Southeast Asia Dispatches: Freedom of Expression in Myanmar

NN_SEAD_PeacockGeneration_Header-1200x500After winning the general elections in 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) became the first democratically elected, civilian-led government in Myanmar since 1962, which kindled hope that the country would see a significant shift in freedom of expression. Almost five years on, substantive changes have yet to happen.

On this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches, Adam Bemma speaks to Thinzar Shunlei Yi, advocacy coordinator at Action Committee for Democracy Development, and Maung Saungkha, executive director of ATHAN about freedom of expression in the country under the NLD government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Myanmar’s menacing frontier

The dangers of reporting on Myanmar’s border-security forces and their business interests.

Journalist Naw Betty Han rubs the bruises on her wrists left by the handcuffs she was forced to wear while detained for 27 hours by the Kayin State’s Border Guard Force (BGF) – a unit under the command of Myanmar’s military. In early March 2020, Naw Betty, a reporter for Yangon-based magazine Frontier Myanmar, was on assignment in Myawaddy, a border town along the Thaunggin-Moei River across the Thai town of Mae Sot. She was taking photos of a casino construction site with Myanmar Times photographer Mar Naw when she was approached by three men.

They accused the two of photographing the nearby Kayin State BGF base. Despite their media accreditation, the two journalists’ backpacks were searched and all of their photos deleted. Before they were eventually blindfolded, handcuffed and driven to one of the Kayin state BGF headquarters 20 minutes away, Naw Betty was able to send messages to friends about her predicament. For this, a BGF soldier stepped on her hand with his boot and cracked her phone screen with the butt of his flashlight. She showed me the bruises on her fingers and her damaged smartphone – somehow still working – to prove it. But her message reached colleagues in Yangon and a social-media campaign soon began to alert the authorities about Naw Betty and Mar Naw’s captivity. They were released the next evening.

The Kayin State BGF tried to distance itself from the incident, citing the detention as an unsanctioned overreach by a junior soldier. However, the attack on two journalists was likely a response to increased scrutiny of the BGF’s activities. The Kayin State BGF has stakes in several lucrative business ventures in the region, including a USD 15 billion project for a ‘new international city’ funded by controversial Chinese investors in the border town of Shwe Kokko, ten miles north of Myawaddy. These businesses have come under serious local opposition and media scrutiny, because they face allegations of land grabbing and have been accused of operating as fronts for online gambling. The source of investments are also dubious. Naw Betty herself has been reporting on the BGF’s links with Chinese investors and how the business nexus operates – often illegally and at the cost of the region and its residents.

Border business

Formed in 2009 and 2010 after the integration of several ethnic armed groups into the Tatmadaw, the Border Guard Forces are militias located along the country’s border with China and Thailand. According to the development organisation Asia Foundation’s 2016 report ‘Militias in Myanmar’, the country has 23 battalion-size militias, each 326 soldiers large, across its borderlands in Kachin, Shan, Kayah and Kayin states. As historian Thant Myint-U notes in his 2011 book Where China Meets India, “The Burmese military leadership… offered the ex-insurgent armies a deal on their future armed status: reorganize your men into a ‘Border Guard Force’, that will partly be officered by us and that will ultimately come under our authority.” Interestingly, among the country’s various militia groups, the BGFs are distinguished by the presence of soldiers originally from the Tatmadaw in their ranks.

In the Karen-majority Kayin state, the BGFs largely consist of a breakaway faction of the Karen National Union (KNU), which took up arms against the government one year after Burma’s independence in 1948, and was engaged in one of the longest running conflicts in the world until the 2012 ceasefire with the Tatmadaw. Known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the split group signed a peace agreement with the military two years before the KNU did, and was eventually transformed into the Kayin State BGF. According to a 2020 report by the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN), a network of Karen civil-society groups:

One of the leaders of the DKBA was Saw Chit Thu, a former member of the KNU Special Battalion 101 based at Wangkha… After helping the Burma Army [Tatmadaw] seize Kawmoorah, his DKBA forces were permitted to share control of the lucrative cross border trade in the area, including the logging business. A sawmill was set up north of Kawmoorah, and within a few years, DKBA families, workers and traders had settled around the timber camp and established the village of Shwe Kokko Myaing.

Colonel Saw Chit Thu now heads the Kayin State BGF central command, based in Shwe Kokko, which is located along the Myanmar-Thailand border and is home to around 6000, mostly Karen people. He is also the managing director of Chit Linn Myaing Co Ltd, the business arm of the Kayin State BGF. In recent years, the area has seen a surge of Chinese-owned private businesses, including the planned New City Project. Many believe that the town may not only become a gambling hotspot, but also a place for smuggling weapons, wildlife, drugs and human beings, as is seen in several border areas under the control of ethnic armed groups. The region is also seeing increased ethnic tension, with the local residents complaining about the influx of Chinese migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented.

“These are sensitive issues and those groups involved [such as the BGFs] do not like CSOs [civil-society organisations] and media to investigate and report on these activities,” says Tom Kramer, the coordinator of the Myanmar Programme at the Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy think tank.

In the three months leading up to her detention, Naw Betty had travelled from Yangon to Myawaddy seven times to investigate the Shwe Kokko New City Project and allegations that the BGF was providing protection to Chinese-owned businesses. She also wanted to continue reporting on the peace process in the Kayin State. As someone from the Karen community, she felt a need to cover the transition of the state from a battlefield to a marketplace, a process that has come to be known as ceasefire capitalism.

Fuzzy authority

In principle, the BGFs come under the Ministry of Border Affairs, one of the three key government ministries controlled by the Tatmadaw (along with the Ministries of Defense and Home Affairs) according to the military-drafted 2008 constitution. In 2011, a government spokesperson said that armed groups must assume “the State’s duties as Border Guard Forces and regional militia forces in compliance with the constitution under the command of the Tatmadaw.” The Kayin State BGFs, therefore, are fully integrated into the military command structure. Journalists, civil society and human rights groups, however, argue that the BGF lacks oversight or accountability from the Tatmadaw, which itself lacks civilian supervision; one-fourth of all seats in national, state and regional governments in the country are allocated to members of the military, giving them an effective veto over any legislation.

