On August 24, Prasar Bharati signed an agreement to share content with the Burmese media group Mizzima. It is the first such deal India’s public broadcaster has made with a private media company – and it completes a dramatic cycle in the life, and struggle, of Mizzima’s owner and editor Soe Myint.
Myint first came to India on November 10, 1990, aboard a Thai Airways flight he had hijacked along with Htin Kyaw Oo, both teenagers then, to demand an end to military rule in Myanmar. Myint and Kyaw Oo forced the aircraft to land in Kolkata and when they came out after surrendering to Indian authorities, they were received as heroes by Bengalis. They were released on bail after more than 30 Indian MPs signed a petition launched by Than Than Nu, the daughter of Myanmar’s first prime minister U Nu who then worked in the Burmese language section of the All India Radio. But it was a precarious existence for Myint and Kyaw Oo, living in exile in a country which did not have a law for the protection of refugees.
As Myint’s lawyer, I was acutely aware of this. I had been fighting legal cases to help Burmese exiles get the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since the national uprising of August 1988 and the subsequent military crackdown forced a good number of pro-democracy activists to take refuge in India.
His strained material conditions, though, did not deter Myint from continuing his work for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. In 1998, Myint and his wife Thin Thin Aung, a stringer with the BBC’s Burmese service, launched Mizzima news service. From relying on public telephone and fax facilities to do its work because finances were scarce, Mizzima grew over the next 15 years to be a credible source of news and analysis related to Myanmar. But as the news service came to be recognised globally and thus become more effective, Myanmar’s military junta pressured the Indian government to try Myint and Kyaw Oo for hijacking. Myint was aware of this pressure, and feared imminent arrest. So, he took my suggestion to move Mizzima’s office to my home in Delhi, thinking it would offer some protection if the Indian authorities tried to shut it down.
On April 10, 2002, a police team from Bengal arrested Myint from my home and took him to Kolkata to stand trial. I managed to bail him out and we returned to Delhi.
Considering the Indian law punished hijacking with life imprisonment or death, I asked Myint if he would like to leave the country quietly as Kyaw Oo had done. “No, that would be denying my political act,” he replied. I said I could not promise it, but I believed that I could get him acquitted. He trusted me.
It was going to be a difficult case to win but it helped that nobody wanted to see the journalist in jail. Myint and I compiled Mizzima’s reports into a book, which was published by Bahri Sons and released at a function attended by dozens of journalists, Indian and foreign, in a show of solidarity. The preface was written by George Fernandes, then India’s defence minister who had long championed the cause of Burmese exiles along the CPM leaders in West Bengal.
Myint found other prominent supporters in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Lakshmi Sehgal, the Indian National Army veteran then contesting for President as the candidate of the Left Front. Sehgal said she remembered the help and solidarity that the Burmese people had extended to the Indian National Army when Subhas Chandra Bose was based there during the Second World War.
The middle path
Still, there was no guarantee the trial court would not convict Myint. Of course, there was the whole appeal process but I knew that if he was not acquitted at the trial stage, he would be looking at a long prison sentence. Myint and I shared an unspoken faith in the Indian democracy and it gave me a feeling of self-confidence going into the trial.
In July 2003, Myint, the young activist who had hijacked a plane using a fake bomb made with soap and wires, was acquitted.
All this while and after, Myint and Aung continued to run Mizzima. Many of the Burmese activists who had come to India after the 1988 crackdown had since left, finding asylum in the West and Australia. Myint and Aung, though, always wanted to return home to their country. Until they could, they wanted to stay in India, where they continued their political work. New refugees kept coming from Myanmar and the couple assisted them in whatever way they could, especially helping get the paperwork done for children born in India. These new refugees were not political activists, however, and Myint and Aung had to cope with a feeling of isolation and alienation.
Keeping Mizzima going was a daily struggle, from raising money to pay the staff to running an office that was always susceptible to police raids. Many employees used Mizzima to acquire work experience for resettling in other countries, and coping with the high turnover was not easy.
Over in Myanmar, the situation was changing as the military was being forced to loosen its grip on the country. Myint even managed to help his mother and Aung’s father travel to India, and the family had a poignant reunion.
In 2012, Myint finally returned to Myanmar. He feared he could be arrested since he was still on the military’s blacklist, but he went anyway. In the end, he and Aung both had their records cleared and they could travel legally on Myanmarese passports.
They took Mizzima to Myanmar and it flourished. Today, Mizzima reaches 20 million people, offering a digital newspaper, a weekly business magazine, websites in English and Burmese, and programmes on Mynmar Radio and TV. In February, Mizzima launched its own free to air TV channel, which will now show content from Prasar Bharati.
Mizzima means middle path. It has indeed had to tread carefully, negotiating an evolving democratic space in a country that is still largely controlled by the military. And it is his adherence to the middle way that has perhaps allowed Myint to partner with a broadcaster that is run by a government accused of shackling the media.
I met Myint and Aung the day after the agreement was signed in Delhi. We had a small celebration and we toasted the success of Mizzima, the middle path.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer.