Ethnic Groups in Burma Need Their Own Media

Published: 4 August 2014

Country: Myanmar (Burma)

By Judith Clarke

Burma_NewspapersIn 2012 the Myanmar government ended 50 years of strict press control so reassuringly that many of the long-exiled opposition media upped-sticks from neighbouring Thailand and more distant places and returned to Yangon.  At the same time, the authorities also seriously set about ending six decades of conflict with the many ethnic groups that make up a quarter to a third of the country’s population.

So you’d think that, with ethnic publications among the crowd of exiles coming back from abroad, the way would be open for them to take a role in development in the minority areas as peace takes hold. But the obstacles are tremendous.

The sudden-reversal policies of the civilian government, elected in 2010 after nearly half a century of military rule, leave many concerned that the new direction is neither genuine nor permanent, and at worst a trick. But things seem even more devious than that as the state outperforms the commercial media because of its subsidised output, while in the ethnic minority areas the government starts to put out its own local-language news. The minority groups, even more than the major publications, are facing the distinct possibility of being finessed out of the media equation.

Myanmar’s population is predominantly Bamar, the ethnic group from whom the former English name of the country, Burma, is taken.  They live mainly in the lowland central plains, where the country’s old coastal capital, Yangon (Rangoon), and new (since 2005) upcountry capital, Naypyidaw, are located. There are seven other major peoples – Chin, Kachin, Karenni (or Kayah), Karen (or Kayin), Mon, Rakhine and Shan – and many smaller ones, at least 135 groups in all, according to common estimates.

Many, perhaps all, of these groups have been in conflict with the central government since independence in 1948, and often also with each other. Media development of any sort in these states over these decades has been so tiny as to be barely mentioned in the literature.

The best-known ethnic media organisation is Burma News International (BNI), started in 2003 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, by four independent news organisations and now comprising eleven, all but two of which are run by ethnic groups. BNI opened an office in Yangon in 2012, though it keeps its Chiang Mai premises. It received funding and training in the past from western sources such as Open Society Foundations.

BNI carried out a survey that found 47 ethnic media in total, and it has organised two annual media conferences to which the representatives of all of them were invited.

“Our vision is to establish an ethnic media network”, Nay Myo Aung, BNI’s administrative coordinator, told journalism students from Hong Kong Baptist University in Yangon recently. The “dream”, he went on, would be for each ethnic group to have its own programme in its own language and about its own culture, but this is proving hard to achieve.

BNI has a project making ethnic perspective TV but Nay Myo Aung says it’s difficult to get it broadcast. At the moment they have an agreement with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the broadcaster that started in 1992 in exile in Norway but now operates commercially in Yangon. Voice of America also takes news from BNI.

However, with these outlets language is a problem. Though VoA reaches many rural areas, it broadcasts only in Myanmar and English. Given the government’s attempts to suppress local cultures, many ethnic people don’t even speak their own language so there is some use in it, but it’s not helping revive local cultures.

This is a problem for Thanlwin Times, a bilingual Myanmar-Mon newspaper set up in 2012 (and a member of BNI). The Mon-speaking audience is limited, and, even more galling for the operation, very few journalists are proficient in the language.

U Thein of Phop Htaw News Association, a Mon news agency which is also part of BNI, said: “Because of the very long civil war, the ethnic local people became very uneducated, and even with their mother language it’s difficult to communicate”. Phop Htaw has a community radio station that broadcasts not only in Mon but in Shan and Chin, though its short-wave transmission means it has limited effect.

An even bigger problem they face is funding. The weekly Thanlwin Times has a circulation of about 3,800, one of its editors, Min Latt, told the students in Mawlamyine, capital of Mon State. This is hardly enough to cover expenses, let alone make a profit.

These new local media have been knocked back by the government’s recent move into competition with them.  The state media are already upsetting commercial news operators in Yangon because they do not need to cover the costs of their offices, their printing and broadcasting operations, their journalists and the distribution of their products, and Myanmar people, with low incomes, prefer the state media because it’s cheaper. Its private competitors are having a hard time carving out a market.