Part of the problem is the unclear description of the force and its status in official documents, including the Constitution. According to Burma News International (BNI), a network of independent media organisations, “There is no official governmental document that defines their BGF policy. The people’s militia force is mentioned in the Defense Services, Chapter 7, of the 2008 constitution. However, the wording is vague and no details about the role of the people’s militia are provided.”

This allows the BGFs to often ignore government regulations and the authority of local police and officials. In fact, despite the government’s suspension of the New City Project due to a breach of investment regulations, reports indicate the construction continued for some time. While the BGF chief said back in August 2019 that construction work at Shwe Kokko had been halted, according to a story in Frontier Myanmar from July 2020, both satellite imagery and onsite visits contradicted this claim. “The government finally confirmed in June [2020] that it had formed a tribunal to investigate the alleged irregularities at Shwe Kokko,” the report noted.

The BGF’s flouting of government regulations and undermining of Kayin State authorities, however, doesn’t necessarily mean this is a completely local affair. As the KPSN report notes, evidence indicates that the project couldn’t have gone so far without the Tatmadaw’s backing: “the Chinese investors’ confidence in extending construction far outside the ‘official’ permit, and in publishing their own extra-legal investment regulations, and most importantly, the absolute control of the BGF by the Burma Army”.

‘Not free’

While reporting from Myanmar’s borderlands along Thailand and China remains particularly risky, gains in media freedom since the end of state censorship in 2012 have been steadily reversed over the last three years. This is evident in the continuing arrests of journalists across the country, the most well-known example of which was the arrest and prosecution of two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. In 2017, the two had exposed the mass execution of several Rohingya civilians in a village in the Rakhine State. They were convicted, but later released from prison by presidential pardon in 2019. Both have since left Myanmar with their families.

In 2020, independent news organisations such as Karen News, and Rakhine-based Development Media Group and Narinjara News, have been banned from local telecommunication operator’s networks by the government for allegedly disseminating ‘fake news’. Yangon-based Khit Thit Media, Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, and Sittwe-based Narinjara News are all facing anti-terrorism charges for publishing interviews with the outlawed Arakan Army, which has been fighting for autonomy in the Rakhine and Chin states of western Myanmar. Today, Reporters Without Borders ranks Myanmar 139 out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while Freedom House categorises Myanmar as ‘Not Free’.

Back in Yangon, Naw Betty couldn’t sleep for four days upon her return home; she had to see a therapist and take medication to treat her insomnia. “They pointed guns at us and threatened to shoot us. They said we [had] betrayed Kayin people. I didn’t understand what they were talking about,” she told me. She had told them that they weren’t in Myawaddy to report on BGF activities but to investigate businesses operating illegally in the area. Her explanation was ignored until Saw Chit Thu arrived. He had them both taken to the state capital, Hpa’an, and released. He assured them, and the media, that those responsible for this incident would be punished with up to 30 days in detention.

It’s hard for Naw Betty to believe Saw Chit Thu. She plans to return to Myawaddy to continue her investigative reporting. These days, she tells me, she can sleep without medication, but one thing she learned in captivity weighs heavily on her mind. “I learned from [the Kayin State BGFs] that before us they had arrested six others for taking photos,” she says. “I’m still investigating this. I didn’t get detailed information. I’m not sure if they’re alive or not.”

Published @HimalSouthasian

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This 25-year-old podcaster is Myanmar’s leading voice for gender equality

Nandar is trying to build a movement through her two podcasts.

Sitting cross-legged on a couch, Nandar (who goes by one name) places a pair of headphones over her ears and a lapel microphone on her collar. Seated across from her, in a makeshift home recording studio, is A.J., a feminist documentary filmmaker.

Nandar, 25, attaches the microphone to A.J.’s collar then presses the record button. The interview begins. Her voice is unmistakable.

“This is Feminist Talks, a new podcast featuring interviews with Myanmar women discussing their profession or expertise from a feminist point of view,” said Nandar emphatically in the Burmese language.

Addressing stereotypes

Born and raised in Mansam, a village located in the Namtu Township of northeastern Shan state, Nandar (né Nandu Gawali) learned first-hand of the hardships women face in going against the traditional values of family and community in Myanmar.

“My mom told me I was a fierce child. I never liked to conform to stereotypes and never dressed the way my parents wanted me to,” said Nandar, wearing a t-shirt with “Menstruation is not shameful” emblazoned across it.

“When you live in a small village and overcome the barriers [placed on you], no one can limit you,” she added.

Nandar is a feminist, a translator, a theatre director and a podcaster. She has translated three books, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, from Burmese into English, co-directed The Vagina Monologues for the last three years, and hosts two podcasts.

“I have a large following of young girls and I want to make sure they understand women’s issues. Boys too,” she said with a smile.

Building a movement

Nandar is trying to build a movement through podcasts, as well as her various speaking engagements at universities or international events.

Feminist Talks (listen on Apple/Google) is in fact Nandar’s second podcast — which launched on July 3 on Myanmar Women’s Day 2020 and distributed on Anchor. Last August, Nandar launched G-Taw Zagar Wyne (listen on Google/Soundcloud), a podcast focusing on women’s issues.

She hopes to see her new Feminist Talks podcast reach an even bigger audience than G-Taw Zagar Wyne. She doesn’t actively track her numbers, but her plan is to reach an audience beyond Myanmar’s borders and bring listeners into a broader discussion on feminism — even by including male feminists.

She said G-Taw Zagar Wyne tackles taboo topics like menstruation, abortion and consent in a more informative way rather than through storytelling like Feminist Talks hopes to do.

G-Taw Zagar Wyne is a nickname given to Nandar. In English, it means a woman willing to speak up and start a dialogue. She translates it as “boss lady”.

For International Women’s Day last March, Nandar hosted a live podcast recording of G-Taw Zagar Wyne. It featured an interview with Myanmar social media influencer, and beauty blogger, Win Min Than. The two had an engaging and sometimes funny conversation on relationships in Myanmar.

A fresh angle

In the crowd at that event was someone who’s been closely following Nandar’s work. Marisa Charles has spent the last eight years working in Myanmar. She’s become a trusted friend and mentor to Nandar.

“When Nandar speaks about her own situation, it’s that kind of personal storytelling that is adding a new angle to what has been going on for many years in the women’s rights movement,” said Charles.

“Podcasts are not popular in Myanmar yet so it’s refreshing to see something other than a training,” she added.

