Tag Archives: media myanmar

A little bit of Burma in Blacktown

Published in the February 2017 edition of The Point Magazine.

Sunny Myint Aung and his wife Lyn at Sun's Burmese Kitchen
Sunny Myint Aung and his wife Lyn at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen

Sun’s Burmese Kitchen is a homely, understated affair that sits within a line of shops in Blacktown, western Sydney. Its red and yellow walls are dotted with huge photographs of Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient temples of Bagan and, like any proper Burmese establishment, a portrait of its iconic democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The restaurant owner Sunny Myint Aungis a quiet man of few words, but the pride he takes in serving up authentic Burmese cuisine five thousand miles away from Myanmar is evident.

“In Burma, there is a very famous dish called dan bauk [the Burmese version of biryani]. I met a Burmese chef in Bangkok who gave me his dan bauk recipe and taught me how to make it. So our dan bauk here is really special.”

Sunny is able to source all the ingredients he needs from a warehouse that supplies products of Myanmar origin, such as lapet thoke, a delicious tea leaf salad that’s used to relieve fatigue.

Sunny was already well-known in western Sydney’s Burmese community before he opened his restaurant in 2012. He was a regular fixture at community events, and cooked for large crowds at the local church.

“The Burmese community comes to the restaurant for meals and sometimes they bring their new friends, so that they can try Burmese food. And they like it, so they come again.”

Sunny opened his first restaurant in 1998, but was ultimately forced to close the business due to being unable to make a decent profit margin in the face of high overheads.

“Rents are so high – there’s a lot of hardships for small businesses,” he said.

He spent a decade working at a bakery before trying his hand at the restaurant business once again. He has set up a team comprising his Filipina wife Lyn, and their 23-year-old son.

Sunny at Sun's Burmese Kitchen
Sunny at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen

“This is a family business – my, wife, son and I are hard-working and we started slowly, slowly,” he explained.

Sunny’s story of leaving Myanmar is unusual for its lack of drama. He left at the age of 30 to work as a sea merchant, rather than fleeing political unrest or persecution as many of his compatriots did during the eighties and following decades. He spent a decade sailing around the world and lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Papua New Guinea before settling in Australia with his parents and his wife.

Sunny’s preoccupations are the same as any small business owner in Australia: keeping his business healthy. When asked if he follows events in Myanmar, including the historic general elections of 2015 he said, “I’m really out of touch. I’ve only been back twice and I have no family left in my home town of Mawlamyine. My son’s been once and he doesn’t want to go again.”

When I told Sunny that I lived in Myanmar for four-and-a-half years, he didn’t seem particularly curious to hear about it. In that respect, he also struck me as unusual, as most Burmese will fire a volley of questions, wanting to know the parts of the country outside Yangon I’d visited, whether I could speak Burmese and what I made of the country’s politics. It wasn’t until at least 30 minutes into our meeting, when I was busy taking photos of the restaurant, that he turned to me and said, “How is Myanmar these days?”

“Not much different,” I replied.

He paused for a second and said, “It is different. It’s better than before.”

Sunny was right. Myanmar has undoubtedly entered a new era, one where students and monks are no longer shot dead in the streets and people can speak freely about their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than speaking in whispers due to fear of arrest by military intelligence. I arrived in Myanmar in 2012, two years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, where she’d spent a total of 16 years. Its government in 2012 was quasi-civilian, but many people still lived in fear. When I joined The Myanmar Times, its co-founder Sonny Swe was still serving what would be an eight-year sentence for breaching harsh censorship laws. These same laws were abolished later that year and Sonny was released, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, in a government amnesty in April 2013. I went with a large group of newspaper staff to meet him at Yangon Airport, where he’d been flown from a remote prison in Shan State. It was a joyous, tearful reunion.

Other noticeable changes included making SIM cards affordable, giving people access to mobile phones and the internet for the first time. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, took part in by-elections (and won their seats by a landslide). However the real test for Myanmar came in November 2015, when general elections were scheduled to take place. If held successfully, they would end half a century of military rule.

At the time I was working as senior consultant editor for the state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. The opportunity arose when a two-year partnership between it and Japan’s Kyodo News came to an end and they were seeking to keep a couple of foreign editors on the news desk. After a 20-minute explanation of the newspaper’s desire to become more “people focused” and being quizzed about my background for less than 10 minutes, I was asked if I could start work that same evening.

The former offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar in Yangon
The former offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar in Yangon

The newspaper had recently become a joint venture between the Ministry of Information and a little-known investor and was trying hard to improve its image. During the decades of junta rule it was a truly nasty rag. Aung San Suu Kyi was never mentioned by name, but crude sexual cartoons of her appeared regularly – she was depicted as being a whorish puppet of the West. The newspaper had drastically toned down its propaganda while maintaining something of a stranglehold on breaking news, because it received military and government announcements first via the state-run Myanmar News Agency. In the lead up to the election, Aung San Suu Kyi had said she would privatize Myanmar’s state-owned media – a promise she failed to keep.

I got a lot of flak from my fellow journalists when I started working for a newspaper that was nicknamed ‘The Dim Light of Myanmar’ and ‘The New Lies of Myanmar’. Some were a little more encouraging – as the editor of Democratic Voice of Burma wryly remarked on my Facebook wall, “Maybe they’ll publish today’s weather instead of yesterday’s.”

One of my colleagues was a highly intelligent, politically-minded, father-of-one, who’d worked there for more than a decade. When I asked him how he felt about having to translate the really nasty editorials and propaganda, he said, “I also teach English and I know that most teachers used the New Light as supplementary materials. There were other books and things in the market but they were expensive. I’d say to them, ‘Don’t listen to the content – just take the language.”

In the lead up to the election, the whisperings of my colleagues started to worry me. Some were adamant that a coup was looming while others had theories about the government trying to provoke the public to take to the streets so as to be able to indefinitely postpone the elections. They were justifiably untrusting; the most recent multiparty elections were held back in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory had been overturned by the military.

When I entered the newsroom that historic Sunday after the vote had taken place, colleagues proudly showed me their ink-stained pinkies and told me they’d lined up to cast their votes as early as 4am – just to ensure that they wouldn’t miss the chance to vote if lines were long. For many it was the first time in their lives they’d ever voted.

We rushed over to the newsroom’s TV to watch vote cards being counted, with cheers emerging onscreen and off when a vote went to the new government. It was clear that a landslide was taking place. We cracked open a bottle of Mandalay Rum and toasted the NLD’s emblem. “To the peacock!” we cheered. It seemed as though Myanmar had finally begun a brighter chapter as I penned the next day’s headline, ‘Dawn of a new era.’

In March, it will be a year since the NLD took office. However, progress in making reforms has been slow. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from being president but is the nation’s de facto leader, has kept the media at arm’s length and according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, the human rights situation in Myanmar hasn’t seen significant improvement, and in some ways is even worse.

With a colleague at the Global New Light of Myanmar
With a colleague at the Global New Light of Myanmar

The NLD released 200 political prisoners when it first entered office, however issues of concern to HRW include the lack of protection of free speech and the worsening situation for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. There has also been heightened conflict between the Burma Army and several ethnic armed groups, despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015.

 The printing press at The Global New Light of Myanmar

The printing press at The Global New Light of Myanmar

However while the government’s performance has been weaker than expected, Sunny was right in appreciating the changes that have taken place, and that people, including myself, may be too quick to forget how far Myanmar has come. It’s also difficult not to be optimistic about the future when one thinks about the people of Myanmar. Before leaving Sun’s Burmese Kitchen, I ordered dan bauk for my husband and my absolute favourite Burmese dish, Shan tomato salad, as take-away for that evening’s dinner. When Sunny smilingly gave me the food parcels and insisted they were a gift, I was again reminded how kind, warm and generous the Burmese are. Virtually every day that I lived in Myanmar, I was touched by an act of kindness, whether by a taxi driver or someone I knew. It came as no surprise to me when the 2016 Giving Index again ranked Myanmar the world’s most generous country (with Australia coming in at third). It’s hard not to feel optimistic about a nation of people so inclined to kindness, despite the many obstacles that remain.

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State-run media to continue: Information Minister

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 15 May 2016

Newspapers come off the press at The Global New Light of Myanmar. Photo: Jessica Mudditt
Newspapers come off the press at The Global New Light of Myanmar. Photo: Jessica Mudditt

The Mizzima Media Group and Action Aid hosted a conference on media policy in Myanmar on 15 May at Yangon’s Kandawgyi Palace Hotel.

Over a hundred stakeholders from the media, diplomatic community and government met to discuss Myanmar’s changing media landscape in the context of having a new and democratically-elected government and a raft of reforms to undertake.

The four-hour discussion was dominated by the future of state media, with several speakers and audience members voicing their dissatisfaction over comments made by Information Minister U Pe Myint as part of his opening remarks.

The minister said that state media can “act as a bridge between the government and the public” and that it will continue to have a role in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy government.

Mr Oliver Spencer from Article 19 said: “Does the [the NLD] want to be a full democracy? Democracies do not have state media, whether print or broadcast. Public service media is very different. China, Cambodia and Laos have state media – that’s because they are not democracies.”

Others objected to the continuation of the Ministry of Information, and said that as each ministry has a public relations department, it is not necessary or desirable.

In his concluding remarks, the Information Minister observed that: “The ministry is like a tree: some people want to cut it down and others want its branches to be stronger.”

He added that: “We will not be commercially competing against other media – it will be performing the need to communicate with the people. If there will be impacts on the private media from state-run media, please let us know. I would like to remind you that in a democratic state, a market economy will come into play. The Ministry of Information is not competing against private media… We will try to reduce the columns used for ads. We don’t want new problems cropping up.”

U Aung Shin, Central Executive Committee member of the NLD said that high expectations of the NLD government were to blame for discontent over current policies.

