Journalist in a Dawning Country

by    /  June 21, 2013  / No comments

Returning to Burma after five years in exile.

Tu Tu Tha in January 2013, after returning to Burma. Photo provided by Tu Tu Tha.

Sampsonia Way contacted Tu Tu Tha, a journalist for The Irrawaddy, to write about her experience returning to Burma after many years of exile.

I had been away from Myanmar since December 2007—nearly five years—when I made the decision to return.

I knew that every part of my return would prove challenging, but I needed to go back to Myanmar. My home is my home and as a journalist, I knew I should be inside, with my people and their news. If I weren’t there, my life would become meaningless.

Still, as a journalist, I needed to be able to write what I wanted, when I wanted to write it. I expected my country’s situation to be different than before—everything is changing, and I will talk about that—but first I need to explain why I left Myanmar.

In short, I left because I was not satisfied with writing under the government’s censorship. Nor was I satisfied with my boss or my country; I wasn’t satisfied with anything. I thought that as a journalist I should have freedom of expression, but we couldn’t write about many things: Injustice within the government, corruption, and workers’ rights are just some examples. The regime cut everything from our local journals. But this wasn’t just a problem for journalists; it became a problem for everyone in Myanmar. My people were unaware of their rights as workers. Women were similarly uninformed about their basic rights. Every government servant was corrupt. Everyone was scared to say what they felt and didn’t know that they should have freedom of speech. It was very disheartening.

Still, I didn’t want to leave my country or my family. I had a husband and two lovely sons, a mother and two brothers. Even so, my responsibility to my country was more important. If I left, I would be alone, but I needed to talk to the world about what was happening in Myanmar. For a long time I had been disgusted with myself and my journalistic work, but the climax of that feeling came after the Saffron Revolution in September 2007. From that point on I resolved to run away. Luckily, I was going to be able to work for The Irrawaddy, an exiled online magazine that had been blacklisted by the Myanmar government.

I consulted my husband and he understood how I felt, but it was still very hard to leave; my youngest son was only a year old. Nevertheless, I left everyone and everything, including my real name. On December 9, 2007 I flew to Chaing Mai, in northern Thailand, and started my new life. I wrote about Myanmar under the name Aye Chan Myate and tried to learn everything that I couldn’t learn back home, including the nature and practices of real journalism. I thought I could watch over my country from outside. Of course, this meant I couldn’t be there when Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008, but I heard many stories from the delta, the area that was affected the most. I so wanted to go back to Myanmar, but it wasn’t the right time. Many journalists were being arrested, and our government was still not fair. In the wake of the cyclone’s destruction officials were pressuring people to vote for the 2008 constitutional referendum, and instability permeated everything. Even though many people lost their families, houses, and paddies to the cyclone, they kept their mouths shut out of fear of the government.

Shortly thereafter I learned about how the influx of Myanmar refugees and migrant workers was scaring the Thai government, even though most of the immigrants were leaving Myanmar because of the regime. This was beneficial! If I had stayed in Myanmar, I wouldn’t have been able to learn about these people. After six months in Thailand, my husband joined me and began to work as a video journalist for the Democratic Voice Of Burma (DVB).

In 2010, our government held its first election in twenty-four years. We were all surprised. Even though the election wasn’t fair, the people of Myanmar had finally received a “new” social government. After that, the government released its political prisoners. Actually, they didn’t release all of them, but they did set most of the well-known prisoners free, including Aung San Suu Kyi. I was satisfied with that, and wished I could go back. I missed my country, my hometown, my old friends, and my family. I was homesick. However, I knew that even though some government officials had changed their clothes, their minds were still the same. I decided to stay in Chaing Mai.