Nandar’s communication skills in both Burmese and English seem innate. She got her start at home, in Shan State.

“I always craved attention growing up. The place I got the most attention was in school because I was one of the best students in the classroom,” Nandar said. “I was forced by teachers to do public speaking.”

When she returns home from Yangon to visit her family, Nandar said she’s now treated as a local celebrity returning from the big city.

This is quite a drastic change from her youth, when Nandar was viewed as a troublemaker for not conforming to her role as a young woman set out by custom.

She refused marriage and left to pursue her studies in Yangon, where she received scholarships to study outside of the country, first in Thailand and then in Bangladesh.

“Now, everyone in my village respects me. They tell their daughters to be like me,” Nandar said with a wry smile.

She motions to A.J. to stop and hits the pause button on the audio recorder as a street vendor outside her home studio window shouts loudly so everyone on the block can hear what he’s hawking.

She waits for the vendor to pass, then returns to the interview.

“Nandar doesn’t give a lot of answers to people, but she brings them along the path of understanding. Just saying words like abortion is moving forward. You can’t talk about something if you don’t name it,” Charles said.

Before Nandar became known as Myanmar’s trailblazing podcaster, the young feminist interned at Rainfall Feminist Organization in Yangon. There, Nandar put what she learned to found Purple Feminists Group as a means to educate people on gender-related issues.

“She’s a great storyteller. She’s young. She’s energetic. Her public speaking skills are unquestionable,” said Shunn Lei from Rainfall Feminist Organization.

“It’s good that we have choices [in Myanmar], like feminist books, podcasts and blogs. But it would be great if we can make a platform to build solidarity among different classes, races and ethnic groups. This is what we need in the feminist movement.”

Published @Splice

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Southeast Asia Dispatches: Myanmar’s Trailblazing Podcaster

On this week’s episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches, Adam Bemma speaks to Myanmar’s trailblazing podcaster, Nandar. Last year, Nandar started the G-Taw Zagar Wyne podcast along with members of her Purple Feminists Group in Yangon to amplify women’s voices in the country. The name G-Taw Zagar Wyne comes from a nickname Nandar was given growing up in Shan State. It means a woman willing to speak up to share her ideas and begin a dialogue.

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Myanmar’s ‘Peacock Generation’ silenced as political prisoners being politicized

YANGON, Myanmar – Three Burmese men wearing traditional blue longyis shackled at the waist and feet carefully step down, one after the other, from a police truck in Ayeyarwady Region – 84 kms from the commercial capital, Yangon.

Armed officers lead Zayar Lwin, Paing Ye Thu and Paing Phyo Min into a courthouse.

The three are members of The Peacock Generation, a troupe of performers jailed in 2019 for mocking Myanmar’s military (along with three other members; Su Yadanar Myint, Kay Khine Tun and Zaw Lin Htut, also in prison).

“The military wants to censor and give a warning to the younger generation not to speak out against wrongdoings. It’s a threat to our freedom of expression,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a 25-year-old spokesperson for The Peacock Generation.

All six were sentenced last year in Yangon for violating 505(a) of Myanmar’s penal code for performing thangyat, Myanmar’s traditional form of satirical street theatre, and 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for broadcasting it to Facebook.

But they still face charges of criminal defamation for performing during last year’s Thingyan New Year festivities in Ayeyarwady Region.

Bulldog vs. Peacock

“We [displayed] a picture of a bulldog in an army general’s uniform,” said Nyein Chan Soe, a 25-year-old member of The Peacock Generation arrested in 2019 but released after charges against him were dropped.

Nyein Chan Soe, 25, is a student actiivst and comedian who goes by the stage name of Chit Yone. He’s a member of The Peacock Generation, arrested in 2019 but released after charges against him were dropped.

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the peacock is a symbol of resistance first adopted by student unions and independence leaders.

Then it became the logo of a movement fighting for a return to democracy during military rule from 1962 to 1988. This led to the establishment of the National League for Democracy that has a peacock on its flag.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide election victory in 1990 but wasn’t allowed to take power until after Myanmar’s military junta allowed a second election – during its touted “roadmap to democracy” – in 2015.

Myanmar’s military holds 25 per cent of all seats in government – giving it veto power. It also controls three key ministries (Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs).

From 1989 to 2013, the junta banned thangyat performances during the Thingyan New Year because the NLD had used it to raise awareness about the need for democratic change in Myanmar.

Students, artists and activists formed The Peacock Generation in 2014 to revive this form of traditional entertainment. The authorities began to monitor these annual street performances.

“The way thangyat is performed is a way to make [people] change their behavior. It’s not naming and shaming. It’s just a lovely way of telling the truth,” said Ma Thida, president of PEN Myanmar and former NLD party member. “It criticizes everybody not just the government [or military].”

Political Prisoners

Last April, President Win Myint released 24,900 prisoners in the government’s largest amnesty to date. But according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) only 26 freed were political prisoners; 183 remain behind bars including the six members of The Peacock Generation.

International rights groups consider The Peacock Generation leaders in the fight for freedom of expression in Myanmar. For their efforts, they were awarded the 2020 E.U. Schuman Award.

Ma Thida believes they weren’t released in the amnesty because of the 2020 election expected this November. All six members of The Peacock Generation are noted political activists that could help mobilize the youth vote.

But recent accusations against Zayar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu have shown the jailed activists in a new light.

Local media reported the two had spread online hate speech towards the Rohingya in 2017. This came after the military’s brutal response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and resulting crackdown against Rohingya villages and murder of civilians in Rakhine state.

The UN said the military assault and unjust treatment of the Rohingya bear “the hallmarks of genocide.”

“In Myanmar, there is a difference between human rights defenders and political activists,” explained Thinzar Shunlei Yi. “These two are not the same.”

What she means is that political activists in Myanmar shouldn’t necessarily be recognized as human rights defenders, as is the case in other Southeast Asian countries.

Political activists in Myanmar may want the military to leave the political arena to the civilian leaders, but may still support the military in keeping the country secure against ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) operating in the borderlands.

‘Othering’ the Rohingya

Some of the Myanmar’s most celebrated democracy activists and politicians have been accused of making Islamophobic statements in the past. Many still refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali” which means they view them as immigrants from Bangladesh and not native to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community has been excluded from the country’s 135 recognized ethnic groups.

