A Glimpse of Sunshine In Big Sky Country
As Myanmar begins to thaw, a group of journalists from that long-isolated country get a taste of a free press during a training program in Montana. Fri., September 7, 2012
By Karen J. Coates
Karen J. Coates (firstname.lastname@example.org), a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, writes about food, environment and social issues across Asia. She and her husband, Jerry Redfern, have just finished a seven-year investigation of unexploded ordnance in Laos remaining since the U.S. bombings during the Vietnam War.
After this story was filed, the office of Myanmar President Thein Sein released the names of 1,147 foreigners and "ex-Myanmar" nationals who had been removed from the country's travel blacklist – including journalists, politicians and dissidents. Karen J, Coates, the author of this piece, and her husband, Jerry Redfern, were both on that "off" list, meaning that, in theory, they will be allowed to return to the country.
In Myanmar, the sun starts to fade at 6 p.m. It spreads like fire across the horizon, then slips quickly into blackness.
In Montana, the August sun sets around 9 p.m. It's "like a big golden moon blooming in the night sky," as a visiting Burmese journalist described it. Twilight follows with a long, slow passage to darkness. That lingering light has inspired generations of cowboys and writers. It conjures thought; it renders ideas.
In August 2011, that late-evening sky introduced eight Burmese journalists to the American West. The group, selected by the U.S. Embassy in Yangon (also called Rangoon), spent three weeks on a government reporting training program funded by a State Department grant and organized by the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula. The project "developed out of a real need for basic, professional news training that could benefit working journalists and residents of a country with no history of a free press," Dean Peggy Kuhr says.
In those first hours that first night, the bleary-eyed journalists gathered on the back stoop of a campus house that served as a temporary home for the five men in the group. They wore traditional longyis (sarongs) while smoking cigarettes and sipping American beer.
A few of the Burmese had been to New York, a few had studied in Thailand. None had ever traveled so far north or so deep into rural America. Montana, with a reputation for honest folk and open government, served as opportune host for inaugural lessons in democracy and free speech.
"It was a rare opportunity to train Burmese journalists right here in Missoula, at a time when there was virtually total censorship and press surveillance by the Burmese government," says UM journalism professor Clem Work, one of my two co-trainers during the program. "Missoula may not be perfect, but it's close to perfect in terms of openness and accessibility by journalists to government and nongovernment processes. We were able to expose the visiting journalists to a wide cross section of government and nongovernment actors and to help them internalize what they saw and experienced."
Each participant had a mentor at the local daily, the Missoulian, and accompanied those reporters on stories. For 21 days, the participants blogged and posted their experiences on Facebook – pictures of markets and mountains, flowers and snow, grizzly statues and live bison. They wrote about a rodeo, a gun show, a tipi camp and powwow on the Blackfeet Reservation. The group rented bikes and cycled to interviews. They found former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams chatting over coffee in a local café. They met U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, City Attorney Jim Nugent and Mayor John Engen (himself a UM J-School graduate).
"Our idea in sending journalists to the States was to get exposure and get experience of how American journalists are working under freedom of the press," says Htin Aung Kyaw, a Burmese official at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. "Those journalists gained that experience."
The participants learned the distinctions between city, county, state, federal and tribal governments. "I can't write directly a story about that, but I always use this experience in my work," a participant named Kyaw wrote recently in an e-mail. Background knowledge of U.S. government structure informs his reporting on politics and government at home, he says. "So it is valuable experience for me."
Missoula District Court Judge Dusty Deschamps invited the group to a private chat in which he explained his duty as a jurist: He decides the law, the jury determines the facts. "Actually, my role is pretty easy," he told the visiting journalists. "From a judge's perspective, jury trials are kind of boring... Most of the time I don't see a journalist in the courtroom because it isn't interesting."
Public Affairs Officer Boyd Hartwig of Lolo National Forest told the Burmese that reporters help him reach the public in emergencies such as a fire. "What the press expects from me is transparency. They want the information quickly." Reporters can call his cellphone day or night. "I need the press, and the press needs me."
Police Chief Mark Muir organized ride-alongs for each participant – one of the group's biggest shocks. "Damn good experience!!!!!!" a journalist named Myo later blogged. "I have never..dreamed like that in my life. Ride along with a policeman."
It was a marked contrast to the environment back home.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is just beginning to emerge from a military junta that ruled the country for decades with an iron fist and tight muzzle. "Burma's heavily censored media is still among the most restricted in the world," the Committee to Protect Journalists states on its Web site. The country was notorious for jailing political activists and journalists, and requiring reporters to submit their stories prepublication to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (aka the censorship board).
