From the early days of relative obscurity and modest outreach, Mizzima had definitively come of age with a sizeable number of reporters and editors on board.
It did not take long for the growth of Mizzima to pay dividends. One result of the 2007 uprising was to impel Myanmar’s governing junta to proceed apace with their “7-step roadmap to democracy” in an effort to quell mounting international criticism of its continued heavy-handed rule.
In February of 2008, state media let it be known that a constitutional referendum was to be held in three months’ time in May – for a constitution that took 14 years to write through a process that failed to include many voices and parties, most notably that of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Myanmar’s independent media community sprang to action. Mizzima, sending additional reporters inside Burma to cover the proceedings, produced special referendum coverage to educate and in-form voters and the international community as to the content of the junta’s
draft constitution and the ramifications of its approval. This material was collated along with a collection of “Vote ‘No’” songs onto CDs and thumb drives and distributed inside and outside Myanmar.
Additionally, Mizzima was able to publish an opinion poll of prospective voters as to their views of the constitution – the results of which drastically clashed with the purported “over 92 percent ap-proval” the junta eventually claimed was garnered. According to the survey conducted by Mizzima in the days immediately leading up to the May 10 referendum date, support for the referendum constituted a mere 17 percent of the electorate, with 28 percent stating their decided disapproval of the draft military-written constitution.
Yet, as fate would have it, Mizzima’s full potential in covering events in Burma was realized for an altogether different story. Just one week before the referendum was to take place, a devastating cyclone tore through Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady and Yangon Divisions.
Cyclone Nargis ravaged the country from May 2 to 3, leaving tens of thousands dead and missing and as many as 1 million homeless.
With its eye ever-trained on events unfolding in Myanmar, Mizzima was not caught entirely una-ware – unlike most major news outlets. Reporting on the possible danger of the storm days before it made landfall, Mizzima’s logistical support for May 10th’s constitutional referendum was easily refocused in order to cover the effects of Cyclone Nargis and the unfolding stories of the govern-ment and public’s response to the humanitarian disaster and the efforts of the international com-munity to come to the aid of those afflicted by Nargis – whose final death toll approached 130,000, while placing an additional two million people in need of relief and launching a vast cam-paign of rehabilitation that local non-governmental organizations estimated would take some five years to complete.
Partly owing to technological and labour advances made possible in the wake of the Saffron Revolu-tion, Mizzima was able to provide in-depth, “Live” coverage of Cyclone Nargis. A special section was added to the websites to facilitate the collation of news and stories associated with the cyclone, while the enhanced capacity of Mizzima to relay visual images from inside Myanmar to the rest of the world spawned the innovation of Mizzima’s fourth domain, www. mizzimaphoto.com.
Burmese and foreign journalists on Mizzima’s payroll were able to penetrate the delta region, the latter increasingly operating in collaboration with the established informal network of Mizzima con-tacts in the local media industry, as the military government methodically sought to cordon off the worst affected areas in a further effort to stem the flow of information.
Mizzima provided much-needed insight into the devastation and the human cost during a period when the government was trying to play down the damage.
Buddhist monks take to the streets of Yangon during the 2007 so-called Saffron Revolution. Mizzima came into its own by getting stories and photos out to inform the outside world. Photo: EPA
Demonstrators take to the streets during the Saffron Revolution. Photo: EPA
Stringers in Yangon provided photos and reports about the demonstrations in 2017. Photo: Mizzima
A family sits in the wreckage of their devastated home following Cyclone Nargis. Photo: EPA