We are winning the propaganda war

Marcus Brogden talks to the veteran activist Aung Zaw who says though the military junta has clamped

After almost two weeks of street protests in Rangoon and Mandalay, monks and fellow protesters are winning the information war, believes a high-profile activist who left Burma after martial law was imposed in 1988.

Aung Zaw, who now campaigns for human rights within Burma from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, told me that although the military junta has clamped down on Burma's democracy movement for the time being, the pro-democracy forces have been strengthened.

"I have spoken to people [from the Burmese democracy movement] today and though they have said we are down, I think once they get past the initial dejection they will realise how much the world has learned about their suffering through being able to see the dramatic images and digital footage that have been broadcast worldwide," he said.

"The media have played a very important role. People [worldwide] already knew about the military junta, but I don't think they had seen such powerful images before. The images have changed the situation a lot."

Zaw, 39, now edits Irrawaddy, a not-for-profit news magazine that he founded in 1993 and which focuses on developments in Burma. The magazine's website has carried daily reports of the protests and news of solidarity action outside Burma. On 2 October, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, the magazine ran reports of a rally in Chiang Mai outside the Indian embassy. Irrawaddy has been particularly critical of India's stance. The junta crackdown came, it reported, on 26 September, the day an exploration agreement was signed between India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

At the height of the protests against the military junta, the magazine's online portal claimed to have received roughly 31 million hits, "a monthly record and an indication of the huge worldwide interest in what is happening in Burma", said Zaw. Many of the magazine's images were supplied by those inside Burma who had joined the protest marches.

Despite international efforts pushing for action in recent weeks, Zaw told me he believed change "will have to come from within". The marches led by monks had shaken the regime's confidence and injected energy into the democracy movement, he said. "The Burmese people have shown that they are very disciplined and very peaceful, especially in the way in which they have communicated with the outside world."

Despite the junta's attempts to close down internet channels and ban media from reporting from inside the country, journalists returning from Burma have said they believe the troops were reluctant to directly confront people they suspected of being press.

All independent press is banned in Burma, many journalists have been imprisoned, censorship is strict and journalists' work visas are issued by invitation only. Most news organisations, including the BBC, have been denied entry. Nonetheless, roughly 30 photographers have managed to enter Burma as tourists in the past few weeks and some continue to work there.

One photographer, Patrick Brown, who was in Rangoon for Germany's Stern magazine, told me the troops knew what the visitors were up to: "We knew that they knew exactly who we were.

"The troops were more concerned with the marchers," said Brown, who thought the soldiers deliberately fired over their heads. "The only time we were in danger of being shot was when we mingled with the marchers."

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever