CHIANG MAI, Thailand , Nov 9 (IPS) – Few journalists are better equipped to reveal the inside story of the narcotics trade in Burma than Khuensai Jaiyen, a 57-year-old editor who wears thick glasses and has an impish sense of humour.
He comes from Shan state, in the north-eastern region of military-ruled Burma, where most of the country’s poppy fields are located and where a recent survey by a U.N. anti-narcotics agency estimated that poppy cultivation was spread across 32,800 hectares.
And Khuensai and others from Shan state have been chronicling this and other Burmese events through a modest media agency he runs out of a small, whitewashed building, some 10 miles south of Chiang Mai, a city nestling in the gentle hills of northern Thailand.
”The reports we have carried about human rights violations over the past years have made many realise that this abuse by the junta is happening everywhere across Burma, not just in Rangoon or Mandalay,” says Khuensai, who brings out a monthly publication and produces news on-line as part of the ‘Shan Herald Agency for News’.
There is something more significant in the reportage of this tiny news agency–it happens to be in the Shan language and is a lifeline for Shan exiles living in these parts.
In fact, it is the only agency that functions in the Shan language including in Burma. The military junta in Rangoon does not permit the publication of newspapers in any of the languages used by Burma’s ethnic communities, says Khuensai.
”Today, there is no Shan language newspaper in Shan state. This has been the case for over 40 years,” said Khuensai who fled his native country for the safety of neighbouring Thailand in 1996 following a crackdown by the Burmese military on the Shan community.
His lead has been followed by journalists from Burma’s other ethnic communities in exile, such as the Kachin, Karen and Mon. ”This is important for Burma’s future– the rise of small but important ethnic media,” Soe Myint, editor of ‘Mizzima,’ a New Delhi-based web publication on Burmese issues, told IPS.
In fact, Soe Myint, who belongs to the majority Burman community, represents the other half of the picture – the increasing number of news outlets launched by ethnic Burmans who have fled their repressive country for the safety of neighbouring nations like Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh.
According to some media watchdog groups, there are an estimated 100 journalists involved with close to 20 Burmese news organisations, reporting the twists and turns in their South-east Asian country to an audience in exile and, when possible, to a readership at home.
The growth of the media in exile is a 1990s phenomenon and it offers ”an important window to follow events in Burma,” Aung Zaw, editor of ‘The Irrawaddy,’ a news magazine published in Thailand, told a conference on the Burmese exile media, held here this week.
Through such critical reporting — an act that almost guarantees a prison sentence in Burma — the media in exile has helped ”create a healthy debate (on political issues) and create tolerance for criticism,” he added.
The story of Aung Zaw’s publication – beginning with a few sheets of news faxed to readers in 1992 to a glossy, independent, quality current affairs magazine – stands out as a symbol of what has been achieved by young Burmese students who fled their country after a brutal military crackdown beginning in August 1988.
Yet, the life of a practicing Burmese journalist in exile is one fraught with political uncertainties in the host country.
Few know the consequences of telling the Burma story in a foreign country better than journalists attached to ‘New Era,’ a Bangkok-based publication set up in 1993.
”We were raided six times by the authorities during the 1990s and we are afraid of another raid,” Thuza Win, managing editor of the Burmese-language monthly, told IPS. ”We had to close during the first week in November because of another warning.”
A news organisation run by Burmese exiles in Bangladesh has, of late, felt similar heat. The Kaladan Press Network was forced to close its office in October after journalists belonging to this media group were accused by the authorities in Dhaka of involvement in recent explosions that had gone off in the Bangladeshi capital and were detained without charges.
As a result, both regional and international media watchdog groups have begun to raise alarm. ”There is increasingly less and less space for these journalists to report,” Shawn Crispin, of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview. ”It is because of the warmer bilateral relations between the junta and the governments in Thailand, India and Bangladesh.”
The Bangkok-based South-east Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) said in a statement released this week that the ambiguity surrounding the rights and legal status of these journalists in exile also comes in the way of their freedom to report. ”They are allowed by their host countries to stay on for humanitarian reasons as long as they do not engage in political activities,” SEAPA stated.
But even these signs of eroding press freedom, in the countries they live in as exiles, have not stopped Burmese journalists from carrying out their mission: following and reporting the Burma story, given that they offer a narrative that is a counterpoint to the official storyline that Rangoon sanctions through its censors.
“Nobody inside (Burma) can produce anything worthwhile,” says Khuensai. “That burden has fallen on those living in exile and we have to continue doing so.”