But the status quo is shifting, and the first signs of thaw appeared not long before the Montana training. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released after years under house arrest on November 13, 2010. Less than three months later, Thein Sein was sworn in as president, the first non-interim civilian president in 49 years.
On April 1, Aung San Suu Kyi won her bid for Parliament. That feat was tied to a wave of changes inside and outside Myanmar, including the easing of U.S. sanctions against the country and the first appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Myanmar since 1990. The government has released hundreds of political prisoners. Markets are opening, and businesses are looking for ways to tap this resource-rich land between India and China. Burmese journalists report greater access to government leaders and fewer restrictions. In August, the government announced an end to prepublication censorship.
Still, while foreign observers rejoice, local journalists report skepticism and caution. "The situation appears closer to chaos than to an earnest and measurable process of media reform," CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz wrote on the CPJ blog in May after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar. Many Burmese journalists say it will take a long time to achieve full freedom of the press.
In Montana, the Burmese got an inkling of what a free press can mean. In just three weeks, participant Myo later blogged, the group was "filled up [with] a lot of new democratic experience for god sake."
On August 21, 2011, the group's last day in Missoula, Myo posted: "I don't know how to say thank you all, and I don't want to say Goodbye... My remembrance of their warm hospitality and kindness will never be expired in my heart."
The impetus for the Montana training began on a muggy night in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city, in May 2009. My husband, photojournalist Jerry Redfern, and I had just finished a series of workshops on creative nonfiction writing and photography organized through the U.S. Embassy. We returned from dinner to find a clump of uniformed and plainclothes police in our hotel lobby. We must go, they said. We must take the next train to Yangon. No explanations, no phone calls allowed. They said they were following orders from Naypyidaw, the political capital. We had 15 minutes to pack.
It took 16 hours through sweltering heat and the blackened night to reach Yangon. We shared a compartment with two officers, who treated us kindly but told us nothing. I remember the dark sky. Hour after hour, I looked through a dirty window onto a land without electricity. All I could see was black.
When I returned home, I started brainstorming. I wanted to continue working with the Burmese, but I couldn't do it in their country. So I wondered: What if the Burmese came to the States? I raised the idea with friends and colleagues in Missoula, and the idea took.
Three years later, almost to the day, Jerry and I applied for visas at the Myanmar Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We wanted to visit Myanmar again, to see for ourselves how the country had changed. But an embassy spokesperson called a few hours later to say: "Denied." No explanation given.
Things are changing in Myanmar – but not everything, and not so fast. In June, when riots erupted in Rakhine state, one Yangon reporter posted an open message to "foreign journalist friends" saying "your writing and words can hurt our country" at a time when the situation is "really fragile."
In July, the government suspended two publications for allegedly violating media regulations. In response, a press freedom committee formed, and dozens of journalists marched through Yangon and Mandalay wearing T-shirts that said "STOP KILLING PRESS." The government relented, allowing both papers to resume publication. A new information minister is expected to replace the previous "hardliner," says a Montana participant who works for one of the suspended publications. He sees good things ahead. "The government can't control the local media as before," he says.
Still, some publications have not pressed their luck with the government. "We don't need any problems with them," says Hsann, another Montana participant and editor at a Yangon paper. His primary responsibility, he says, is serving his readers.
I keep in touch with Burmese friends and colleagues as anyone else in the wired world: through e-mail and social media. But I miss talking in person. Technology can't replace long chats over cups of sweet tea. It's hard to get deep answers to questions about the future in a Gmail chat or Facebook post when Internet connections quit in mid-conversation, language barriers deepen in type and the nuances of speech are lost to keyboards. Plus, many Burmese remain reluctant to "talk" openly online, knowing their words are monitored. Their messages and stories are riddled with pleas for caution.
Myanmar's political and press freedoms are changing "step by step," a participant in the Montana training named Ei recently wrote to me in an e-mail. Reporters now "have freedom to write," she said, but "not fully everything." Some news is OK to print, other news remains "banned." But she expects there will soon be independent daily newspapers in Yangon (which have not been possible under the country's weekly censorship cycle), and "online media will be booming in my country."
Ei, like many Burmese I know, has a lot of hope, and even more patience. As things change, she says, the government will not be able to control everything, "and we can create our own future."
But progress takes time. "In Myanmar," Ei wrote, "we see the small light."
Like a sliver of twilight in the Montana sky on an August night.