“Myanmar is very much in a democratic transition – freedom of press is still very low and we are trying to progress. It is important that we work together for media development in Myanmar.”

On the future of the Ministry of Information, the minister said: “A government does need an information role – it can be an agency or something else. The government needs a way to communicate to the people. I would like to remind you of that. It is not just dictatorial states – it is all governments. Even private entities need to communicate to the public. In the UK there was a ministry of information but it was changed into another ministry. The US has an information service to disseminate information all over the world. We need some kind of mechanism. I just want to give you that food for thought.”

The need for media training, including for ethnic minority media, was also discussed, with some pointing out that training from the international community must follow a needs-based approach rather than a policy approach, as the latter often leads to overlap and neglecting certain areas and communities. Calls were made for a media development fund in Myanmar, with appropriate criteria for receiving training and curriculum developed.

Daw Lut Latt Soe, Chief Editor of the People’s Age Journal said that women must be encouraged to develop their careers in journalism.

“There are very few women in leadership roles in the media. One reason for this is cultural – in Myanmar, women are considered the second sex and suited to household work and being occupied with family responsibilities. These are the cultural norms that we have to go against when we join the profession. Some women become reporters, but the number of female editors is very few.”

The perceived shortcomings of the broadcasting law were also discussed in detail, with some questioning the arrangements for CNN and Skynet, which will produce the first 24 hour news channel, as well as the allocation of new channels.

Also speaking at the event are Mr Staffan Herrstrom, Ambassador of Sweden to Myanmar and Mr Shihab Uddin Ahmad, Country Director, Action Aid Myanmar. The event followed the first media policy dialogue organised by the Mizzima Media Group and Action Aid and held on 21 February, shortly before the NLD government came to power.

 

Myanma Freedom Daily suspends publication

Published in DVB on 1 April 2014

A 24 March 2014 edition of Myanma Freedom Daily
A 24 March 2014 edition of Myanma Freedom Daily

Burma’s first privately owned English-language daily newspaper in 50 years, Myanma Freedom Daily, is suspending publication from 1 April 2014. The decision was announced on the cover of the 31 March edition, stating that the suspension will last “for a while”, adding that it will be back “soonest.”

Editor-in-Chief Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist who launched the newspaper last year after receiving one of the first licenses awarded by the government to print a private daily, told DVB: “We’ll be closed for one month – or two months max. Our editorial team isn’t going to change and our content isn’t going to change, but we need to restructure our business model.”

“Everybody’s shocked,” said managing editor Nyan Win.

“We’ve been trying so hard for the past two months – we were trying up until this morning. It’s a complicated story of investment matters, but basically we’re looking for a new investor,” he told DVB on Monday.

Myanma Freedom Daily was funded by family and friends; posing a stark contrast to the majority of other newspapers in Burma, which have the financial backing of local tycoons.

Thiha Saw said he’d been in talks with potential investors that morning and will spend the next four to eight weeks meeting others. He said that the need to travel both abroad and domestically would hamper the day-to-day operations of the newspaper, which was another factor in the decision to suspend its publication, along with the likelihood of moving its office from Bo Myat Tun Street in Pazundaung Township, “depending on the requirements of the new investor.”

Myanma Freedom Daily had a circulation of 10,000 copies a day and in a 31 March editorial it was stated that the electronic version of the newspaper had just exceeded 100,000 clicks.

“We’ve received a lot of messages of support from our readers,” he said.

However Thiha Saw cautioned that Burma’s media landscape is changing so quickly that by the time his newspaper re-emerges, competition may be even fiercer.

“There’s a price war going on and our new business model will have to take that into account. The Yangon Times Daily is just 50 kyat (US$0.05) a copy, as is the [state-run] New Light of Myanmar; and Eleven is the same price as us [120 kyat per copy]. It will take some time for The Myanmar Times to go daily, but there are so many newspapers now and some of them have deep pockets. They can afford the high operational overheads it takes to run a daily paper.”

Thiha Saw, who is also a member of the Interim Press Council and vice-president of the Myanmar Journalists Association, voiced criticism of the draft Public Service Media Law, which would see state-run media, such as The New Light of Myanmar, transformed into a government-funded, yet independently monitored media service.

The Interim Press Council has opposed the bill since it was first submitted to parliament last year. Several prominent members of the media have criticised the bill – whose details remain vague – for potentially allowing state-run media to outrun its private rivals on the basis of having access to funds from the state budget and a lack of transparency in regulation.

“The government isn’t attempting to confer any benefits on privately run media, such as giving us a two-year tax free period,” said Thiha Saw.

The suspension of Myanma Freedom Daily serves as a reminder that times are uncertain for journalists in Burma. The newspaper’s 40-odd staff were reportedly stunned by the announcement on Monday morning. Its offices and equipment were almost deserted by noon.

One staff member, who declined to be named, said, “This has totally messed up my April. I was even hoping it was just an April Fool’s joke.”

NB: I worked two shifts a week as a sub-editor on Myanma Freedom Daily’s news desk from October 2013 until its suspension.