Election allure draws journalists in Kachin

Journalists cover an opposition rally in Myitkyina, Kachin State
Journalists cover an opposition rally in Myitkyina, Kachin State

 

Zaw Naing Oo’s first reporting assignment surfaced bitter memories, despite it being a seemingly relatively simple task: he was asked to go to local police stations in Myitkyina, Kachin State to gather crime news.

Having served in Burma’s police force for 22 years, crime scenes and news are not strange to him. However, going back to his former work place as a journalist, asking questions to his former colleagues was both uncomfortable and strange .

“It was a big struggle at the beginning”, said the 44-year old former police officer.

Having been caught up in a car smuggling ring from China into Kachin State in 2011, Zaw Naing Oo, then a 2nd Lieutenant police officer, was fired. Other parties involved in the criminal ring include an influential Buddhist monk, a local crony businessman, and high-ranking officers of the northern military commands in the Kachin State.

With an acute sense of investigation developed from his police officer’s days, Zaw Naing Oo is slowly diverting this capability into journalistic skills for his new-found profession after joining a local newspaper in February 2014.

His investigative report about several local MPs involved in illegal logging and smuggling to China landed at the front page of the Eleven News, one of the highest circulation newspapers in the country.

“The impact of this story encouraged me to keep doing this work, although there is rarely any day I don’t face hurdles and struggle. Also, I came to understand the public service aspect of this work,” he said, reflecting on his experience.

One of Us?

Born into civil servant parents in the Mandalay Division of Central Burma, Zaw Naing Oo is an ethnic Bamar, which comprises the country’s majority. He has been living in Kachin Sate for more than a decade.

His two ballots during the 1990 and 2010 elections were canvassed for advanced voting as a civil servant. This year, however, he couldn’t find his name in the 2015 electoral rolls in Kachin State.
In his new career trying journalist, he is trying to cover the election-related activities of Kachin ethnic parties.

It seems that election coverage does not even provide a temporary fix for Zaw Naing Oo’s conflicted identity as a former police officer turned Bamar Journalist. His ethnic identity and former works are still shadowing the present one.

“Some Kachin colleagues hold suspicions against me due to my previous job and my ethnicity”, he said. “Most still think I am attached to the SB (Special Branch police)’s investigation unit”.

Troubled state

Kachin State is strategically situated at the northernmost part of Burma, sandwiched between China and India. Though endowed with rich natural resources, the State has been choked with civil wars which have been ongoing for many decades between Burma’s military and various splinter groups of ethnic armed forces.

At present, election run-up activities are fraught with ethnic hostility and general insecurity. The candidates are complaining of restrictions imposed on their campaign activities.

The Myanmar Times newspaper reported on the campaign restrictions in Kachin State quoting U Moe Myint Aung of the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) as saying, “The local authorities banned us from campaigning because of insecurity. We are the same ethnicity and they will not cause us any trouble. We want to go there as much as we can, but now many areas have been restricted, even whole constituencies”.

At present, police forces in Kachin State are guarding against the possibility of possible ethnic conflicts in 24 townships during the election period.

With less than a few weeks before the scheduled Nov 8 elections, the tensions are rising in Kachin State where the fighting between Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the government troops are ongoing as usual.

In the meantime, the KIA has refused to sign the 15 October National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which eight other ethnic armed forces consented with the government.

Kachin State is a complex mix of ethnic identities, where volatility is fueled by regular clashes between government and ethnic troops.

According to the security plan of Kachin State’s police forces, 991 police officers will be deployed in the 823 polling stations, while the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) will ensure the security of 208 polling stations.

During the first week of October, two ethnic Red Shan members of the Tai-Leng Nationalities Development Party (TNDP) were shot dead in separate incidents in Hpakant Township of Kachin State. The Red Shan also locally known as “Shan-ni” is ethnic Shan minority with estimated population of 300,000 spread across in northern Sagaing Region and Kachin State.

Until now, the Red Shan has no political representation in Kachin State. By contesting the election, the TNDP is hoping, at the least, to pick up the Shan ethnic affairs minister position in Kachin State.

Crash course

Broadcast journalist Thin Thin Nwe joined SEAPA's Roundtable Discussion among media, civil society and political parties in Myitkyina last September.

Broadcast journalist Thin Thin Nwe joined SEAPA’s Roundtable Discussion among media, civil society and political parties in Myitkyina last September.

Thin Thin Nwe is an ethnic Shan-ni broadcast journalist based in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. Despite her childhood dream of becoming an air hostess, she landed a job in highly competitive and demanding field of broadcast journalism.

Having grown up in a majority ethnic Kachin village, the values of equality and fairness have taken root in her, making her more inquisitive than the norms set in the village.

“It is not surprising that we didn’t understand the meaning of democracy, election and referendum back in the village. But we were quite aware of being forced to do things that are the opposite of it”, said 29-year old journalist who has plenty of childhood memories of political events.

One of those distant memories is of a long train journey she took with her father to support a ‘referendum’ that conceived the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

“At least one member of every household must attend it. So, there we were in the football pitch under scalding sun. Being exhausted and hungry, we unpacked our food and ate while the loudspeakers from the distant stage made a lot of noise”, she recalled.

Another distinct memory is during a village survey about residents’ political inclinations, in which local officials authority warned her not to express support for any democracy as it will negatively mark her character.

Like most journalists in Burma, Thin Thin Nwe doesn’t have any election reporting experiences yet during her four year-long journalism career. She has attended a crash-course to cover this election.

“I’ve been filing stories on political party movements and campaigns, but the stories I really want to tell are those of the people voices in this election to show bigger picture of Kachin State. I do not know how far I could go”, she said.

Distant voices

Kachin Waves is a news aggregator Facebook page, managed by a few Kachin citizen journalists (CJ) and social activists. With more than 7,000 followers, posts in Kachin Wave cover all aspects of life in the remote northern state.

Sut Hting is one of the citizen journalists of Kachin Waves. Like many, he is a first time voter, so is unfamiliar with almost all news about the election.

“I’ve attended two election reporting trainings, so I suppose I could gather news relating to the elections,” he said. “These are quite exciting times for us. “

“However, as citizen journalists we cannot register to the Union Election Commission to cover this election”.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) has issued guidelines for election reporting which restricts and monitors movements of media. The election body limits the number of journalists allowed in specified locations.

Furthermore, reporting accreditations would be only issued to the registered media outlets.
As the Kachin Waves is not a government-recognised outlet, Sut Hting and his fellow citizen journalists are planning other ways to be able report on the Nov 8 elections.

“We are planning to go further remote areas of Kachin States where mainstream media wouldn’t go and cooperate with them for the election coverage.”

An NLD campaign billboard in Myitkyina, Kachin State.

An NLD campaign billboard in Myitkyina, Kachin State.

Like in other ethnic states, the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is on a zig-zagging election campaign trail in Kachin State to canvass the most ballots, and disregard other pro-democracy and ethnic parties.

NLD’s campaign push has irked local ethnic parties over concerns of dividing their constituencies and splitting of the opposition vote, which may give the pseudo-military ruling party.

This campaign is taking place amid the recent outbursts of violence in Kachin State as government pursues relentless attacks on Kachin rebel bases.

As violence could keep rural voters away, Kachin parties worry that this instability could also contribute into a favorable situation for the ruling party.

In view of these developments, both Sut Hting, Thin Thin Nwe and Zaw Naing Oo agree that local voices still to be amplified to diversify the election reportage in the Kachin State.