Back to Burma

Expelled in 2009, a writer returns to find a country in transition and a journalism community buzzing with possibility

Bright future? A blazing sun backdrops the Shwedagon, Myanmar’s most holy pagoda. (Jerry Redfern)

When I left Yangon in May 2009, escorted onto a Thai Airways plane with a passport stamped “deportee,” the last commanding sight I saw was a smoky sky and a setting sun, round as a ball, red as flames. For nearly four years, that sun colored my memories of Myanmar. It guided my story of the place.

My husband, Jerry Redfern, and I were teaching nonfiction writing and photography courses organized by the US Embassy’s American Center—“nonfiction” was an alias for journalism back when journalism was a sensitive term there. Ironically, the Burmese government had approved our workshops, several short sessions over the course of a few months in Yangon and Mandalay. But on the last day of our last class, we returned from dinner to find our Mandalay hotel lobby full of police and soldiers. Their orders came from the capital, and the message was clear: No questions, no phone calls. Just pack.

Our Burmese colleague from the embassy stood on the pavement and watched us squeeze into a taxi headed for the railway. His face grew white, his eyes stitched with anxiety. This was a man who had suffered threats against life and livelihood. I worried about him. I worried about our students. Whatever might come to us could be far worse for anyone who had worked with us.

We spent 16 sweaty hours in a cramped cabin with one anemic fan and two quiet police officers assigned to deliver us to Yangon. Black grime soiled our skin and nails as the train clattered down the tracks. Our minders removed their uniforms and slept most of the night. There were few lights outside, just the smell of fuel and farms, the pitch-black backdrop of a land without electricity. After hours of wondering and worrying, I began to take notes. No one noticed.

The morning sun—that same fiery sphere—rose over banana trees and murky canals, a pretty scene in another context. Our captors brought us packets of cheap, moistened towelettes to clean our greasy faces. They allowed me a bathroom break, and along the way I saw one of my students in a nearby cabin. What a surprise! She wanted to chat. But I couldn’t talk, couldn’t tell her about the police or our detainment. She looked dismayed when I left. Later, I managed to slip her a note explaining. When we arrived at the Yangon station, I saw her standing at the window, her face somber.

US Embassy officials awaited our arrival. They had no information—they were as perplexed as we—and no power to intervene. We were relieved to see our colleague from Mandalay. He had taken a morning flight without hassle. Burmese officers taxied us around town, from the airport to Immigration to the airport again. Our passports were taken and we were invited to wait in a VIP lounge with snacks, drinks, and comfortable chairs. Through the windows I saw the red sun.

And that’s how it ended. We left without knowing why, without hope of return. We’d been living and working in the region since 1998; Myanmar had a strong pull for us. We made our first trip to Yangon in 2002 after meeting several Burmese journalists in exile who had told us harrowing accounts of their escapes to India and Thailand. They lived in limbo, far from their families, with fake names in fake passports. Many could not travel beyond their country of exile. They felt trapped in a quasi-confinement they had chosen over the imprisonment offered by the totalitarian government in their homeland.

For nearly four years, Jerry and I kept in touch with Burmese friends and colleagues through Facebook and Gchat. We took precautions, knowing our conversations might be monitored. I tweaked my name and invented a new email address. Then I’d stay up late, waiting for the familiar plink of Gmail alerting me to a message sent from afar. On good nights, our chats reached 60 lines or more. Other times the exchanges ended abruptly, inexplicably. But as far as Jerry and I knew, none of our students suffered because of us.

We continued to teach. In 2009, I led four Burmese reporters to New York and Pittsburgh to cover the United Nations and G-20 Summit. They told me they were the first group of Yangon-based journalists to do that. In 2011, we spent three weeks with eight Burmese journalists sent to the University of Montana for training in government reporting.

The journalists went home and Jerry and I wondered whether we’d ever see their country again. But things changed. The Burmese government suddenly embarked on a democratic path, an apparent about-face that allowed for elections, foreign investments, political-prisoner amnesties, and new journalistic freedoms. The reasons for this shift remain a mystery, left to speculation—growing pains in the military ranks, desired access to international aid, efforts to avoid a violent “Myanmar Spring.”

Yet this is not a bloodless transition. Sectarian riots that began with Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, along the Bangladesh border, have spread across the country in recent months. Clashes that evade simple explanation have left 200 dead and an estimated 250,000 displaced. Some analysts say the military can use this violence as a pretext for maintaining power. Others blame a controversial nationalistic Buddhist monk named Wirathu for inciting attacks against Muslims—which he reportedly denies. But, as a Burmese journalist recently told me, decades of suppressed education have fostered a populace often easily swayed by rumor and emotion.