On the other hand, many of my fellow exiles assumed that the country’s politics were different. They were changing unbelievably fast. Soon after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi met Thein Sein, our new president , and announced that she would take part in the national by-elections, which were held on April 1, 2012. Then the US and the EU lifted their sanctions on Myanmar. Shortly before the by-elections I asked Aung Zaw, my chief and the founder of The Irrawaddy, whether I could go back before December 2012. At that time, many organizations based in Chaing Mai had decided to stay. They wanted to wait and observe the new government first. I didn’t fault them, but I wanted to see the situation with my own eyes. I was tired of having to write based on assumptions.

In October 2012, our skeptical chief also decided to return, and to base The Irrawaddy in Myanmar. I was the first journalist who asked to go back home.

Tu Tu Tha visiting a friend after returning from exile. Photo provided by Tu Tu Tha.

I knew I would meet challenges when I went back, but I also knew I would be happier there than anywhere else. Still, I expected there to be fewer facilities and resources than in Thailand; I knew there would be days when the electricity was cut, and that I would experience slow Internet connections, but there were also many unexpected challenges that I had to deal with.

The first one was in Rakhine State, where a local ethnic group (the Rakhine) and the Rohinga, an immigrant ethnic group, have been fighting each other. The second big confrontation was the Lat Pa Daung copper mine uprising, and the most recent was a riot in Mate Htee La, between Muslim and Buddhist groups. At the same time, in the northern part of the state, government troops and the Kachin ethnic minority were fighting an ongoing war. Our people haven’t seen peace for fifty years. Of course, this means I’m never worried about being busy. As a journalist that’s a good thing, but as a resident of Myanmar I want to help instill democracy, peace, and stability.

Aside from the political conflicts, I also met people who were surprisingly ignorant of what, to me, seemed like basic information. Even some of our journalists didn’t know about freedom of expression! Sure, some are well-known writers, but they use web and printed media for their own gain, and I’m fed up with them.

As of now our government has ostensibly ended its censorship program, but most of Myanmar’s journalists don’t know what independence is. They don’t know what it means in practice, nor its rules and regulations. Granted, that part of it isn’t so strange because we haven’t heard some of these words for long time—we all need to learn about rules and regulations.

However, the challenges I faced upon my return were not only in other parts of the country or in my thoughts; they also impacted my daily life. Currently, our family has started again, but my husband and I have to support my mother and older brother, who is sick. They have no income. While my current income is similar to what it was in Thailand, my husband’s pay has decreased by one-third. In Chaing Mai we could easily make ends meet, but it’s a struggle to live here in Yangon. (On top of this, we left all of our furniture in Chaing Mai and our living situation has returned to how it was during our newlywed days.)

When I returned to Yangon I felt as though everything was changing. I saw a big road, new cars, huge supermarkets, modern fashion—all things I’d seen in neighboring countries. With this in mind, can we still say Myanmar is a developing country? I don’t think so. The change is only skin deep. Actually, over the last five years the skin of Yangon has improved, but its people have not changed. Impoverished child-workers still labor in tea shops and pubs. Homeless people, including very dirty children, still loiter in the pagodas and festival compounds without proper dress. Many young sex workers still walk the streets. The buses too are crowded, just like they were five years ago.

The situation disappoints me. Some days I think it only took twenty years for our people to lose their love and kindness. Now educated people believe all sorts of rumors and everyone wants to fight. No one cares about human rights, and most Yangonese easily insult each other. Sure, I can see some improvement in Yangon, including the arrival of a huge number of cars, but with no new roads, traffic is worse than it was five years ago.

In April, under the 38-degree Celsius sunshine, Yangon bubbles with loud music and cars and people awaiting the famous water festival. I think they are happy, but not all at the same time. Not everyone can afford the expense of Yangon, and at these large gatherings religious tension is a pervasive problem.

Now dawn is coming for our country. As a journalist, I need to see these changes, I need to stay inside. I need to find and point out the good things that are happening. I am the only one, but I think I can do what I want to do.

I love my country and I expect the improvements will come soon, but everyone needs to try. If they don’t, our country is hopeless.

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