“In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi issued an order to the media and [foreign] embassies not to use the word ‘Rohingya.’ This caused a lot of problems,” said Moe Thway, 39, president of Generation Wave youth movement.

“Now nearly one million Rohingya [have been] displaced and more than 10,000 were killed. Many lives were destroyed.”

The 2018 prison sentence handed to Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for uncovering the murder of Rohingya civilians by soldiers in Rakhine state’s Inn Dinn village saw Myanmar’s recently won press freedom from 2013-17 start to backslide.

In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 139 out of 185 – a 20-point drop in four years.

According to Myanmar’s ATHAN – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization – a total of 1,051 people have been charged under laws restricting free speech since the NLD government came to power.

This year, Myanmar’s Thingyan New Year was cancelled because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19. There were no thangyat performances in 2020. But The Peacock Generation is hoping to return to the stage once released from prison.

They’ll have a lot of questions to answer about statements made in the past. But even though six are in jail, The Peacock Generation’s supporters have gone on to attack negative media coverage via the troupe’s Facebook page.

“The Peacock Generation’s spirit is strong. A prison sentence will not stop them from expressing their ideas and opinions. They’ve decided to raise their voice and fight for political reform,” said Nyein Chan Soe.

Published @Prachathai

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Yangon’s Pirates of Pansodan St. – A new copyright law may bankrupt Myanmar’s book business

Along Yangon’s Pansodan Street toward Merchant Road, located among the heritage Victorian buildings of colonial-era Rangoon, a pirated book market thrives. The books lining the shelves of street-side stalls, or inside adjacent bookstores, give the appearance of a booming business, featuring longtime bestsellers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma to George Orwell’s Burmese Days. But a closer inspection reveals that these are photocopied versions of the originals being sold for a fraction of the price.

As Myanmar’s new copyright law comes into effect this year, pirated books will likely begin to disappear from the bargain shelves, and many bookstores will feel the pinch. Urged on by publishers in the country, the government has begun to hold panel discussions on the new laws. Writers – many disgruntled by past copyright infringements – have also begun to highlight copyright issues through campaigns. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. Pirated books have seen Myanmar through periods of media suppression, they help the public learn about sensitive topics like the Rohingya crisis, and, some might argue, they add value to the economy.

Pirates versus publishers

Book piracy, the unauthorised use or reproduction of another’s work, is a term that evokes maritime theft and plunder. The industry dates back to 16th-century England and 17th-century Europe. In Myanmar, as in many emerging economies, pirated books are commonplace.

But over the years Myanmar’s book pirates have faced increasing opposition from Myanmar’s publishing industry. Publishers like Myo Aung, who sells imported books, have been asking the government to adopt modern intellectual-property legislation for the last ten years. Myanmar did not sign the 1886 Berne Convention – an international agreement governing copyright, and the Burma Copyright Act of 1914, conceived prior to the advent of the internet and applicable only to domestically produced literary works, has been ineffective.

Publishers claim that their industry faces structural challenges, such as rising rents and poor logistics and distribution systems. In 2019, a new copyright law was adopted along with patent, trademark and industrial-design laws to bring Myanmar into a new age of intellectual property rights. The law will impact approximately 2,822 registered publishing businesses in Myanmar. Still, according to the new law, Myanmar’s President Win Myint must announce the date of enforcement for the law to be applicable. “I told the government not to wait [to implement the law]. The earliest date possible is good for everyone,” said Myo Aung, owner of Pyi Zone Publishing House in Yangon.

Myo Aung believes there are roughly 100 unregistered book publishers still operating in Yangon, where the country’s publishing industry is located. Looming enforcement has sent shockwaves through Yangon’s pirated-book market to nearby streets where pirated DVDs and CDs can be found. The new law extends to audiovisual, film, architectural and choreographic works, among others.

Piracy during dictatorship

Parallel to Pansodan Street, just one block east on Merchant Road, is 37th Street. This is where Ko Harry Books, Bagan Book House and OS Bookshop are located. It is also home to the Old Book Market that sells secondhand children’s books and novels in English and Burmese languages, buried alongside pirated nonfiction books on Burma’s turbulent political history.

Following the 1962 military coup, many books were banned outright by the new regime and freedom of speech was severely restricted. As a result, many people smuggled books into the country, photocopied them and sold them clandestinely. At the time, piracy was critical for spreading new ideas. “In the past, booksellers would hide banned books. You needed to request the book. He would look at you to determine whether he should sell it to you or not,” said Myo Myo, a Yangon-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “If the authorities knew he was selling banned books he could be detained,” she added.

It was only after the National League for Democracy’s 2012 by-election victory that restrictions on media and censorship were relaxed. Gradually, books on political affairs were displayed openly, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s own books and the numerous biographies written about her.

U Htay Aung runs Bagan Book House, established in 1976 by his father as the preeminent destination for used English-language books. But secondhand books were difficult to bring into the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and now very few used books are on display inside. Instead, the walls and shelves are covered instead with pirated books. Htay Aung said he knew he risked arrest and interrogation by police and security agents in the past for carrying certain titles on Myanmar. Today, he carries on his family’s tradition of selling a curated selection of low-cost used and pirated books. It is still the go-to bookshop downtown for locals, foreigners and tourists looking for cheap reads in English.

Bagan Book House also carries books on sensitive topics like the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. These books are flaunted next to more academic texts that also would have been banned before 2012, because they are critical of the role of Myanmar’s military in society and politics. In today’s Myanmar, the most risky books are those about the Rohingya community, against whom the Myanmar military carried out what it called “clearance operations”, but which the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Pirated copies of Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict (2018), The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (2016), and Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (2017) are available in English. But they are unlikely to have Burmese translations any time soon, since translations may cause offence to nationalists and Buddhist monks, many of whom reject the name ‘Rohingya’ and – imputing foreignness to this community – use the appellation ‘Bengali’ instead.

The disgruntled author

Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner has spent the last 40 years reporting and writing about Myanmar. Walking down Pansodan Street one day, he spotted pirated versions of his books on Myanmar, along with their unofficial Burmese translations on bestseller shelves. They ranged in price from MMK 5,000 to 10,000 (USD 3.50 to 7) while the original copies can cost between USD 25 to 45 at two of the country’s most popular book chains, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre.

