Interview: Ethnic media share stories from the ground

During the two-day media development conference, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) met with Khun Yar Zar, founder and editor in chief of the People’s Voice Journal based in Taunggyi, Shan State. It’s his third time joining the media conference, which was held at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon this year.

He shared his view on the obstacles and challenges faced by ethnic media. He and his colleague were sued by Pa-O National Organization (PNO) for defamation and charged to pay 30,000 Kyats (~US$ 30) fine by the court. The editors went to court 37 times since the case was first filed in 2015.

Most community media and ethnic media are set up to reveal the truth about the ongoing issues in the area and for the love of their ethnicities. They want to contribute useful information for their people’s welfare.

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Khun Yar Zar, editor of People’s Voice in Shan State

SEAPA: What is your opinion regarding the discussions about ethnic media at the conference and reality on the ground?

Khun Yar Zar: This year, there are more representatives from the government, members of parliament, and military. Though we discussed the same challenges repeatedly like previous years, there is no practical solution. We explained the problems in our area but never received any tangible assistance. We also explained about our court case that happened in 2015 and submitted documents to the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) requesting help. We received nothing (and had to fend for ourselves). Whenever the case reached the courts, MPC said they have no authority to intervene. So I think we have to question MPC’s stand, whether they are on the side of the government or on the media’s side.

SEAPA: If you have to ask, what kind of immediate assistance do you expect?

Khun Yar Zar: The development of ethnic media is still very weak. First, we need protection laws for ethnic media. After the laws are promulgated, the new government should enforce these laws (and assure that) local officials and ethnic armed-groups (follow them). Second, we face the hardship of sustaining financially. I think, some other donors can support us if the government cannot. But because of our language barrier, we cannot reach out to any (international or regional) donors. So, we hope these donors and NGOs (non-government organizations) can reach out to us.

SEAPA: What are the key steps for the development of ethnic media?

Khun Yar Zar: Human resource is a big challenge for us. Besides, we lack technical skills including reporting techniques. The government repeatedly said that they will set up community radio. In the past we also tried many times to set up community radio, but we faced technical challenges. It is also very difficult to set up one community radio station given our capacity. We want to create a website, but we cannot do it. On the other hand, there are many crony-stations being permitted by the government. So, if we got assistance on these challenges from the government, the ethnic media will have development.

SEAPA: Is your paper a community media, ethnic media, or independent media?

Khun Yar Zar: With current capacity, we are only an ethnic media focusing on our ethnic people’s (issues). Majority of our people cannot speak and (are not) familiar with the Burmese language and literature. But, we have our Pa-O literature and language. Pa-O Sangha (Pa-O Monk Association) provides Pa-O Language classes to (encourage the) use (of) the language widely. So, our paper focuses only for our Pa-O community. But, we can say that our paper is ethnic-focused with independent views, without being influenced by any political party or organization. Even if a donor wants to support us, we do not need to follow their drive but keep our trends. If the donor dislikes (our) way and does not support, we won’t take it because we want to keep our paper’s stand independently.

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SEAPA: What are the challenges on safety issues while reporting in the ethnic area?

Khun Yar Zar: Based on my own experience (during) the 2015 General Elections, we covered various articles and investigative reporting on human rights abuses happened in our area, and published in our paper and Facebook, and Taunggyi Times website. For those articles, I used my real name “Khun Yar Zar.” So, the local authority knew me and threatened that if their party didn’t win the election, they would kill me. Their threats made me feel nervous. As I used motorbike for my transportation, they (could have killed me) anytime. But, there were also Pa-O people who love to hear the truth. So, I shared my situation with them. Besides, there were a few friends among the armed-group whom I talked about the threats against me. I also requested them to receive our phone calls if anything happened to me or my colleagues. I am not afraid, but I have concerns. Just before the Elections, there were international teams that came to our area to collect data related to the Elections and issues around the ethnic area. They also reached me, so I explained to them about my situation.

SEAPA: If something happened, who can protect you and what is the impact on future reporting?

