Myanmar's secret press pack gives junta a headache

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CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Sep 12 (Reuters) Clandestine networks of reporters operating more like Cold War spy rings than pressmen are ensuring pro-democracy and fuel price protests in military-run Myanmar no longer take place in a media black hole.

Using technology ranging from the latest Internet gizmo to secret ''drops'' and the plain old postal service, the media pack in the former Burma is providing pictures and video from deep inside one of the most closed countries on earth.

Last month's footage of pro-junta gangs roughing up protesters in Yangon was a world away from the grainy archive clips of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi or an uprising in 1988 crushed by the army with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.

The news is beamed back into the country via satellite television and radio by exile news groups such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), now one of the main ways Myanmar's 53 million people learn about events inside their own country.

Apart from external TV and radio, the only other news sources have been tea-shop gossip, heavily censored private newspapers or the junta's rigidly controlled state media.

''There are many ways to get things out,'' DVB's Thailand-based bureau chief, Toe Zaw Latt, said, tapping the side of his nose knowingly and declining to elaborate.

''Rangoon is easy, but the provinces are more complicated.

Sometimes we will have the footage but it takes a while to get it out -- although we will always get it eventually.'' Besides footage shot by ''citizen journalists'' and passed on, DVB has 100 part-time reporters, or stringers, inside the country. To protect each other in case they are arrested, none knows the names -- or even faces -- of their colleagues.

''It takes ages when we run training courses because we have to make sure none of them sees each other,'' Toe Zaw Latt said.

INTERNET CAT AND MOUSE Modern technology is the main weapon in the arsenal of the exile news agencies, funded mainly by the United States and European governments and private agencies such as George Soros' Open Society Institute.

Besides mobile phones and the Internet, some even have portable satellite uplinks -- to be used sparingly due to the risk of detection and the frequency of power blackouts.

To try to stem the information flow, the generals who have run Myanmar for the last 45 years have blocked video-sharing Web site YouTube, tried to close land borders and even suggested foreign diplomats are involved.

They have also sent 300 officials to Russia to learn how to set up a cyber-security force. Having used proxy servers and encryption programmes to run rings round the censors for years, the exiles are unperturbed.

''All we have to do is find out where they are studying and within a few hours we will know exactly what they are learning and what they can do,'' said one Thailand-based foreign activist.

The 2004 purge of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and the dismantling of his Military Intelligence secret police network also seems to be a factor in an increasingly leaky junta.

Not least among the exile groups' scoops is the lavish wedding video of Thandar Shwe, daughter of junta supremo Than Shwe, which sparked outrage among ordinary people in one of Asia's poorest countries.

''Technology has changed everything,'' said Aung Zaw, editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine.

''There was a crackdown after Suu Kyi won her Nobel prize in 1991 and it took three or four weeks for the news to get out.

Now we are on the phone nearly every day to people who are in hiding.'' REUTERS CS KP1032

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