Lintner told me, “I haven’t been paid even one kyat for any of the altogether seven books which were translated into Burmese with [or] without permission from me or the original publisher.” He added, “Some Myanmar publishers have asked me for permission to translate books, but I have to explain to them that they can’t ask me for permission to do that. They have to ask the publishers.”

To challenge piracy in Myanmar’s book publishing industry, author and historian Thant Myint U had a legal notice published in the state-run Kyemon daily and shared on his Facebook wall. He requested bookstores and stalls to no longer carry pirated versions of his books. As a result, his most recent work, The Hidden History of Burma, is not displayed on the bestseller shelves at Yangon’s book shops and stalls that sell pirated books. Since it was released in late 2019, it has only been possible to purchase an original copy at the Myanmar Book Centre, located on Merchant Road one block west of Pansodan Street – rather than east where pirated copies of his books were once sold openly.

Thant’s three previous books – including his bestselling historical memoir The River of Lost Footsteps (2006) – were pulled from bestseller shelves last year as the notice went out. “I’m no longer allowed to sell Thant Myint U books,” Htay Aung said as he reached behind a rack of other bestselling pirated books on Suu Kyi to show me a stash of copies of The Hidden History of Burma.

These pirated books are now hidden away and only sold to customers who really want to read the book but don’t have enough money to pay MMK 35,000 (USD 24) Myanmar Book Center. Htay Aung only charges MMK 7000 (USD 5) for this book and MMK 5000 (USD 3.50) for each of Myint U’s previous three books.

In the past, authors have had no legal recourse to combat copyright infringement. Myint U is the first author to challenge book piracy and have bookstore owners pull pirated copies from shelves. Some pirated books stalls along Pansodan Street are even located inside entranceways to the heritage buildings that Yangon Heritage Trust, a group founded by Myint U that works to preserve the city’s colonial-era architecture, has been fighting to protect from demolition or neglect. The trust’s office, ironically, is one block south of the pirated book market on Pansodan Street.

Enforcing copyright

Pirated books banned under the military regime are starting to disappear off shelves as word of the 2019 copyright law reaches the pirated book market. This has many bookstore owners like Htay Aung and Khin Maung Tin confused. Skeptics like Myo Myo, on the other hand, believe enforcement of the copyright law won’t happen for many years, likely after the 2025 parliamentary election.

“We obey the law. In a few years the copied books may disappear,” said Khin Maung Tin from Ar Yone Thit Bookshop – a bookstore in Yangon that sells mainly pirated English language textbooks and novels for students and foreigners. “Customers may not be able to afford expensive books. Nobody knows what will happen in the future. [This law] may be good or bad.”

According to the new copyright law, those caught selling pirated works will be imprisoned for at least one year with a fine of MMK 1 million (approximately USD 700). Repeat offenders will be subject to up to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of MMK 10 million (approximately USD 7000). Says Myo Myo, “After 2012, people have begun to talk about copyright. Nowadays these voices are louder. In the future, most people in Myanmar [must] follow and obey the law.”

But getting rid of pirated books may be harder than imagined. Pirated books are available for purchase in all bookstores in Myanmar, not only in the pirated book shops and stalls of downtown Yangon. In fact, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre, too, sell pirated books alongside originals. For most book buyers, it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the retailers put up notices that read: “English books from these shelves are not original or authentic books.” When asked about this, staff at both stores would not comment.

The economics of piracy

With free primary education and an adult literacy rate of approximately 76 percent, Myanmar has a significant appetite for reading. However, despite this, many people may not be able to afford to pay the full listed price for a book like The Hidden History of Burma;the purchase would represent about 2 percent of the average annual income in Myanmar (USD 1325).

This is unrealistic given that the average Burmese household spends only 3 percent of total expenditure on entertainment. Myanmar is not alone in this; the inability to afford book prices set in advanced economies is a problem in other developing countries as well, including India, Brazil and South Africa.

As the authors of Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (2011) suggest, specific industries may incur losses as a result of piracy, but these are not necessarily losses to the national economy. Piracy of domestic goods is “a transfer of income, not a loss. Money saved by consumers or businesses on CDs, DVDs, or software will not disappear but rather be spent on other things—housing, food, other entertainment, other business expenses, and so on.”

Meanwhile, the 2019 copyright law will almost definitely affect the revenue stream of book retailers. Their revenues have continually decreased since the reforms to Myanmar’s telecommunications sector began to take effect in 2013, allowing for the spread of cheap SIM cards and data plans. Myanmar’s internet penetration rate increased from approximately one percent to 31 percent between 2011 and 2017, while in the same period mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants increased from 2.4 to 90.

This means that more people are now likely to use the internet to read books – where many books are now available, for free, online. Recognising this trend, Myanmar’s biggest wireless carrier created an ebook app with book prices between MMK 500 and 800 kyat (35 to 56 US cents). Like book pirates, they too hope to capitalise on high demand for books and the unaffordability of original books.

Unfortunately, this is a perspective that is often overlooked by publishers in Myanmar. “In this business it’s important to be honest,” said Myo Aung. “You must ask permission and acquire the rights to publish a book. If you’re caught pirating, please apologise.”

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Aung San Suu Kyi turns to Facebook to get coronavirus message out

Myanmar leader’s live broadcasts on Facebook draws hundreds of thousands of views.

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A video conference between Aung San Suu Kyi, (top right) and government officials from the Yangon region as she gives daily updates on Facebook [Myanmar’s Ministry of Information/ AFP]

YANGON, Myanmar – Broadcasting live from Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, Aung San Suu Kyi shuffled some papers, looked straight at the camera and smiled before welcoming her guests to a teleconference call on Facebook.

“Currently, migrant workers are coming back from Thailand and some have resettled in the country. So we are taking the necessary steps to provide quarantine facilities,” the country’s de facto leader told the more than 300,000 viewers who had tuned into her broadcast on Wednesday.

Alongside her, the screen featured three of Myanmar’s labour leaders. The first topic of the day was about how returning migrant workers could minimise the spread of the new coronavirus in the impoverished country.

“Those gathered in large groups could be a danger to themselves and the country if they don’t follow the rules,” Suu Kyi said.

The 74-year-old state counsellor heads Myanmar’s coronavirus response team and has reluctantly turned to Facebook to spread her message on the challenges posed by COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.

