Nai Kasauh Mon, the chief editor and founder of the weekly Guiding Star newspaper, has just celebrated 20 years in operation. He tells us about the challenges of operating a Mon-language publication in an often hostile environment.
Myanmar has about 2 million ethnic Mon, and Nai Kasauh Mon said around 10 percent of them read Guiding Star, which is based in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State.
More people are using their phones and few still buy newspapers, according to Nai Kasauh Mon. He reminds readers that the digital media faces interference from Myanmar’s military.
“The print media has faced major problems as people move towards digital,” said Nai Kasauh Mon.
He said the publication had suffered from the arrest of its journalists and other state crackdowns as it challenged the military regime.
Circulation had fallen to around 1,200 from approximately 5,000 in 2014, he admitted.
“We are no longer covering costs. In the past we were able to pay our journalists from our marketing journals and sometimes able to save some money,” he said.
Nai Kasauh Mon said many ethnic Mon could not read the language and the readership was now dominated by Mon Buddhist monks.
The Mon language has not been recognized for use in government offices so learning began to feel useless for the young, he added.
“Even the Mon say it is useless to learn the language,” Nai Kasauh Mon told The Irrawaddy.
He blames the lack of a federal system and the dominance of the Burmese language in literature over other ethnic groups.
“Our readers love the language and it increases their ability to read more Mon literature,” he added.
The organization is asking for donations to pay wages and has said it will stop printing if sales fall below 500.
He regards Guiding Star as a key preserver of the Mon language.
“Marketing has been a problem but we keep trying so we can maintain our literature. This is our viewpoint,” he said.
And extra funding was needed.
“If we could find 50 million kyats (US$33,200), we would use it to keep printing,” he said.
“If we could get 20 million kyats per year, we could deliver our journal for free to ethnic Mon.”
If the publication could lend money to a business and receive interest payments in return, it could fund its printing and salaries through annual payments of about 20 million kyats, Nai Kasauh Mon said.
Guiding Star mainly covers Mon issues but it also translates some international news. It has opinion pieces, business coverage, interviews and an entertainment section.
There are 15 staff in the office and 25 distributors. It has staff in Sangkhlaburi, the Thai border town with a large Mon community.
Some readers suggested how Guiding Star could ensure its long-term survival.
Nai Banyar Hongsar from Australia, who used to work with Nai Kasauh Mon at Guiding Star and trained Mon journalists, said journalism should be based around people’s lives, not ethnicity.
Any publication would fail if it did not interest the readers, he said. Media groups were closing around the world because they were failing to write about issues that affected people’s lives, Nai Banyar Hongsar said.
“Journalists just wrote about easy subjects and ignored the big issues, which were important for the people. They did not write about news which has a big impact and the people lose interest in the newspaper,” said Nai Banyar Hongsar.
He said drug problems, falling rubber prices, unemployed migrant workers and how flooding has destroyed paddy fields were important issues.
“We did not write about their difficulties, but we did write about the seasonal festival. They knew already about the festival so we did not have to report it. Young reporters sometimes do not know what they should write about,” Nai Banyar Hongsar said.
The front page of Guiding Star showed how the quality of the newspaper had gone down, he added.
Mon Ashin Popphahongsa, a senior Mon Buddhist monk, said: “We read and support Guiding Star so we can find out about Mon issues. We believe it is more reliable than other media groups on Mon issues.”
The monk said he liked the news and opinion pieces and the political coverage.
In Thailand, The Nation newspaper has stopped publishing and is now restricted to an online operation.
For survival he suggested Guiding Star invest in distribution and extend its network and not prioritize profit-making.
Min Jotamoi Anin from Ye Township said the paper’s marketing strategy must improve.
“Social media is to blame. There are ethnic Mon who want to read Guiding Star, but they cannot buy it because of the poor distribution. I donated money this year to buy Guiding Star for our Mon national school,” he said.
Others feel the same but they do not know they could buy Guiding Star for Mon national schools, Min Jotamoi Anin said.
Guiding Star focused a lot on politics but neglected issues facing young Mon and covered agricultural challenges less frequently than in the past. “Our community is poor and we want to read in Guiding Star how to escape poverty,” he said.
How Guiding Star rose
Nai Kasauh Mon initially worked for human rights groups in Sangkhlaburi across the Thai border. He decided that citizens should not just know about human rights but also Mon politics, economics, education and about migrant workers in Thailand.
In September 1999, aged 31, he set up the publication with three colleagues.
“We saw the New Era Journal and discussed how we could set up a Mon newspaper. If they could do it, why not us?” he said. “I could say we set up Guiding Star as competition for the New Era Journal.”
There was no Mon font in Microsoft Word and Nai Ork Paing, a friend of Nai Kasauh Mon, worked to create a Mon font.
Nai Kasauh Mon contacted Mon monks in Yangon with media experience.
“Some Mon monks worked for a Mon magazine in Yangon. They knew how to write articles and were well-educated in the Mon language. I invited a monk [Nai Bee Htaw] to secretly work for us on the border,” he said.
If the military at the time found someone was working in the news media across the border, there could be a heavy punishment.
“We told him how we wanted to run our publication and he served as editor,” Nai Kasauh Mon said.
Guiding Star lacked a budget to print many copies and a Thai-based Mon helped to type and print the newspaper in Bangkok.
“He worked for us for free at first. After printing, he sent it back to the border and even distributed it to Mon migrants,” he said.
Guiding Star printed 500 copies at first which were mainly distributed at the border.
“I worked at our Mon Relief and Development Committee and Distance Education Program. I saved some money from my work and helped fund the newspaper,” he said.
Nai Kasauh Mon lacked the documents to enter Thailand so he had to receive the new prints at the border.
“We almost gave up at that time as there were many difficulties,” he said.
Guiding Star started as eight black and white pages. In 2001 funding from the Burma Relief Center NGO allowed it to expand to 12 pages.
In 2008, it secretly printed inside Mon State for the first time with the help of monks and awareness grew.
“There were many risks for the monks that helped us,” he said.
In 2010, some monks tried to boycott the general election as they said it was not free and fair. Those monks called on the ethnic Mon not to vote.
One monk who led the boycott was arrested and was distributing the newspaper.
The authorities searched his monastery and found computers and printers and the monk was sentenced to over 10 years in prison on several charges.
Another distributor, who was a member of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), for Guiding Star was arrested in 2003. He was detained for a month but was released when the NMSP negotiated with the regime.
The administration of former president U Thein Sein allowed more press freedom in 2013, especially for ethnic publications.
The reforms allowed Guiding Star staff to return from exile. Meetings were held with Mon community leaders to discuss how Guiding Star could settle inside Mon State.
“The road to Mon State was bad at the time. We took a boat for the trip,” he said.
Guiding Star tried to connect its former network of about 100 volunteers who distributed the newspaper under the military.
The organization sold 5,000 copies for 500 kyats each. It has been based in Mon State for six years and 14 years on the other side of the Thai border.
“They welcomed us back. We feel strong support from the Mon. Among ethnic-minority news publications, we were the first to publish inside the country,” he said.