Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Stories We Missed in 2008

The Irrawaddy News
December 31, 2008

As I was preparing to take a break for the New Year, a Burmese colleague who has extensive sources in Burma walked into my office.

I knew this individual to be one of our most avid readers—and an unsparing critic who has often alerted me to the shortcomings of our coverage. But I also knew that he was uniquely well-informed and always constructive in his criticism, so I stopped what I was doing and braced for an earful.

“Your coverage on Burma this year was excellent,” he started. “Your reports on Cyclone Nargis, the referendum, political prisoners, women’s issues, tycoons—spot on! Superb!”

I thanked him on behalf of our hardworking staff, and explained how we started every morning with an editorial meeting to go over the stories and opinion pieces of the day and to discuss the content of the monthly print edition. He listened politely as I told him how pleased we were with the success of our Web site, which has been receiving astonishing numbers of visitors.

Then he started his criticism: “You claim to be an independent news organization searching for the truth, but this year you have failed to expose the reality of the exiled opposition.”

He said we didn’t write enough about the government-in-exile—the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)—or the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) and other umbrella organizations, and that what we did write was too soft.

“Several years ago, you wrote a good editorial about the NCGUB, but you no longer write this stuff,” he said.

I recall that editorial well. It questioned the effectiveness of the NCGUB under the leadership of its self-appointed prime minister, Dr Sein Win, cousin of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Most Burmese exiles agree that Sein Win is a fine person, but they say that he is simply not articulate or media-savvy enough to be a good lobbyist for Burma’s democratic opposition.

My visitor pointed out that nearly a decade after we published our editorial, the NCGUB was still underperforming. Like many others, he noted that US officials in the Bush administration have shown little interest in meeting with the Washington-based NCGUB, preferring instead to establish contacts with rank-and-file activists living in exile in Thailand or the US.

“What about Maung Maung?” my visitor continued, referring to the general secretary of the NCUB. “You published some good articles about him last year, but you didn’t really follow up on them.”

In September 2007, at the height of the Saffron Revolution, Maung Maung upset many fellow exiles when he took credit for the monk-led uprising. My visitor was among those shocked by Maung Maung’s claims and their consequences for the pro-democracy movement.

“Maung Maung was quite effective when he was working on labor issues,” my visitor said. “Even the regime acknowledged his campaign.”

But, he added, Maung Maung undid much of the good he accomplished over the years when he made claims that undermined the credibility of exiled opposition groups.

“Do you know that the people who are now pushing hard for governments and aid groups to start sending money into Burma are using Maung Maung and the NCGUB to discredit opposition groups in exile? They are both doing a disservice to Burma and the democracy movement. Why can’t someone remove them?”

He added: “No one knows where Maung Maung lives or what he does. There is very little transparency.”

But, I argued, Maung Maung is not the only Burmese exile known to the outside world. There are others, like Bo Kyi from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—Burma, and Shan activist Charm Tong, who are widely recognized for their excellent work.

My visitor nodded. “I agree, but my point is that the ineffective groups and politicians are having a negative impact on the image of the movement.”

I couldn’t argue with that, and my visitor also sounded more conciliatory when the topic returned to The Irrawaddy’s coverage of the year’s events.

“I really liked your piece on Kyaw Myint,” he said, referring to a former Wa drug lord who is also known as Michael Hu Hwa. Kyaw Myint is now a businessman based in Vancouver, Canada, where he has also been using his money to recruit exiled activists to his newly formed political party.

This prompted me to mention that we have provided extensive coverage of ethnic issues over the past year. However, I had to confess my regret that we did not write in greater depth about the fate of Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo, who is serving a long sentence at a prison in Kachin State.

This wasn’t the only ethnic-related issue we had failed to cover, my guest insisted. “You don’t expose those ethnic groups that are just political opportunists who will take sides with whoever is in power in Burma,” he complained.

“What about some of the ethnic leaders in exile? I’ve heard that some of them are ready to get on the next plane to Rangoon—they’re just waiting for the visas.”

This was intriguing, but he didn’t divulge any details, so I said we would need more information before we could follow up on it. I told him that if we could confirm what he was saying, we would publish a full report.

He then turned his attention to another group: the so-called “third force,” consisting of Burmese and foreign academics who profess neutrality in the struggle between the junta and pro-democracy forces.

“I heard you received a lot of flack for your coverage of the EU Burma Day meeting in Brussels, where there was a lot of talk about the third force inside Burma.”