Now, according to the Irrawaddy news website, the government’s daily New Light of Myanmar is starting a weekly supplement in Mon, Pa-O and Karen languages.

The report mentions that this move has been fraught with problems because local people mistrust the government. The supplement is having difficulty finding journalists to work for it, and the Thanlwin Times editor is quoted as criticising the initiative. But still it has a distinct advantage because it can easily undercut the struggling local outlets.

These media face many other difficulties. Hmue Eain Zaw, a Mon journalist who works as a reporter for the Myit Ma Kha domestic news agency and also coordinates the Southern Myanmar Journalists Network, speaks of the dire need for professional training to raise ethical standards. “Our education system collapsed a long time ago, so the quality of education is low”, he told us in Mawlamyine.

Many journalists who have returned from exile overseas received training from foreign NGO while abroad, but those who have remained in Myanmar have had no more than the odd training session.

A government-run journalism degree programme run by the Department of Journalism, is held in great distrust by many journalists. It is under the wing of the National Management College, which is part of the University of Yangon, which has been highly controlled by the government since the student-led uprising of 1988.

The undergraduate programme has received some funding from UNESCO, and is following the UN organisation’s curriculum, but its facilities are sparse and basic. Students, however, are extremely enthusiastic, though one newspaper editor we spoke to said those who worked with him as interns had little idea how to do hands-on journalism.

The Department of Journalism says they have taken on many students from ethnic minorities, though few were in evidence when HKBU made its visit – it was the start of the summer vacation, however, and we were told they had gone home.

Many journalists have welcomed the setting up of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, which is supported by international media organisations and UNESCO under the leadership of the DW Akademie of Germany. It was to take up to 30 students for a one-year journalism degree starting in July 2014. The SMJN trumpeted this development on its Facebook site, and some members applied, though it’s not known whether they were accepted.

Meanwhile, UNESCO is running a summer workshop for BNI members and other ethnic groups to set up a cooperative website. Its handout says: “Cooperation and networking among media practitioners, bloggers and citizens of different ethnic backgrounds is seen as critical to foster greater cultural understanding, tolerance and building a deep-rooted peace process”.

However, online media, while accessible in the major urban areas, are not yet a reality in the countryside, where most ethnic groups live. Only five years ago the government controlled the internet and mobile telephony so strongly as to prevent much practical use, but the sector has opened up in the last couple of years. Two foreign firms, Oredoo and Telenor, opened up services in early August 2014, much to the joy of town dwellers, but it’s not clear how far into the rural areas they will reach.

Ko Min Latt of Thanlwin Times has no hopes that the internet will provide any hope for ethnic media in the near future, and is calling for more community radio stations. However, radio needs equipment, training and funding, which is unlikely to be forthcoming for an “old” platform.

There is certainly a need for the ethnic groups to get their own media, especially in the face of government efforts to get in first – and ethnic journalists fear also that “crony” media will be given permission to publish in ethnic languages before they are. There are many complaints of resources in ethnic areas being sold off to outsiders without local permission, and such stories aren’t favoured by coverage in pro-government outlets.

The BNI members pointed to other problems for the ethnic media. In some areas different ethnic groups live close to each other but are in conflict, and their versions of the same story may take different angles. Then, especially where fighting is still going on but also in many places where people are used to a state of war, people are afraid to talk to reporters.

Nonetheless, U Thein believes in the role of the media in ending conflict. “If the media can get the trust of local people there will be a much greater increase in the chances of talking to each other.” BNI’s aim is to produce peace journalism, and bring about co-existence among many ethnicities. This is going to be a very tough goal to achieve. The struggle to control “hearts and minds” through the ethnic language media seems to be only just starting.

Students of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University recently went to Myanmar to speak to journalists from ethnic minorities, a project inspired by a Media Diversity International Conference at the college in 2012. The twenty undergraduate and postgraduate students visited media in Yangon and in Mawlamyine in Mon State to the south.