In August 2012, when the government released a list of foreigners and exiles removed from the country’s blacklist, our names were there along with 1,145 others—including the late Philippine President Corazon Aquino and Sonny Bono. So we applied for visas through the embassy in Washington, and soon found ourselves flying through the miasma that cloaks Yangon.

We landed—giddy, anxious—and immediately recognized the airport lounge, the big glass windows and the longyi-clad crowd beyond, awaiting arrivals. An immigration officer stamped my passport and smiled. I said a quiet thank you, grabbed my bag and headed into a humid stew where I saw that same blazing fireball of a setting sun.

Our taxi was a beat-up white Toyota wagon with rusty doors. The driver, Tin, had grown up on a farm, then studied university-level physics. “I am ashamed to tell you,” he said, because his job didn’t reflect his education. He blamed the old regime for his lack of opportunity. “At that time we didn’t like the government. We hated the government. Now . . . different.”

The Yangon air smelled as I remembered—of mothballs and betel, fish and fried shallots, diesel and dust, sweet jasmine and human sweat. If only I could package those smells and take them home; aroma is key to memory and story, along with images, sounds, and words.

We passed construction workers repairing the road, toting bricks and shoveling sand. I spotted a shop, obviously new, selling smartphones. There were shiny Honda hybrids beside clunky old Toyotas and public buses crammed with commuters. The old vehicles still spewed noxious, tarry exhaust while the new ones idled quietly at traffic lights.

That night we ate fried fish with dried chiles and sour leaf soup at a sidewalk café with miniature tables and chairs. Our presence was a conversation piece. The restaurant was staffed by a couple of kids and their elders. The youngsters stared. They watched our every bite. When Jerry asked for the bill, the smallest boy smiled at the chance to practice English.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” we replied.

“One thousand seven hundred kyat,” he said, carefully enunciating the words. About $1.88. Street food hadn’t changed.

“Okay,” we said, to peals of child laughter. Jerry forwarded the money plus an extra 100 kyat (11 cents). The kid came to clean the table, then chased us down the street to return the extra money. We tried to explain the concept of a tip, but he didn’t understand. He passed it to another boy and they puzzled over the faded bill. One day, those kids will no longer question a tip—and a little something about Burmese culture will have changed.

‘Mr. Knife’ Hsann Nyein, of The Modern Weekly News Journal. (Jerry Redfern)

The next morning we taxied along the riverfront, past modern condos rising beside old government buildings getting facelifts. Young men clung to bamboo scaffolding 50 feet up, working among paint-chipped columns of an edifice whose backside seemed to have been forgotten since the Raj.

We met our friend, Hsann Nyein, an editor at The Modern Weekly News Journal. We were four years late for the appointment. He had invited us to visit his office when we finished teaching in Mandalay in 2009. “I was waiting for you!” he teased. We joked about our unexpected “government vacation.”

Hsann Nyein’s colleagues affectionately call him “Mr. Knife.” Reporters initially write their stories by hand, then he edits. Under the old government, all news followed a weekly cycle—it took that long to pass the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. But in August 2012, the government ended pre-publication censorship, and eight months later, daily papers were allowed to publish for the first time in half a century.

Still, many journalists told us, they tiptoe around sensitive subjects—culture, religion, military. “We have self-censorship,” Hsann Nyein said, for fear of what might happen post-publication. He edits each story word by word. “Some words I find . . . may be dangerous,” he said. “But I take a risk.” It’s a tactic born of previous times, when editors routinely pushed the limits. After democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 (before the end of censorship), Eleven Media Group founder Than Htut Aung cleverly published a front-page headline with a hidden message that read, “Su free, unite and advance to grab the hope.” The move won his paper a two-week suspension—and a 2013 World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers media freedom award.

Everything in Burmese journalism is in transition today. The entire profession is learning on the job. In years past, my students asked how to sandwich the news inside their stories, hoping to get key information past censors. Now, reporters ask: How do I write straightforward news under daily deadlines? What can I do when government sources return my calls too late in the day? How can I see my family when I’m working 12-hour shifts? Burnout is a big new worry. “We Burmese journalists are suffering so many stresses,” Hsann Nyein wrote to me on Facebook a few months after we met in Yangon.

Modern Weekly, like many publications, doesn’t have the staff or money to make the transition to daily. Instead, editors respond with innovative writing styles. “We have to change the angle,” Hsann Nyein told us in his office. His paper publishes in-depth features and analyses to complement and compete with the spot news reports that now appear in dailies.

Publications compete not only for audience but qualified reporters and editors, said Yin Yin, another Burmese friend and editor who I had worked with in Thailand. Recruitment is harder now for Modern Weekly, which gets 10 to 20 percent the staff applications it did in previous years. Young reporters want a shot at daily news, which also tends to pay more. But some of the biggest competitors, she said, are writers posting to blogs and Facebook. “They are very fast.”