Khun Yar Zar: There is no one. If something bad happened, we suffered first. Whoever wants to help us can come in only later. This kind of uncertainty of security has negative impact on our reporting. The news I wrote is for the public, not for me. But the local authorities do not understand that these news are just the facts, not my opinion. And they threatened me, the consequences became negative for both public and local authorities. For instance, one of my news in 2015 led to the unity among some local party members and better preparation for contesting in the elections because the news served as reminders pointing out their weaknesses. Later in the elections, all nine party members won their seat in the Pa-O controlled area. This is the positive impact from our news. Later, we didn’t receive more threats from the local parties.

On the other hand, there are negative impact such as being harassed, getting sued with defamation, and the worst case, being shot dead. But, I will continue my news writing as long as my articles bring “truth” for our people. In our area, the roots of feudalism and cooperating with military dictators are still deeply entrenched. If we cannot fight such rotten systems, our next generations will have the same suffering as us. So, I stand firmly on my belief to reveal the truth even if it takes my life.

SEAPA: Can the mainstream media report thoroughly about the issues in your area and other ethnic area?

Khun Yar Zar: No. It is quite difficult for journalists from the mainstream media to travel to ethnic areas. Besides in our area, because of the abuses from the Burmese Army, our people dislike the Burman. And they hate if someone uses the Burmese language. So, it is very hard for (mainstream media which uses the Burmese language) to come to our area, investigate, and report thoroughly. I don’t know whether their absence is because of that fact. But, they never came to cover in our area. Before I became a journalist, there was an incident in one Pa-O village that was absolutely burnt down. No mainstream media covered that issue. I suffered for that and decided to become a journalist.khun-yar-zar-quote-01

SEAPA: Were you in the wrong in the defamation case you faced? What is the update on the defamation case?

Khun Yar Zar: We are not wrong to cover that news because it is for the public’s benefit. Besides, it is the true story. But, the way the judge handled our case proved that the court wasn’t independent and was influenced by the local administrative power. Now, we are going to appeal until we are granted the truth. We got fine to pay, (which amounts to) 30,000 Kyats (~US$ 30), or (face) one month imprisonment. The law was twisted saying that the appeal can be made only for cases with fine of up to 50,000 Kyats (~US$ 50). So, it seems that the authority tried to block our appeal. Though the appeal is impossible, we can request for correction.

The local authority aims to put down our paper’s reputation so that we cannot continue. Actually, our paper earns the trust of the Pa-O community.


Khun Yar Zar, 29, is the editor in chief of the People’s Voice Journal. He studied a three-month journalism course at the Maung-Wun-Tha Journalism Training in Yangon. After that, he became a journalist for Taunggyi Times Online news and Eastern Yoma Weekly Journal in 2012. He covers news on politics, conflicts in Shan and Pa-O areas, drug issues, violence against women and children. Since 2013, he and his news team has provided free local media training for those who want to be citizen journalists.

People’s Voice Journal is a monthly publication in the Pa-O language. The paper is operating with six journalists, with three women and three men. Monthly distribution carries 3,000 copies for nearby 10 townships within the Pa-O self-control territory in the Southern Shan State. There is no website but the paper shares their softcopies in PDF files on their Facebook page, which has more than 20,000 followers. The paper was established in 2013. For the past eight months, the paper has inserted two pages for the Burmese Language news.

Currently, the People’s Voice Journal is the only independent ethnic news source for the Pa-O community. Other papers are PNO Journal from Pa-O National Organization Party, Yoma’s Voice from Shan State Army (SSA), and Kambawza Times from the Office of the Chief of military Security Affairs (MSA).

About the case: On 30 July 2015, Vice Chairman of PNO Khun Thaung Tin sued the papers for defamation under article 500 of the penal code on the paper’s article titled “Did our grandpa know about this?”. The article included a statement sealed with PNO logo and its activity (related to alleged extortion of money from the locals). The statement demanded each household to pay 1,000 Kyats (~US$ 1) or good grade of “green tea-leaf” to support ethnic Pa-O leader Aung Kham Hti’s 79th birthday and a religious ceremony. The article was published on 3 May 2015.

*Interviewed on 8 November 2016.