The Kachin Journalist Breaking Stereotypes

By Nyein Nyein 27 February 2018

YANGON — “It was my dream to start up a local publication that reflects local needs, reports on the huge human rights violations and raises people’s concerns,” said Seng Mai Maran, the 28-year-old co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Myitkyina News Journal.

Taken the journal’s name from the capital of Kachin State, Myitkyina, the founders launched the paper four years ago with the aim of informing all residents of the state regardless of their race or religion.

Into the late 2000s, state and private media were rarely reporting on Kachin State, where allegations of human rights abuses are common, particularly in the area’s jade and gold mining industries and its illegal logging business.

“People were afraid to speak out, so such news was not reported even in the private media,” Seng Mai Maran said, despite a 1994 ceasefire deal between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) that was still holding but would collapse in 2011.

Chasing a Dream

“When I first started my journalism training, the media trainer U Ye Naing Moe, my first mentor, asked why I wanted to be a journalist. My answer was I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to establish a regional news journal in Kachin State,” she said. “There were many human rights violations. At that time there was still a ceasefire, and even then no journals dared to publish stories about such abuses.”

She became interested in journalism in 2008, at the age of 18. She worked for the Kachin News Group, took a three-month introductory journalism course provided by the Internews journalism network and interned at the Yangon Times Journal.  She then worked as a freelancer both for local publications and foreign broadcasters including the BBC’s Burmese service.

In January 2014, the Myitkyina News Journal applied for a publishing license and printed its first issue by March, starting out as a bi-monthly. The paper now publishes every Friday, with an average circulation of 8,000. That number has not dropped, despite the challenges of gathering the news, getting the issues to readers on time amid the ongoing fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups, and online attacks from hackers.

The Myitkyina News Journal has meanwhile grown from a staff of 13 to nearly 30. Seng Mai Maran trains the new recruits.

“It is a success in the eyes of outsiders, but in my eyes I always need to do more,” she said.

While most of Kachin’s residents are ethnic minorities, and despite calls to support ethnic language media, the Myitkyina News Journal publishes in the nationally dominant Bamar language.

Seng Mai Maran herself speaks Kachin and Bamar more fluently than her native Lisu, a sub-tribe of the Kachin.

“But it is a shame,” she said. “We were not taught the Lisu language at the government school. I know Kachin because I grew up in the Kachin community and learned Kachin at church.”

Reporter and Photographer

On Saturday, Seng Mai Maran, who taught herself how to take pictures, won first place at the 10th Yangon Photo Festival in the professional division for her photo essay “I Feel Safe,” which portrays the lives of female KIA soldiers.

KIA soldiers at the group’s training school in Kachin State in November. This image was part of Seng Mai Maran’s winning photo essay at this year’s Yangon Photo Festival. / Supplied

Last year, she won the emerging talent division for her photo essay “The Trap,” about female drug addicts in the jade mining town of Hpakant.

The eldest of five siblings, Seng Mai Maran was raised by parents who made a living through trade and put little focus on encouraging their children to read.

Still, her father supported her dream and helped her choose Seng Mai Maran as her pen name (her parents had named her Ma Shwe Yin). Concerned she might get arrested and locked up, her mother and other relatives tried to discourage her. It didn’t work. “I just wanted to share what I knew with other people,” she said.

A KIA soldier at the group’s training school in Kachin State in November. This image was part of Seng Mai Maran’s winning photo essay at this year’s Yangon Photo Festival. / Supplied

Breaking Stereotypes

Seng Mai Maran gives every appearance of being a man, keeping her hair short and wearing shirts and pants. But as a female journalist, she is aware of the added risks she faces reporting in a conflict zone.

She said her tomboy looks also help her to overcome the challenges and everyday stresses of running a newsroom. She is happy to leave the publisher duties to her two male co-founders.

She recalled her efforts to get the paper licensed four years ago with the Information Ministry’s Office of Copyright and Registration, where an official did not believe that such a young woman and tomboy could run a paper. “I still remember the look of the official who did not believing in my abilities,” she said.

But after a month of multiple trips back to the office, the license did come through.

Professionalism vs. Nationalism

As a regional paper, the Myitkyina News Journal knows it can be risky sometimes to present balanced news to an audience that often wants to hear only one side of the story.

Seng Mai Maran recalled a story her paper ran in 2016 about a young Kachin man fatally shot by a soldier. The military blamed the death on a “misfire” from the soldier’s gun, which it claimed a group of young men had tried to steal.

“We did face challenges getting witness voices because no one would speak up for the murdered man, and we published [the military’s version of events] as is. The journal was accused of printing false claims, but it was the official record from law enforcement,” she said.

Her paper has to be careful when reporting on human rights violations in order to avoid repercussions from the military or from ethnic and religious groups. And when reporting on the military’s fight with the KIA, there is still the fear of a lawsuit or arrest under the Unlawful Associations Act.

The team even has to tread carefully when reporting on Pat Jasan, a local vigilante group that fights drug use.

A past article triggered a boycott campaign against the paper.

“It is a weekly challenge and we always have to worry about when the fire might be sparked, because even if there is a human rights perspective the religious and racial issues are very sensitive,” she said.