MALAYSIA is not known for having a free press, even though its constitution guarantees its citizens “the right to freedom of speech and expression”. In the 2009 press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, Malaysia ranked 131 out of 173 countries, bested even by the likes of Cambodia (although among ASEAN member states, it managed to grab the middling fifth slot).
Malaysia has draconian laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Official Secrets Act, and the Sedition Act, along with a slew of criminal defamation laws – all of which are used by authorities to keep the tongues and pens of citizens and visitors alike in check. Yet in 2007, a group of Burmese migrants dared to put up a monthly publication they called Lann Thit (The New Way), although they could not register it as required by law. The staff members lacked legal status themselves, after all, which is not exactly uncommon for Burmese migrants in this country.
Lann Thit has been operating on the run since, but the Burmese-language journal has become an underground hit especially in Kuala Lumpur, serving as a vital information source for Burmese migrants, whose number has grown by leaps and bounds in Malaysia in the last seven years. But many of the more recent arrivals are apparently more vulnerable to exploitation compared to earlier migrants. Observes Daw Kyi May Su, who has been working in this country for some 20 years now: “Two decades ago, only a few educated and urban Burmese came to Malaysia for work. Now the number of Burmese migrants has increased tremendously, but the Burmese in Malaysia today are mostly rural people who lack the skills needed to survive in a foreign land.”
Unfortunately, they have been unable to rely on one another, with wariness about other people in general and fear of authorities in particular helping to keep each a good distance away from the other.
Lann Thit thus aims not only to keep Burmese migrants here informed of their rights, but also to serve as a means of drawing them together. These twin missions make its editorial board determined to keep the publication going despite the odds against it. In the following interview, Lann Thit’s chief editor traces this feisty journal’s beginnings and shares where he thinks it will be headed.
Yours is known as the first ever Burmese social and economic news journal published in Malaysia. How did you get the idea to nurture this teamwork that is Lann Thit?
I entered Malaysia through the Thai border without any travel documents in 1993. I was arrested at the border and was detained for three months at a centre. When I was released, I went to Malaysia’s countryside and worked in rubber and oil-palm plantations and factories. Then when I came to know more about the local context, I moved to KL and searched for a new job in restaurants. In 16 years, I have lost count of the Burmese I met who were enduring severe exploitation. Some even lost their lives while others met accidents that damaged them body and soul. Many could not stop working here because they had left families (in Burma) in intense poverty, and who were now reliant on their income. To help these victims of exploitation…my friends and I took the initiative to establish faith-based welfare organisations in several areas where there were many Burmese. During the early days, we didn’t even think of specific names for these groups and just called them all ‘thar yay, n ar yay (social partnership)’. But when the migrants began to increase rapidly in number, these social groups began to have difficulties dealing with many kinds of problems. I thought that information-sharing would be crucial in helping migrants tackle their problems by themselves. A media platform was needed for Burmese migrants and Lann Thit was created to play the role of watchdog.
How big is the journal’s circulation? What are the challenges for a new publication to be sustainable?
The circulation at the moment is around 4,500. To get Lann Thit started, I sold my restaurant Shwe Myint Mo and my car. By then I had a few friends who were really enthusiastic to work in a media project. They were workers themselves, but they loved reading and writing. In Burma, they were well-read people and they had reached up to university level in their schooling. These were the people I gathered together to participate in Lann Thit.
We began by getting training from the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Malaysia. Seven people, including myself, were trained in basic journalism. That was 2006.
What money I had had started dissipating even during the preparation stages so I could not pay my colleagues regular salaries. We were all just working on a voluntary basis. I was single and I had no family back home who was dependent on me, but half of our team – although they wanted to help develop a publication – were worried about their families (in Burma). So they left. By the time we started our journal, there were only four of us left.
How much is the price per copy in the market?
The distribution price for retail shops at present is 2.5 ringgit, and these shops charge buyers from 2.8 ringgit to three ringgit. I had some big problems in the beginning. (Many) of my friends had shops and they would import news journals from Burma and sell these. But they did not want to sell mine. Their concern was that their business would be put at risk if my journal highlighted the political movements of the exiled Burmese community and discussed the views of the opposition. Even though we are all now outside of Burma, we remain fearful of the Burmese government because we still have business and social ties with people in Burma. My shop-owner friends rejected my offer to have the journal in their stores, telling me bluntly, “______, you are my friend. But we are afraid our lives would be destroyed if your publication goes against official views. So we do not dare sell your journal.”
