MOULMEIN — Ethnic media groups and Burmese government officials on Thursday called for a strong press to promote democracy and foster dialogue between ethnic minorities and mainstream media.
About 100 journalists gathered at the conference held in the Mon State capital of Moulmein, which was also attended by the Chief Minister of Mon State, Ohn Myint, and the Deputy Information Minister Pike Htwe.
Pike Htwe said Thein Sein’s administration was doing all it could to promote ethnic voices in the media, including by broadcasting radio programs in ethnic languages.
Ohn Myint said: “I want to see a productive ethnic media conference here, which will be of good service to the country.”
Representatives from ethnic Mon, Karenni, Shan, Kachin, Arakan, Chin and Karen media donned colorful traditional dress for the opening ceremony.
Most ethnic minority media groups have been based abroad since they were established, due to reporting restrictions imposed by the former ruling military junta.
But under new rules media has been allowed greater freedom to operate inside the country.
Nai Cham Toi, an organizer of the event, said there should be an open dialogue about how best to develop ethnic media.
“The most important thing is we need to meet and talk,” said Nai Cham Toi, who is also editor in chief of the Than Lwin Times. “This will be of benefit to the ethnic media.”
Tin Soe, editor of the Bangladesh-based Kaladan Press, said: “We need to talk at this meeting about how we can develop and back each other up. This is very important.”
There was a widespread feeling at the conference opening that there is an urgent need for strong and independent ethnic media, as the mainstream press is seen as not doing enough to cover ethnic issues.
After years in exile, ethnic media groups still based abroad are beginning to move into Burma.
Nai Kasauh Mon, editor in chief of the formerly Thailand-based Independent Mon News Agency, said his media group has already relocated to Moulmein.
The news agency publishes 1,500 newspapers monthly and estimates it has about 800 readers per issue in Thailand, mostly migrant workers from Burma.
“Even though we are now based in Burma, we will still keep on publishing for our readers in Thailand,” Kasauh Mon said.
As well as a strong ethnic media being vital to strengthening democracy, attendees said they feared for the survival of the local languages, and publishing in Mon and other ethnic languages would help stop the languages dying out.
Nai Maung Toe, chief editor of the Rangoon-based Amartdein Journal, said the conference could go some way to preserving ethnic languages and cultures.
As a Mon historian, he is concerned that his native language may disappear, which is why he publishes his newspaper in Mon and distributes it free of charge.
The main message the ethnic groups wanted to convey at the conference was one of unity.
Soe Myint, editor in chief of Mizzima, said the intention of establishing BNI 10 years ago was to bring the different ethnic media groups under one umbrella.
“Our country has many ethnic groups, all with different religions and cultures,” he said. “We formed BNI to join as one.”
There are also hope that ethnic media groups can play a role in the peace process between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups, some of which are still in open conflict with Naypyidaw.
Nan Paw Gay, development officer of Thailand-based Karen News, said despite the 10 ceasefire agreements between ethnic armies and the government, on the ground little has changed in Karen State.
“Some people may think the situation in our area has changed for the better. But I wanted to tell you that there is no improvement on the ground in Karen State, except that our people are able to travel more freely,” he said.