I responded that this was a touchy subject, but my well-informed friend wouldn’t let the matter rest there.

“You are always crowing about your investigative reporting and independent journalism, but you don’t even educate your readers about who the third force groups are—their shady backgrounds and who is behind them. It could be a real exposé. But your reports on them are just hit and miss.”

I told him that there are people now quietly monitoring what the third force and the “new opposition” groups are doing in Burma. I added that we would soon have some exclusive news to report on them.

“Don’t be shy about going after these opportunists,” my visitor said. “If you don’t demonstrate that you are watchdog, you will become just another lapdog instead.”

I wasn’t sure how to take this, but before I could let it sink in, my guest touched another nerve.

“By the way, have any of your donors threatened you because of your criticism of the UN and Ibrahim Gambari’s mission, or for questioning the value of humanitarian assistance to Burma as long as the junta still runs the whole show?”

I immediately came to the defense of our donor’s honor. “I swear to God, there has been no pressure from our donors—only expressions of respect for our work here. We are immensely grateful to them for respecting our editorial independence.”

He smiled at this, as if to show he understood what I really wanted to say. Then his look and tone became even more conspiratorial.

“I’m no Deep Throat, but I can tell you some things, if you’re inclined to listen.”

I nodded, and he began: “There are those who say that aid to border-based groups will soon be a thing of the past. They say that cutting off assistance to the troublesome exiles in Thailand is the only way to end the conflict in Burma.”

I immediately countered that no one could be stupid enough to believe such nonsense. I pointed out that many of the so-called “cross border” groups, such as the human rights organizations and the school projects and Dr Cynthia Maung’s clinic, were providing invaluable assistance to hundreds of thousands of people inside Burma—a fact that everyone acknowledges.

“But there are some donors and policymakers who are only too happy to ignore these facts,” he said. “On the other hand, if they hear something negative about the groups on the border, they are quite happy to pass it along.”

We discussed this sad state of affairs for a while, noting with disappointment that despite The Irrawaddy’s efforts to highlight the degree of cooperation between nascent civil-society groups inside Burma and exiled groups along the border, especially during the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, this was a story that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

We agreed that if anything good has come out of these two major crises, which struck Burma within a year of each other, it was that they served to strengthen the bond between Burmese inside and outside the country.

“But this cooperation is now in danger because some aid groups want to divide them,” said my visitor.

I told him to stop being so alarmist, and assured him that if I detected such a policy taking shape, I would be the first to report on it.

At this point, my guest decided to tackle another subject that he felt we had been remiss in covering over the past year.

“What about the National League for Democracy? Your editorials on Suu Kyi and the rest of the party’s aging leadership have been too soft. Why don’t you write about how they seem to be just hanging on for dear life, without doing anything to advance the country’s political situation?”

“They’re not just clinging to survival,” I retorted. “They’re waiting for Suu Kyi’s release and for the junta to begin a dialogue with them.”

“But dialogue is not going to happen. You know it, and so do they.”

Before I could say any more on the perennial subject of the regime’s lack of good faith and its stubborn determination to avoid an honest dialogue at all costs, my guest changed topics again.

“You criticize China every chance you get, but why don’t you mention India’s disgraceful Burma policy? Right now, New Delhi is calling for the international community to tackle the problem of terrorism in Pakistan, but they don’t seem to mind shaking hands with the terrorist regime in Naypyidaw. What hypocrites!”

Then he abruptly shifted to another subject that evidently filled him with indignation.

“Why don’t you write about prostitution in the Irrawaddy delta? I’ve heard that even sex workers are chasing after the aid money that’s making its way into the region,” he said.

“‘Follow the money.’ Isn’t that what you journalists say when you want to get to the bottom of some dirty business? You should be taking lessons from the sex workers.”

I thanked him for his suggestion, but I refrained from mentioning that our local stringers were not much good at chasing after money. In fact, they’re lucky to get US $250 a month from us, which is about all our donors are willing to allow for local staff inside Burma—even though they are facing 20-year prison sentences if caught working for The Irrawaddy.

All of this was becoming a bit depressing to think about, so I was glad when my guest decided he had offered enough criticism for one session. We exchanged New Year’s greetings, and he left me to my own thoughts.

It had been a challenging conversation, and it certainly made me wonder how we would ever live up to our readers’ expectations. But I vowed to myself that next year there would be fewer gaps in our coverage of Burma.

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