After a ‘Family Coup,’ a Reporter in Burma Earns Her Own Greatness
By Kyaw Phyo Tha 27 November 2013
RANGOON— On the night of July 28, 1988, when the Burmese had taken to the streets in an attempt to topple a one-party dictatorship, the Associated Press (AP) bureau in Bangkok received a telex. It read: “Daddy has been taken away. He won’t be available to answer your queries.”
It was a message from the daughter-cum-apprentice of local reporter Sein Win, who had been working inside Burma for the American wire service. It informed her father’s employers of his arrest by authorities for his coverage of the mounting protests that year. She had already been helping her father to cover the frenetic events of the uprising, but the writer of the telex would soon file stories for the newswire herself.
“It was all I could do as I was not, at that time, their official reporter,” said Aye Aye Win as she recounted about the message she sent 25 years ago.
One year later, in 1989, she joined AP herself. Then aged 36, she was the only female journalist in Burma at that time, letting the world know what was happening inside the country. After the protests were violently put down, the repressive military held on to power and retained strict control over information in Burma. Eleven Burmese journalists were still in jail until 2011.
“I’m a journalist by choice, not by accident,” said the slender woman. Even though she will turn 60 next month, Aye Aye Win still shoots questions at press conferences competitively; most of her fellow reporters are old enough to be her grandchildren.
So far, she is the only living woman journalist in Burma who has won four international journalism awards. She received honors in 2004, 2008 and 2013. The most recent prize was the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism, awarded for her “life-long dedication to honest and courageous journalism, often at the risk of personal safety,” according to the school’s website.
During the 24 years of her AP career, Aye Aye Win has covered every one of Burma’s ups and downs—from the monk-led revolt in 2007, to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 130,000 people in 2008—the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Burma—to the advent of a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
“She has always covered with distinction and sometimes with physical courage,” said Denis D. Gray, who oversaw Burma coverage as the AP bureau chief in neighboring Thailand from 1976 to 2011.
The former bureau chief told The Irrawaddy that even though his reporter seems “reckless in her opinions and sometimes in actions,” she is made of the same toughness, stubbornness, pride in the profession and intelligence as her dad, Sein Win, who worked for AP for 20 years. The late veteran journalist, who passed away last month, was famous for his efforts for press freedom in Burma, enduring three stints in prison as he chronicled several decades of his country’s turbulent history.
“So it became clear very early on that she would be able to work as a woman under a repressive regime. She proved it again and again,” Gray said.
Aye Aye Win has been harassed numerous times by authorities. Her phone line was tapped and she was on the government’s watch list as she worked for a foreign news agency. She was once branded as “the ax handle” of foreign media by the state-run newspaper.
In response to misconceptions that the former military government had of her, she said she is neither “anti-government” nor “anti-military” as they called her. “I’m just against persecution. It’s my instinct to hate anyone who bullies,” she said.
Gray said no matter what she thought about the military regime, or for that matter about the opposition, she always strove, and still strives, for balance, “showing favor to no side.”
Ye Htut, the spokesperson of the Burmese President Office and the vice minister at the Ministry of Information, first met Aye Aye Win at press conferences from 2005 onward, and said according to those experiences he sees her “a smart woman who really wants to work as a professional journalist.”
“Of course, we sometimes have different points of view,” he told The Irrawaddy. “But I have rarely seen inaccuracies in her reporting and noticed that she has never failed to raise questions bravely whenever she needed to ask, not only to government officials, but to some prominent politicians whom some local journalists are reluctant to shoot.”
Though she was fortunate not to be jailed like some other journalists, Aye Aye Win was interrogated in 1997 and 1998 at military intelligence offices because, she was told, “the persons upstairs were not pleased with her omnipresence at some occasions,” referring to her attendance of anti-government protests as a reporter.
Once she was asked to explain why she missed a Revolutionary Day state dinner, instead attending an opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) event.
“At first, my heart was racing, but a sense of righteousness overwhelmed me. So I replied to them that ‘the NLD makes news but the dinner doesn’t,’” she said, recounting the interrogation session. “They mistakenly thought that they could intimidate journalists. It’s not the case for me.”
Maybe she inherits that indomitable spirit from her father.
“Daddy told me we never have to give up against anyone who persecutes us,” she said. “He said: ‘they can’t put our spirit in prison. As long as we refuse to bow to our persecutors, we win.’ That’s one of the things I learnt from my dad, my hero.”
Since her formative years, Aye Aye Win has been familiar with the life of a journalist. She remembers her father returning home late at night and heading out early in the morning when he was the editor and publisher of Burmese newspaper The Guardian in the late 1950s. She witnessed how he gathered news, grabbed scoops and faced his arrests. Her dad told her she mustn’t smile at her captors.
But when she declared she wanted to be a journalist, it was Sein Win who bitterly rejected her choice of career.
“Maybe he feared that I would be jailed like him,” Aye Aye Win explained. “Finally, he promised to teach me journalism, but there was no job offer.”
As a high school student, she was interested in international news. She kept newspaper cuttings that featured stories she liked.
“After following the Watergate story, I realized that journalists could shake an administration. I love that idea,” she said, explaining that a teenage interest would stay with her for the rest of her life.
In 1989, after grooming her for 10 years, Sein Win surrendered his job to Aye Aye Win—she called it “a family coup.” He moved to a Japanese news agency.
“Probably, he thought I was getting mature,” she said with a laugh.
For all the difficulties she faced throughout her career, the AP correspondent said she is lucky as she gets “full support” from her family. Apart from her father’s guidance, she thanks her husband, who is also a correspondent for foreign media, for his understanding and cooperation; her mum for feeding her information to write stories and her daughter for saying “keep going.”
“They have never said ‘Ok, that’s enough,’” she said.
Nowadays, although Burma’s quasi-civilian government is praised for its openness and for officially ending censorship, Aye Aye Win complained that “98 percent” of government spokespeople are still unavailable for official comments.
“They are not doing their jobs and I’m disappointed to see there’s very little action from the government on what local papers have revealed, like corruption,” she said.
Though she has won international awards for her work, Aye Aye Win thinks she is still far behind the footsteps of prominent Burmese woman journalists of the past—like Ludu Daw Amar—who fought colonialism and injustice with their pens.
Despite her modesty, she has rarely enjoyed favoritism as a woman. Instead, said Aye Aye Win, she earned scorn.
“Our Asian society doesn’t think highly of women’s role. People thought I got the job thanks to my Dad and they underestimated me, saying I wouldn’t make it,” she recalled.
“So I’ve vowed to myself to prove to them I could be a journalist, and I found out it’s not a big deal as long as you have interest, responsibility and perseverance.”
Asked her reaction to winning prizes, Aye Aye Win said it’s nice to be recognized, but really, awards are for movie stars. “Journalists don’t need such a high profile,” she added.