Deep in the mountains and beyond the headlines, Myanmar’s ethnic media thrive

By Henry Zwartz

Saw Hsar Klo Htoo, my Karen friend and fixer, points to a half-dozen dog-eared textbooks in what I make to be at least four languages. Next to them is a spent artillery shell.

“A present from the Burma Army,” Saw Htoo says. (Saw is a term of respect in Karen.) “That’s the school bell.”

We’re at Klay Poe Klo School, an open-sided wood-and-bamboo building in a tiny farming village located between some of the countless mountain peaks that buttress much of Myanmar’s eastern border.

It has been a hot boat trip across a river followed by a long dusty ride in the back of a battered pick-up truck through bamboo forests and dirt tracks to the village of Klay Poe Klo. It’s quiet except for the bleating of goats tied to the wooden poles that keep the small houses off the ground. The smell of coconut curry and sour piss mix on a light breeze.

Klay Poe Klo looks like a rustic paradise. It’s also in the middle of one of the longest-running civil wars in modern times.

It’s 2014, and I’m here in Karen State writing a story about internal refugees for Karen News, the only news organisation working on stories in English, Burmese and Karen for the Karen people. It’s a small organisation that gets past the headlines about Aung San Suu Kyi’s political revival to gives voice to the persecuted ethnic peoples who are key to the country’s uncertain future.

The Karen, an ethnic minority of about 7 million people, have been fighting for their existence against Myanmar’s successive governing regimes for more than six decades. The one constant is the role of the military, which Karen simply call “the enemy”.

River crossing

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A member of the Free Burma Rangers crosses a river in Karen State. The group provides front-line medical assistance to people across Myanmar's conflict zones, and its members have been killed during government attacks. Credit: Henry Zwartz

At the school, I notice that two of the three teachers move around on bamboo prosthetic legs. Saw Tatoh, the 25-year-old principal, says he and his colleague lost them to land mines while playing as kids.  Eight of about 100 villagers have lost legs that way, he says.

Saw Tatoh, 25-year-old principal of the Klay Poe Klo School.

Saw Tatoh, 25-year-old principal of the Klay Poe Klo School.

Thousands have been killed, maimed and raped by civil war. A 2012 ceasefire between a dominant Karen faction, the Karen National Liberation Army, and President Thein Sein’s government lessened the intensity but failed to halt the conflict. A great deal of Karen News’s output focuses on the people caught in the crossfire.

The Karen are not the only people to face persecution in this ethnically diverse country of 55 million. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya have been segregated into makeshift camps described by Fortify Rights, a nonprofit Southeast Asia human rights watchdog, as “ghetto-like.”

The Myanmar Army launched a war in 2011 against ethnic Shan and Kachin resistance forces in the country’s northeast, where it has “targeted, attacked, and killed civilians with impunity.”  The upsurge in violence has seen a commensurate rise in government-perpetrated human rights abuses. While both sides have been implicated in human rights abuses, the vast majority of reports concern government forces. For example, a 2014 report by the Women’s League of Burma recorded 118 cases since 2010 in which government soldiers raped women or children; 28 of the victims died. Most cases were in ethnic areas.

For decades, the Karen have at the forefront of armed resistance against military totalitarianism, long before the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the renowned Burmese opposition figure who is now a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and was imprisoned for 15 years because of her push for democratic reforms. And in spite of a quasi-civilian government led by ex-general Thein Sein coming to power in 2011, ethnic persecution continues.

With the help of two benefactors, Dave and Kerry Rickards, I reported alongside Karen journalists in this innovative digital media startup, producing stories about their communities for the region, the Karen diaspora and the world.

Karen News journalists Saw Blacktown, left, and Saw Mort.

Karen News journalists Saw Blacktown, left, and Saw Mort.

Karen News started in 2011 with $150 and a small team of volunteer journalists. Since then it has produced more than 1,300 stories, hundreds of video reports, cartoons and documentaries, and has weekly radio news and television broadcasts into Myanmar. It also has a Burmese edition, the Karen Information Centre, and a Karen edition, Kwe Ka Lu.

Phil Thornton, Karen News’s founder, an Irish-Australian writer for numerous international publications and author of a book about the Karen conflict, Restless Souls, stamps his journalism doctrine on everyone working here, including me. One, be hungry for stories. Two, get out of the office. Three, get behind the news event or policy shifts by looking at how it affects people’s lives.

Karen News journalists write stories on subjects including refugees, rivers, killings, land confiscation, corruption, dams, dengue fever, landmines and latrines.  A recent highlight was our role in producing high-quality footage for a report by ABC’s 7.30, made possible by our contacts with the Karen community.

Karen News and other small ethnic media organisations are valuable because they give voice to the country’s minorities. Mainstream publications such as The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma provide insightful analysis on issues affecting the Burmese majority, but they sometimes miss key ethnic issues while focusing on conflict.

Migrant workers on a construction site in Mae Sot, Thailand, near the Myanmar border. Over 2 million people from Myanmar are migrant workers in Thailand. Though it is now easier for migrant workers to get passports and work permits, many workers are there illegally, making it difficult for them to access services like health care. Credit: Henry Zwartz

Migrant workers on a construction site in Mae Sot, Thailand, near the Myanmar border. Over 2 million people from Myanmar are migrant workers in Thailand. Though it is now easier for migrant workers to get passports and work permits, many workers are there illegally, making it difficult for them to access services like health care. Credit: Henry Zwartz

In spite of reforms since 2011, Myanmar remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, ranking 144 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index. The country is also still one of the 10 most-censored countries in the world, alongside Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, according to a 2015 report by The Committee to Protect Journalists.

Take for example the arrest and imprisonment of five media workers from the national magazine Unity for publishing an investigation into a secretive military facility allegedly producing chemical weapons last year. Each journalist is now facing seven years’ hard labour – down from ten years following an appeal.

In 2014, Aung Kyaw Naing, a journalist embedded with a Karen faction, was shot dead while in Myanmar Army custody after being apprehended near the Thai border. The government said one of its soldiers shot Aung Naing out of self-defence when he tried to grab a weapon. According to an eyewitness quoted in regional media, Aung Naing’s body showed signs of torture, including a broken jaw and a caved-in skull.

Western media and a large swathe of Burmans have long touted Suu Kyi, an intelligent and well-educated Burmese nationalist, as the solution to Myanmar’s internal conflicts. Ethnic people — having faced decades of war and familiar with Suu Kyi’s father as one of the founders of the very military that persecutes them — can view her with more ambivalence.

This is how Saw Tatoh, Klay Poe Klo’s principal, puts it when I ask about the impending nationwide elections and Suu Kyi’s candidacy.

“We have our own leaders,” he says.

“Of course we Karen should work with any democratically elected leader, but as partners,” Tatoh says. “We must have peace with dignity and self-determination.”

Almost all of the Klay Poe Klo’s villagers I speak with are of a similar mind: They worry that Suu Kyi represents a Burman ruling class, and hope that she will stand up to her election promises to represent all the people of Myanmar.

“What we want is equality for all ethnic people, a say in our own affairs and an end to military aggression,” Saw Blacktown, my Karen News colleague, explains to me as we make our bouncy way back on the beaten-up pickup truck.

“But this can happen only if Aung San Suu Kyi can control the Burma Army — and good luck to her,” he says.

Henry Zwartz received funding from Dave and Kerry Rickards through APHEDA, the humanitarian aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, to work with Karen News for one year. He is a journalist with Channel 9’s A Current Affair.