Tony Yoo, an Australian who entered the Master of Journalism programme at the JMSC this year on a Data Journalism Scholarship funded by Google, is interning at The Myanmar Times in Yangon, Burma during the winter break.
Here’s what his first week in Burma was like:
One year ago in Sydney, long before I ever had an inkling that I would be studying journalism in Hong Kong, I watched a documentary about the trials and tribulations of The Myanmar Times.
I thought, “Wow, those people lead extraordinary lives. How I’d love to be doing something like that”.
Now I’m here in Yangon, meeting all the “characters” I saw on a cinema screen. I’m a bit star-struck.
I quickly learn that the censorship difficulties documented in the film have all but disappeared. In August, government restrictions were lifted and it has really turned The Myanmar Times into more of a “normal” newspaper.
At my first editorial meeting, 14 female Myanmar reporters pitch ideas to three male editors. Professor Ying Chan (director of the JMSC) did warn us that these days, journalism is a female-dominated industry.
I’ve just arrived in Burma, so I’m stressing and struggling to come up with story ideas.
The Myanmar cricket team is going to a tournament in Thailand later this week. Huzzah!
Accompanied by a local sports reporter, I head to Aung San Stadium to meet with the Myanmar cricket team representative. I had asked to speak to the coach and the captain, but the representative has only brought himself.
[Yoo’s article on the Myanmar cricket team may be read here]
Whenever I come up with a story idea, it seems to have been covered before, someone else is covering it, or there’s some additional information that makes it not newsworthy. This is hard.
In the afternoon, though, I have an inspiration:
The Myanmar Times has several Australian expatriate staff members, but no one is yet writing about the Burmese President’s upcoming visit to Australia and New Zealand. My editor agrees that I should write it up.
Oh no! The president has cancelled the trip. My editor tells me that I should still write about the trip’s cancellation.
“The cancellation will probably make the story more interesting”, he says.
I also think to write about Myanmar’s low ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index. My editor is careful to guide me to write a balanced view – there are plenty of opinions discrediting Myanmar’s low ranking.
I see on the Internet that an Australian bank is to open in Myanmar. The business editor asks me to write it up. This reporting thing seems a lot easier than it did three days ago. One of the editors also shows me what happens to the stories after submission – how layouts are done before it all goes to print.
Interns are not required to come in on Saturdays. But knowing that most expat staff are going to be in to make last-minute preparations for the print run that night, I show up to see what they do. I’m excited at the thought of seeing my stories in print. I can’t wait for Monday morning.
I discover during the week that most of the expat staff at The Myanmar Times are deeply committed to the country. They’re now well settled here with spouses, families, and houses – even children in some cases. These are the true trailblazers in a country with not much English-language media.
The people of Myanmar are so friendly and honest. The country itself is a delight to visit as a foreigner. As it hasn’t yet been trampled through with tourists, there are very few locals getting in your face trying to sell something or scam you. There’s a wonderful authenticity with all the interaction I have with the Myanmar people.
But walking through Yangon, I feel a tinge of sadness seeing the crumbling infrastructure. Footpaths, roads, traffic, public transport, water, sewerage, electricity – it is all in disrepair, and knowing that decades of oppressive isolationist military rule caused this makes me angry inside. The country was one of the most developed in Asia at the time of independence in 1948 – this makes it even sadder.
Another noticeable aspect is the youth of the shop workers, young children working in restaurants and teahouses. Many families here can’t afford for their children to continue their education much past primary school.
As for freedom of speech, it has improved dramatically in just 18 months.
In August, the Ministry of Information announced that it would no longer censor private publications. And while the government cracked down violently on the protest against a Chinese-owned copper mine at the end of November, the fact that there was a protest at all is a sign of improvement. The government even apologised for the excessive use of force against the protestors, which is notable considering what the junta was like just a couple of years ago.
I have had more than one article published that was critical of the country, and that would not have been possible as late as July this year, when pre-publication censorship still applied. (An article I wrote for The Myanmar Times on freedom of the press in Burma may be read here.)
But Sonny Swe, the Burmese co-founder and deputy CEO of The Myanmar Times, is still in prison for publishing the paper without the approval of the Ministry of Information, serving a term that began in 2005. Thoughts of his plight hang over the organization, with one veteran journalist telling me: “I will stay in Burma until Sonny Swe is released”.
Tony Yoo is on Twitter at twitter.com/TonyYooAUS.