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Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi talks to government officials from the Yangon region via a video conference from the presidential house in Naypyidaw [Handout/ Myanmar’s Ministry of Information/ via AFP]

Despite creating a Facebook profile in 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi only posted her first update on April 1, declaring that while she did not want to use the platform at all she was forced to do so in order to “effectively communicate with citizens”.

Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to the platform daily to update her 2.2 million followers on the government’s efforts to fight the virus. Facebook has the largest reach out of any traditional media or social media platform in Myanmar, registering an estimated 21 million users in the country of 53 million.

There are now 127 confirmed infections and five deaths from the coronavirus in Myanmar. While the figures are the second-lowest in Southeast Asia, experts worry a large outbreak could swiftly overwhelm the country’s healthcare system, which is ranked among the worst in the world following decades of military rule. The country is now bracing for the return of more migrant workers from Thailand and China, some of whom may have the coronavirus.

During her broadcasts, Aung San Suu Kyi hosts state and regional health officials as well as volunteers working to slow community transmission. She moderates panel discussions and listens to and congratulates people across Myanmar, from Mon state in the southeast of the country to the Ayeyarwady region outside Yangon, in an effort to reassure people that authorities are doing everything possible to combat the virus. Respect the rules, she urges viewers frequently, telling them to follow social distancing guidelines and hygiene practices including the wearing of face coverings.

The broadcasts typically garner hundreds of thousands of views and as people on the front lines share their stories, viewers flood the screen with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emojis. In addition to the praise from supporters, the discussions have drawn plaudits from the traditional news media, too.

“The biggest result of our video meeting with citizens across our country is to know about the important needs of those who are trying to overcome the COVID-19 challenges [we face],” Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday.

Kaung Htut, a bank employee in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.

“The teleconference call is a good thing … she should have been doing this all along,” the 39-year-old said. “She’s not communicating detailed plans by the government. She’s trying to clarify some information for the public. The guests respectfully listen and answer her questions. But nobody challenges her.”

But some critics say the tactic bypasses the news media and public health officials should have taken the lead, not Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She should hold press conferences and communicate with journalists to make sure the right messages are getting out,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a 28-year-old democracy activist who tunes in to Aung San Suu Kyi’s live broadcasts.

“The press conferences or online press briefings should be regular. She’s taking on the roles other people should.”

Meanwhile, some activists are using Aung San Suu Kyi’s newfound appreciation for Facebook to seek accountability for the continuing conflict between the military and the Arakan Army rebel group in Rakhine and Chin states.

The United Nations says 32 civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the fighting in Rakhine and Chin since March 23 – the date the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Myanmar. And while Aung San Suu Kyi used one of her recent Facebook broadcasts to mourn the loss of a woman to the coronavirus, activists say she has not paid the same attention to the conflict deaths.

On Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi released a statement expressing her support for the military in western Myanmar, and went on to remark that her government was “deeply saddened to learn of civilian casualties in Rakhine and Chin states,” where 150,000 displaced people are living under a mobile internet ban and are unable to receive information about the pandemic.

Moe Thway, president of Generation Wave Youth Force, a group of political activists critical of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, said he frequently leaves comments on Aung San Suu Kyi’s Facebook posts highlighting the number of people who’ve been killed in the conflict in the past month alone.

“For the moment coronavirus is the most important issue in the country. But the war in Rakhine and Chin states should be the second,” he said.

“People living in the conflict zones need protection and information,” said Moe Thway.

Aung Hla Tun, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government, declined to comment for this story.

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In Laos, price of free speech a heavy one

BANGKOK [OP-ED] – The imprisonment of Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly, a young, female Lao environmentalist turned internet activist who simply asked for help for flood victims, should be a matter of deep concern to the international community.

On Sept 5, 2018, Muay used her 17-minute-long Facebook Live broadcast to counter the official narrative of the government — and state-run media — on the 2018 dam collapse in southern Laos.

After speaking up for the flood victims, she found herself arrested and was sent to jail last year.

Her Facebook Live video was viewed 150,000 times and shared 2,244 times.

In the video, she told a story of flood victims living on the roofs of their houses, drawing attention to the government’s negligence during the deadly flooding.

“I cannot be silent as we have been in the past. The era of the regime keeping the eyes and mouths of the people closed has come to an end,” Radio Free Asia quoted her as saying in the video.

Her scathing live reports evaded Lao censors and got news from communities affected by land confiscation, the loss of natural resources, and the construction of dams along the Mekong River, out to the public before the government was able to ask Facebook to take down her posts.

Her video plea for flood victims was still available on her Facebook page recently.

In Laos, any criticism of the government on social media can land you in trouble.

Muay, 31, is the mother of a four-year-old girl. She worked as a tour guide before being arrested on Sept 12, 2019 and charged under Article 117 of the Lao criminal code, for spreading “anti-state propaganda”.

She was sentenced to five years in prison. But this wasn’t the first time Muay had gotten into trouble.

Police had previously questioned Muay about her growing influence on social media in Laos. When she challenged the official narrative about the floods caused by the dam collapse, and resulting loss of life and livelihoods for people living in Attapeu province, she hit a nerve.

“Muay had been arrested before but [had always been] released. This time they wanted to make an example of her,” said Emilie Pradichit, director of Manushya Foundation — a rights group based in Bangkok.

“She refused to apologise this time so she was sentenced to jail,” Ms Emilie added.

Many Lao political activists fear the government. Seven years ago, community development expert Sombath Somphone was kidnapped at a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane; he hasn’t been seen or heard from since despite an international outcry.

Human rights groups say the Lao government is using enforced disappearance as a weapon to silence dissent.

Last August, Lao refugee Od Sayavong disappeared in Bangkok, where he’d been waiting for resettlement to a third country. The news of Od’s disappearance sent shock waves through Thailand’s refugee community.

“With social media, Lao people have more channels to express themselves. They don’t have to take to the streets to protest and [be] arrested,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“But the Lao government is intensively surveilling its people online,” Mr Sunai added.

Thai and Lao political activists in Bangkok have teamed up to launch the #FreeMuay campaign. They want to raise awareness about missing Lao activists like Od and have called for an immediate investigation into Muay’s case in Laos.

