From Civil War to the Refugee Camp to the Newsroom

By Saw Yan Naing 1 April 2014

RANGOON/HONOLULU — Born in a remote village in eastern Burma’s Karen State, where civil war raged for decades and education opportunities are very limited, I could have never imagined I would one day have the opportunity to become a professional journalist writing for a Burmese and international audience.

Despite many challenges on the way, I became one of the first ethnic Karen to join a journalism training course at The Irrawaddy in 2004 in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, after which I was eventually able to join the magazine.

Since then, I have been able to build up my professional skills as a journalist and I have had opportunities to report on numerous important issues in Burma, while I also learned a great deal from participating in overseas journalism training workshops.

Most recently, for three weeks in February and March, I was awarded a place in the East-West Center’s “Challenges of Democratic Transition” program. The Honolulu-based center invites talented journalists from all over the globe to participate in the program as part of the 2014 Jefferson Fellowship, a unique opportunity that I consider a highlight of my career as a journalist.

The East-West Center was established in 1960 and is an important institute that deals with US public diplomacy and international governance in the Asia Pacific region. During meetings with different US officials, experts, academics, politicians and activists, I gained a good understanding of the US federal system and its military structure, which I think offers valuable lessons for Burma’s democratic transition.

I was also able to share my experiences of the situation in Burma during a panel discussion at the center and learned about the viewpoints of other participants from Asia Pacific, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US.

Earlier, I also had other opportunities to learn through journalist workshops and training abroad. In 2010, I worked with the Asian Network for Free Elections as an international observer during the elections in the Philippines’ Mindanao, an autonomous Muslim region marred by religious tensions.

A Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship in the same year, allowed me to travel to Jakarta to report about the democratic transition in Indonesia. In December 2010, I attended a “Human and Civil Rights” workshop at the International Academy for Leadership of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Germany.

For me, my recent trip to Honolulu marks a high point in my work as a journalist and reminds me how I have come a long way from the days as a child fleeing from Burma Army attacks in the mid-1990s and settling in the Karen refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. Life in the camps was extremely difficult for our family. As a young Karen I had few opportunities to get proper education, nor did I have legal status in Thailand, or even guarantees of safety.

Some of my friends eventually took up jobs as local school teachers, medics, and staffers of non-governmental organizations, while many applied for the UN refugee agency’s resettlement program where they tried to seek a better life in third countries such as United States, Canada and Australia.

I decided to stay in Thailand and find a way to follow and uncover the events and struggle that Burma’s dissidents and ethnic minorities were experiencing under the country’s brutal and repressive military regime.

In 2004, I saw an opportunity to do such work through journalism and I applied for a journalist training course at The Irrawaddy in Chiang Mai. In the following year, I studied news reporting with the US-based Internews, an international non-profit organization empowering local media worldwide.

In 2007, I finally had the chance to permanently join The Irrawaddy and I began to write regular stories for organization’s news website and monthly print magazine. Due to my background, I quickly developed reporting expertise in ethnic issues, the border situation and the long-running internal conflicts that have tormented the country’s ethnic minorities.

Along the way, from fleeing through to the jungle, to refugee camps, to The Irrawaddy newsroom and various educational trips abroad, I have built up in-depth knowledge of Burma’s internal conflicts and the country’s precarious democratic transition. I remain concerned about the ongoing peace process, and whether it will truly bring peace, prosperity and equal rights to all of Burma’s citizens.

That’s why I will keep writing about the injustices and key decisions taking place in Burma and ethnic regions until all the gun falls, not temporarily but permanently.

Saw Yan Naing is a senior reporter of The Irrawaddy Magazine and a fellow of East-West Center’s 2014 Jefferson Fellowship.