“But they are not well-trained,” Hsann Nyein added. Many Burmese bloggers “just hear news and post,” repeating rumors without checking facts. “Everyone is a citizen journalist,” editors across the Modern Weekly newsroom agreed, but not everyone has the ethics of a trained journalist. As anywhere, it’s the flipside to a free press in the digital age.

We discussed the pros and cons of protests: Are they good or bad for society? Hsann Nyein said Burmese citizens now protest their grievances in public. A protest, I suggested, can help people with little power to affect political or social change. It’s a form of speech. But in Yangon, he said, the government tries to convince the public that protests can hinder business and impede development. Plus, many citizens remain wary of anything that could prompt military action again. Society’s freedoms are new, but memories and caution run deep.

Then suddenly Hsann Nyein announced lunchtime. Hospitality is critical to Burmese culture, and he’d planned for years to take me out for mohinga—fish curry noodles, a favorite. We sat in a breezy restaurant and talked about technology and agriculture. In the past, he said, farmers rarely had access to markets. Middlemen bought from farmers at cut rates, then sold in the market for profit. But that will change as cell phone prices drop, he said. As in Africa, farmers will begin to call the market directly. Technology will change lives. It will permeate the countryside.

Later that afternoon, Jerry and I visited a stately new bank with a cavernous lobby smelling of furniture glue. The place was empty of customers though spacious enough to host a football game. Dozens of workers sat idle at their desks. Changing money involved two employees and several stamps on a neatly typed receipt with hand-scratched notes on back detailing how many bills of which denominations we received. That day, the bank rate, just over 900 kyat per dollar, rivaled the black market. That wasn’t the case in years past, when changing money at the official rate of a few hundred kyat or less was “plain stupid” (to quote Lonely Planet).

That evening, sunset cast a mesmerizing glow across the Shwedagon, the country’s most holy pagoda. The place was packed, but for the first time in many visits there were no chatty monks with stories of persecution by authorities. There were no stone-faced men in white shirts and longyis, the alleged spies of former times, following closely, asking questions. Just thousands of visitors, foreign and Burmese, with smartphones, cameras, and even a tablet aimed at the gleaming sight.

The next morning I ordered more mohinga and thick, sweet tea at a corner shop. All around were the sinuous sounds of the local language and the deep-throated hacking of chronic coughs, symptomatic of a constant city haze. Patrons sat and chatted, a few with newspapers in hand, two with eyes on their phones. A newspaper cart did a lively trade next door. Despite the rise of mobile media, print remains a popular source of information. Reading is habit, both in teashops and private homes. Tenement residents dangle ropes from their balconies with little clips to which newspapers or plastic bags of street food can be attached. That’s delivery, Yangon style.

That night we met several of our former students for dinner in the city. Our embassy colleague entered the restaurant with a wide grin and firm grip. “It is very good to see you,” he said with sincere eyes—no longer the drawn, pale face we had seen leaving Mandalay.

I learned much that night over rice and curry. Journalists wanted in-house mentors who would come to teach, not take an exotic vacation (which is how some characterized a recent influx of foreign media trainers unfamiliar with local needs). They wanted training in conflict reporting as papers sent teams to cover the spreading violence. They wanted to know how to gain access to both sides during riots. Several said the authorities still hassled reporters covering conflicts outside of Yangon—but it was nothing like the censorship of years past. For the first time, journalists had spot news to chase and the chance to actually print it. Sudden, thrilling advancements tempered by the headache of figuring out how to actually do it all.

And I learned that editors keep faith in a readership base that still favors ink on paper. Everyone is building a website, most every publication has a Facebook page. But much of that online presence is aimed at overseas readers and pockets of new-media enthusiasts. In general, respect for newsprint endures. Editors are banking on that.

There was talk about the government and its future. Many said the old generals are simply “changing clothes.” The appearance of democratic reform looks good internationally. It’s profitable for the country and those generals in new suits. Military power, we were told, remains paramount, no matter the clothes.

Later that night, a former student, the son of a wealthy businessman, drove us and a few others home in his SUV. There was breaking news: Riots between Buddhists and Muslims were spreading across a region north of Yangon known as Bago, one friend read from his phone as we passed through Yangon’s darkened streets. Another journalist opened her tablet and read a statement by US Ambassador Derek Mitchell pledging aid to Meiktila, where dozens have been killed and thousands displaced in widespread violence. Then she spent several minutes on the phone relaying Bago updates to her newsroom.

None of that would have—could have—happened four years ago.

Jerry and I left early the next morning, the city’s streets nearly empty as our taxi retraced our path to the airport. On the far horizon, I saw it again: that bright red ball of a sun. But this time, it was rising.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Karen Coates , author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War, is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her latest book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, co-authored with photojournalist Jerry Redfern, was published in December 2013.