The Irrawaddy

Getting the News Out by Bicycle, under Cover of Darkness

Squatting on the floor, I roll a 2-foot-long fluorescent tube across a sheet of heavy waxed paper, careful not to exert too much pressure. On the paper is a political statement written with a stencil pencil by one of my student friends. A plate of glass is placed underneath. Ink has been applied evenly to the surface of the glass with a wooden ruler. Our hands stained with ink, we roll out up to 100 sheets of paper. Our clandestine “printing house” is my bedroom and we operate after midnight. After printing, we rush to wash our hands and clean the place thoroughly to erase any evidence. It is already in the wee hours.

Our next move is what I would call a “surprise attack.” It involves two bicycles, each carrying two people, taking action under cover of darkness. The person pedaling each bicycle races against time, flying along as fast as they can. The passenger applies glue to the back of the printed statements, using the pedaler’s back for support. When the bicycle stops, the pillion rider jumps off and sprints to a tree trunk, lamppost, bus stop or brick wall and hastily pastes a statement to it. Keeping our eyes open, we ensure that no one is following us.

By dawn, we have covered the neighborhood. In the morning, people read the statements and share them with friends and family. Soon, the local authorities arrive and tear down our work. The mission, however, is accomplished. In the morning, we sit in a teashop and start planning our next “surprise attack.”

This was just before the country’s pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Our underground printing house eventually progressed into publishing a political journal, named O-Way. It consisted of critical, political and democracy-related articles. By then, we had also upgraded our printing tool to a duplicating machine. After three years of churning out our journal I was caught. One of the main charges was my involvement in publishing it. A special military court of the ruling regime sentenced me to 10 years’ imprisonment in the notorious Insein Prison. My colleagues soon became my fellow inmates.

Two decades later, tools and methods have certainly changed: Today information is spread immediately inside and outside Burma by digital means. However, little has changed regarding freedom of the press in my country.

One recent example is Hla Hla Win, a 25-year-old journalist who was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on Dec. 31, 2009. Her crime was sending information to members of exiled media organizations by email. She was charged under the Electronic Act, which prohibits using the Internet to send text, photos or video that could harm the Burmese regime abroad.

Seeing the regime clamp down on journalists like Hla Hla Win, I wonder about the future of press freedom. How many more will be sent behind bars? How many more will end up like me in exiled media? Today — 22 years after my colleagues and I operated that makeshift printing house in my bedroom — I find myself working for an exiled media organization, The Irrawaddy, based in Thailand. Over the past two decades, Burmese exiled media organizations have mushroomed, which is concrete proof that inside the country, press freedom has been muzzled. My country has won a reputation as an enemy of the press.

Note: Hla Hla Win was released (together with some other political prisoners) under a presidential amnesty in January 2012.

The Irrawaddy senior editor Kyaw Zwa Moe wrote this article in 2010 while in exile on the Thai-Burma border. It was originally published by the Fojo Media Institute at Linnaeus University in Sweden.