The #FreeMuay campaign seeks to inform the world — as Muay did herself via social media — about the difficulties faced by the Lao people in raising their voice to demand accountability and transparency inside Laos, or in exile in Thailand.

The Thai group Humanity Beyond Borders is raising funds and awareness through this campaign, to assist Muay and anyone who dares to speak out against repressive regimes anywhere in the world.

People around the world have suffered a great deal from natural disasters like the flooding in the south of Laos in 2018. That calamity may have been less severe and less deadly if the state were held accountable for its responses. It is a cause for dismay that someone like Muay, who wanted to hold the government responsible, ended up in jail. She does not deserve this.

Thailand and the international community must focus on gross human rights abuses in Laos.

The most important thing now is for the United Nations and international organisations to go to Laos to visit Muay in prison and pressure the Lao government to release her. She should never have been jailed in the first place.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a student activist at Chulalongkorn University, spearheads the #FreeMuay campaign. Adam Bemma is a writer based in Southeast Asia.

Published @BangkokPost

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Vietnam’s battalions of ‘cyber-armies’ silencing online dissent

‘Force 47’, thought to be 10,000-strong, seen as government’s online enforcers as new cyber crime law takes effect.

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Vietnam has a population of 96 million, with more than 60 million people having their presence on the social media platform Facebook [File: Luong Thai Linh/EPA]

HANOI, Vietnam – Wearing his trademark black fedora, human rights defender Anh Chi updates his YouTube audience on the situation in Dong Tam village, 40km (25 miles) southwest of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, the site of a recent deadly dispute over land.

Anh Chi is among the few social media-savvy activists, who are trying to push the boundaries of delivering news and analysis straight to the Vietnamese public. But these days, their voices are increasingly becoming muted due to government restrictions.

The deadly January 9 incident in Dong Tam is a case in point.

According to the authorities, three police officers and 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh were killed after local residents clashed with police in the early hours of that day.

The dispute, over agricultural land next to a military airport, shocked the country.

But afterwards, Vietnam’s cyber-army, also known as Force 47, was deployed to counter the content on social media platforms deemed critical of the way the authorities handled the situation.

The authorities also arrested three activists over posts made in relation to the dispute, while Facebook users faced restrictions.

“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director, said in a statement.

“Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind. This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression and a clear attempt to stamp out dissent.”

‘Force 47’

Vietnam’s Force 47 is run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to hack anti-government websites and spread pro-government messages online, and is believed to be at least 10,000-strong.

Anh Chi, the pen name of 46-year-old Nguyen Chi Tuyen, knows the ministry’s tactics well. He has created videos criticising Force 47, and has expressed concern about the impact of a new cyber-law that came into effect at the beginning of the month.

“I strongly oppose the many articles in it that violate freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and basic human rights,” he said.

Digital rights campaigners accuse Vietnam of attempting to replicate China’s “Great Firewall”  by regulating and censoring the internet  with the cybersecurity law.

Neither Google, which owns YouTube, nor Facebook has complied with the legislation, which requires the American tech giants to open local data storage facilities inside Vietnam by January 1.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a lobby representing Facebook and Google, said the legislation was a step in the wrong direction for the country’s growing digital economy.

The law states that “it is prohibited to use cyberspace to prepare a post and spread information that has the content of propaganda opposing the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or anything that offends the nation, national flag, national emblem, national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people and national heroes”.

Growing marking of 96 million people

As Vietnamese searched for more information about what happened in Dong Tam a week ago, some Facebook users reported receiving the message online: “Due to legal requirements in your country, we have restricted access to your profile on Facebook. This means that other people in your country cannot see your profile, and may not be able to interact with you over Messenger.”

Vietnam has a population of 96 million. With more than 60 million Facebook users, it is the platform’s one of the fastest-growing markets.

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Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam near the bottom of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 176 out of 180 countries listed [Luong Thai Linh/EPA]

“Facebook is the main source of independent news now in Vietnam,” said Trinh Huu Long, a co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“The government has been working with Facebook to try to control content posted by dissidents and independent voices,” he added.

Searches for protests in Hong Kong have also been affected. Many, like Anh Chi, blame the cybersecurity law for the filtered information.

“They know people in Vietnam are active on social media, and they follow the news, especially with what’s happening in Hong Kong every day,” he said. “The government fears that one day people in Vietnam will join such protests.”

‘No free press’

Bao Trung, 37, started his own Facebook page called “Bao Sach [Clean Newspaper]” with five other independent journalists in 2019. The whole team used to work for the state-run media.

“Most of the people in Vietnam have Facebook accounts. Anybody can be a reporter now with a smartphone,” Bao Trung said. “I think it’s impossible for the government to control online news and information.”

Vietnam’s dispute with China over its claim on the islands and energy-rich waters in the South China Sea is also sensitive.

Vietnamese people have long viewed their northern neighbour as a threat. In June 2018, there were nationwide protests against the cybersecurity and special economic zone legislation because they were seen as favourable to Beijing.

The authorities reacted quickly to end the protests, which activists described as the biggest in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.

Vietnam’s cybersecurity law stipulates that social media platforms must allow the authorities access to local user data. The government has even pledged to create its own Vietnamese platform to rival Facebook, although its attempts have failed.

‘People’s journalist’

The Ministry of Public Security claims the cybersecurity law is needed to stop cyber-threats and attacks against Vietnam.

Independent journalist Pham Chi Dung was arrested last year and is still under investigation without formal charges by police in Ho Chi Minh City.

Anh Chi does not seem bothered by such threats. He had a blog on Facebook for nine years until he switched recently to YouTube. But with a decade of political activism under his belt, he calls himself “the people’s journalist”.

In a country where state institutions, from citizens committees, to the military and newspapers refer to themselves as “the people’s [nhan dan]”, this claim may ring hollow with his audience – which he said ranges from local street vendors to government civil servants.

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With a decade of political activism under his belt, Anh Chi calls himself ‘the people’s journalist.’

“I choose to spend my time on YouTube rather than Facebook because Vietnamese people are busy with work,” he said. “They have smartphones, so while they’re working they can listen to the story rather than having to read.”

Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam near the bottom of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 176 out of 180 countries listed. Freedom House labels Vietnam as “Not free”.

The 88 Project for Free Speech in Vietnam states there are 276 activists currently in prison, while human rights group Defend the Defenders monitored the cases of 36 convicted in 2019.