Does it mean they consider you and your journal part of the opposition movement? You have now been publishing for more than two years. How did you manage to overcome this difficulty?
To be honest, I am interested in politics. There is nothing wrong with being involved in politics. Here, every day, as I watch, our own people are struggling and taking risks. Sometimes huge risks. I’ve experienced myself how in the workplace, Burmese migrants are not the only ones being subjected to physical and verbal abuse; even our national flag and our identity have been insulted by non-Burmese. We have had to embrace bitterness here. And what drives us to come here? What pushes us to come? This happens because of the bad government we have in our homeland. So I am committed to be involved in the political movement. And I do not ban my team members from taking part in demonstrations here against the Burmese military junta. For the sake of the journal’s sustainability, though, I had to promise distributors that I would not put any harmful and sensitive opposition “voices” in it. (But) the opposition groups do not understand my stance and criticise me. For me, I want to give priority to disseminating information that is useful for migrant workers here. These days, businessfolk trust me and they have no problems carrying my journal in their shops.
I heard that some of the Burmese political asylum seekers put up publications that had very limited runs just to establish credentials for their activism. Some readers say these people used their publications to gain asylum and resettle in a third country with support from the UN refugee agency. How about you? If people say you are making this effort to resettle in a third country, how would you respond?
I might move to another place where I can maximise the efficiency of my media and to the benefit of my readers. But the whole team has a very clear vision that we would continue to work as journalists. We decided not to go to a third country as refugees and asylum seekers. I have plans to go back to Burma when the conditions become favourable. I am waiting here to go home. But I want to go back only on the day when I no longer need to compromise my morality to run a business. On that day, I want to build a media (outfit). We (all) aim to go back to Burma, so we need to be careful when we take part in political movements here. Mostly we try to keep ourselves on low profile. That’s why I never accept interviews that would be conducted by some Burmese media in exile that are being watched by the government. Popularity is not necessary at this time, and I don’t want to have unnecessary worries. This is one of the reasons why I never seek financial assistance from any political or social organisation. To be clear, I want to be independent.
So you are worried about your future security. Let’s go back to the present time. How do you manage to be safe here as a media group without legal status?
The Malaysian government is not very different from the Burmese regime in terms of punishing people it does not like. What I want to focus on is the sustainability of my journal. It is like my child and I have to protect it. So I make some security arrangements. I have so many printing houses during an entire year. I have many friends in the printing business. But I never stick to only one even though it is convenient for me. Staying in one place for the long-term can be harmful not only to me, but also to my Malaysian friends. Similarly, each step in the production process is being done in different places.
How do you maintain your staff? Do you pay them regularly?
In the beginning, I couldn’t. We tried to work on a voluntary basis. Now everyone gets paid so long as we have advertisements. But income from the journal is not enough to pay the staff and contributors so I have to work on another business. It was very difficult to get advertising during the early months of publication. Like the shop owners, they were wary of what the journal would contain. Now they welcome our journal. It has been a very positive change, indeed.
How many staff members do you have?
Seven permanent ones and almost 20 contributors. I have contributors in every province of Malaysia.
What are the future plans of Lann Thit?
I am afraid that someone in Burma will use the same name, ‘Lann Thit’, for their media business, because I plan to return there one day and I also dream of having a radio station. Our website was constructed recently and now we have gone online.
How would you define success for your media group?
Apart from the increase in circulation, our readers – especially the Burmese workers – are now relying more and more on the information we provide. They write their opinions in their letters to the editorial board and support us with the information available to them. For example, just last week, a case of murder was reported by a group of Shan-Chinese migrants. A girl wearing a white shirt had been found dead at Serabang beach. She had no visible injuries. Her death was reported on the front page of a Chinese-language newspaper on 2 May. The newspaper provided the address of a local police station for those searching for the dead girl. A friend of the girl, who turned out to be Shan-Chinese, stumbled upon the news since she can read Chinese. But the friend and the rest of those who knew the girl did not know what to do next, and they contacted us to help them find out more about what happened and work with the police. According to them, the girl had gone missing on the morning of 30 April. Some evidence showed that she was preparing to go to work earlier than usual and her mobile was left in the room she left with other girlfriends. According to her friend, she had an appointment with her (work) agent that morning. In this kind of case, our role goes beyond media work and we deal with the police and even help with funeral arrangements. We came to know that we had become an important medium through which readers could communicate with other readers. – Nwet Khay Khine