After Reforms Ethnic Media Emerge in Burma, But Challenges Remain

By San Yamin Aung 31 October 2013

RANGOON — Since Burma’s government lifted long-standing media restrictions early this year, several independent news publications have been set up that intend to serve populations in ethnic regions. These pioneering publishers say, however, that they face many challenges.

Nan Paw Gay, spokesperson of the Burma News International (BNI), an umbrella group of 12 ethnically-owned media organizations, said that despite the relaxation of media restrictions the number of publications in ethnic regions are few, while those that have been set up face many hurdles.

“We got legal permission to publish newspapers in ethnic languages for the first time since 1962, but we can’t say that we are publishing widely now,” she said. “Not all ethnic minority groups are printing here [in Burma].”

So far, she said, four monthly and bi-weekly ethnic-language journals have been established in Chin, Mon, Karen and Karenni states.

Nan Paw Gay, who also works a development officer at Karen News journal, said, “At Karen News we can only produce a monthly newspaper because we do not have enough staff and funding.”

Distributions of newspapers in the isolated and underdeveloped ethnic areas is a challenge, she said, adding that security for ethnic reporters is also a concern as tensions between the government and ethnic rebels continue, despite recent ceasefires.

Burma’s military government, which first came to power in 1962, suppressed local media for decades. Under the military, the Burmese language—spoken by the majority in central Burma—became dominant in government institutions and in the education system, which banned teaching in local ethnic languages. Burma’s ethnic groups, which form about 40 percent of the population, were deprived of the possibility to study and write in their mother tongue.

In late December 2012, President Thein Sein’s reformist government lifted restriction on news publication in ethnic languages and April this year, daily newspapers were allowed for the first time in four decades.

Until then, more than a dozen ethnic media outlets had been set up abroad to escape government control, and most of them produced their news reports on Burma on websites, blogs and Twitter.

BNI, which includes groups such as the Karen Information Center, Independent Mon News Agency, Shan Herald Agency for News, Kantarawaddy Times and Kachin News Group, was produced in exile in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, for many years. Recently, BNI opened an office in Rangoon.

One problem created by the decades of suppression of ethnic-language education is that the readership for ethnic-language newspapers is limited.

Nai Kasauh Mon, editor-in-chief of the Independent Mon News Agency, said his organization faced this challenge.

“Although we are printing in the Mon language, only 20 percent of the Mon population can read Mon,” he said. “So we can only sell our newspapers in some places in Mon State where Mon National Schools are present.”

He said the agency had relocated from Thailand to the Mon State capital Moulmein in April and now publishes about 3,000 monthly newspapers.

Brang Mai, the managing director of ‘Myitkyina’ weekly news journal, which is due for launch in the near future, said he hoped his publication would become a valuable news source for the Kachin people.

“We’ve been preparing for about one year and we are not yet registered because we lack enough funding. After we are registered, we’ll publish from Myitkyina and cover the whole of Kachin State,” he said.

“We best understand the Kachin language and people’s feelings, so we can provide the best coverage,” Brang Mai said.