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In 2019, Bao Trung started his Facebook page called ‘Bao Sach’ (Clean Newspaper) with five other independent journalists.

Vietnam’s government disputes these statistics, but under the country’s legal system they already have several laws to prosecute online dissenters.

Many fear the cybersecurity law is just another layer – a way to deter people even from questioning the government.

Anh Chi is unbowed, saying he will continue to speak out. He dedicated an entire episode on his YouTube channel to Le Dinh Kinh, the elderly man killed in Dong Tam last week.

“If they want to arrest anyone of us, they can do it. There are many laws in the penal code to use against us,” Anh Chi said. “We’re ready to defend our human rights. That’s our challenge and our mission.”

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‘Pushing boundaries’: The rise of Samizdat publishing in Vietnam

Liberal Publishing House publishes and distributes books Vietnam’s government does not want its citizens to read.

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Vietnam’s publishing industry is tightly controlled by the government [File: Kham/Reuters]

HANOI, Vietnam – Inside a cramped room in a secret – and temporary – location in northern Vietnam, a printer whirs to life, spitting out sheets of paper covered in text.

Neat piles are stacked on nearby tables and a man wearing an air respirator places one of them into a machine that cuts and binds the pages to a cover.

“The dampness in the room has caused the paper to crease. This isn’t good,” said the editor in chief of Vietnam’s Nha Xuat Ban Tu Do – Liberal Publishing House – as he flipped through the newly-printed book.

In Vietnam, as in the former Soviet Union, such publications are known as Samizdat – the illegal copying and distribution of books – and are banned by the government as “anti-state” activity. Under Article 117 of Vietnam’s criminal code, anyone involved in Samizdat risks a jail term of 20 years. The Liberal Publishing House editor prefers not to share their name.

The publishing house was founded last February in Ho Chi Minh City by a group of dissidents as a direct challenge to the government’s control of the industry and to bring the non-fiction work of Vietnam’s growing crop of dissident writers to the nation’s readers.

“Every printing house in Vietnam is controlled by the government. We had to buy our own printing press to do it clandestinely,” said Tran Ha, Liberal Publishing House’s founding member, who asks that we use a pseudonym to protect their identity.

Immediately after the press was set up, Ha had to move it from Vietnam’s largest city to an undisclosed location due to pressure from police trying to shut it down and arrest them.

“We’re unable to stay anywhere for a long period of time or our work may be revealed. If we’re discovered even the community will be at risk,” added Ha.

‘Dangerous and damaging’

The government has long censored and controls its media and publishing industries and imposed tight restrictions on them.

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Liberal Publishing House has published dissident author Pham Doan Trang’s latest books Politics of a Police State and Non Violent Protest. [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

The Law on Publishing prohibits “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” the “spread of reactionary ideology” and “the disclosure of secrets of the [Communist] Party, State, military, defence, economics, or external relations.”

Liberal Publishing House has published 11 books from eight authors during the past year on politically sensitive topics including China’s role in Vietnam and controversial legislation on Special Economic Zones. It has also released a legal handbook for jailed activists.

It is the first Samizdat in Vietnam to launch a website and Facebook page.

“We have tens of thousands of readers despite police repression and state censorship,” Ha said. “Many of them are members of the Communist Party.”

There is no way to verify these claims, but in October, Vietnamese authorities cracked down on Liberal Publishing House, its distribution network and readers.

In November, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint statement calling for an end to the intimidation and harassment of people either associated with the publisher’s activities or trying to obtain copies of Samizdat books.

According to Amnesty International’s Vietnam campaign team, police have questioned nearly 100 people for either owning or reading books printed by Liberal Publishing House.

“They know how dangerous and damaging [Samizdat publishing] is to their regime,” said Trinh Huu Long, a democracy activist and co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“By printing books, they can make independent information look professional and legitimate to readers. If they can hold it in their hands they trust it more. It’s valuable.”

Clandestine network

Walking along popular bookshop-lined streets in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi it is easy to find and buy copies of Western and Vietnamese literature banned by the government since reunification in 1975. While some illegal books are smuggled into the country, most are photocopied versions of the originals.

But finding Samizdat books written by Vietnamese authors in Vietnam itself is difficult so press freedom activists have started a support network to help keep Liberal Publishing House operational.

Supporters help ship books within the country. Readers across Vietnam place an order and decide a location from which to collect the books which are delivered by motorbike-taxi drivers – rather like ordering food online.

“A lot of those shipping our books have been trapped by police officers pretending to be readers interested in buying copies. They order a book from us online and set a place and time to have the book delivered to them,” said Ha.

“We’ve had two of our staff arrested and one was forced to confess.”

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A Samizdat book from Vietnam’s Liberal Publishing House whose readers are mainly from the country’s remote and poorer areas [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Liberal Publishing House has begun to distribute digital versions of their most popular books to help pay for the costs associated with publishing physical copies.

‘Pushing boundaries’

Nguyen Quang A, 73, has been challenging state censorship under his SOS Squared Library for 20 years. He has published dozens of banned books in physical and e-book format and was the inspiration behind the Liberal Publishing House’s Samizdat operation.

“I gave up printing paper books,” Quang A said. “My objective is not to be a hero fighting against the corrupt censorship system. It’s just to discuss ideas.”

Ha said the feedback its Vietnamese readers give Liberal Publishing House reflects the hunger people have to know more about public policy in Vietnam.

“I think Liberal Publishing House is pushing the boundaries,” said Dinh Thao, a 28-year-old activist living in Hanoi. “In the past, [Samizdat] publishers would rather print translated books, but now they publish books from Vietnamese authors inside the country. These are the kinds of books I like to read.”

Bestselling copies of dissident author Pham Doan Trang’s latest books Politics of a Police State and Non Violent Protest sit on the table at Liberal Publishing House’s Samizdat printing facility.

While Hong Kong’s protests have continued into their eighth month, books on the subject are scarce in Vietnamese. Liberal Publishing House’s next release will shine a light on anti-China protests in Hong Kong and those that took place inside Vietnam in June 2018 – the biggest protests since the end of the Vietnam War.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from Vietnamese readers about the Hong Kong protests,” said Nguyen. “Our readers are coming from some of the most remote and poorest areas of the country.”

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