‘Now they are speaking up’

23 February 2015
‘Now they are speaking up’
Nan Pa Gay. Photo: Portia Larlee

Nan Paw Gay did not become a migrant worker out of necessity. She chose to work as a nursery school teacher and then as a live-in cleaner in Bangkok after graduating from Mawlamyine University in 1995 because she wanted to understand the experience of millions of Myanmar people who went abroad to seek a livelihood. She was a journalist then, without realising.
“I wanted to understand their feelings and what they face with their employers,” said Nan Paw Gay, the editor-in-chief of Karen News, a monthly journal registered in Myanmar in 2013 that she founded in 2011 as an English online news service. We sat on the floor of her flat down a quiet side street in Mae Sot in a compound inhabited exclusively by Karen migrants. The Karen News office is next door.
Nan Paw Gay returned from Bangkok to her hometown, the Kayin State capital, Hpa-an, when her father became ill and after he died in 1999 she moved to Yangon.
The next year, Nan Paw Gay travelled to the Thai-Myanmar border, not for protection like the thousands of refugees before her who were escaping conflict, but in search of further education about the experience of being a migrant. And a Karen.
Armed with basic typing, office and finance skills, Nan Paw Gay landed a job in 2000 with the Karen Information Centre, a news agency. Even with sporadic journalism training, Nan Paw Gay said it took her more than two years to write a “good, professional” story. It is her dedication – not only to the job, but to the Karen community – that has kept her on the border for more than 15 years.
“I grew up in Burma [Myanmar], so I didn’t know what was happening at the border, I didn’t know what happened in the camps,” she said. “I had a very different experience because I didn’t grow up in the camps.”
Similar to her foray into working abroad, Nan Paw Gay learned about the experience of refugees by working for the Karen Women’s Organisation for about eight years, on top of her work at the Karen Information Centre. A fluent Pwo Karen speaker, she learned Sgaw Karen through many camp visits.
In 2008 all of her colleagues at the centre had resettled in third countries, leaving only Nan Paw Gay to continue the work of the news agency.
“Only I was left, but that was their choice. I felt that because I was the only one left here I would try to do the best I could. I recruited some young people from the camps,” she said. “But I was worried, I thought ‘how can I make this organisation sustainable?’”
Unfortunately, many of the young people Nan Paw Gay trained have left for new lives abroad. She believes the wave of resettlement may be tapering off and has confidence in a surge of young people from “inside” Kayin State who are committed to working for the Karen organisation – and don’t have the option
to resettle.
Karen News employs fifteen staff and, since registering in Myanmar as a monthly news journal in 2013, has offices in Mae Sot and Hpa-an.
The journal is laid out in Mae Sot but printed in Yangon because of a lack of printing presses in Kayin or Mon states. About 3,500 copies of the journal, published in Myanmar and Sgaw Karen, are distributed in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Taninthayri and Bago regions and Kayin State.
Asked about the low number of copies in relation to the large Karen population in Myanmar, Nan Paw Gay said, “Not everyone can read.” To reach more Karen communities, the journal will also be published in Pwo Karen every three months.
In common with other community media outlets in other ethnic minority areas, Karen News often accompanies non-government groups on missions to remote areas in Kayin State.
But the small outlet regularly finds itself in a bind reporting on powerful armed groups, including the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Karen National Union. Since the armed group agreed to a ceasefire with the Myanmar government in 2012, development has bloomed in the southeastern state, resulting in widespread land-grabbing, said Nan Paw Gay. “Some of the ceasefire groups were not happy with our reporting.”
After reporting on the building of cement factories near the Thanlwin (Salween) River in Hpa-an Township and the confiscation of villager’s land by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited – one of two conglomerates owned by the Tatmadaw – a Karen News reporter on a motorcycle was chased by two SUvs until he swerved onto a side street.
Tatmadaw officers allegedly demanded that villagers displaced by the cement factories end contact with media, said Nan Paw Gay.
“The villagers promised because at first they were afraid and worried. But now they are speaking up a little bit,” she said.
The Karen Information Centre, founded by Padoh Saw David Tharckabaw, a KNU alliance officer, was undeniably affiliated with the political group, until it became independent in 2003. Nan Paw Gay founded the Karen News as an English-language service in 2011 because she wanted to reach an international audience.
Despite its history, Nan Paw Gay maintains Karen News is critical of the KNU and its armed wing.
“Some KNU leaders are working with the cronies, for development projects such as mines and dams,” she said, referring to reporting on a gold mining project in an area known as Brigade 1. “We wrote a story and they [KNU] were not happy. But the local people suffered.”
Despite past ties with the KNU, Nan Paw Gay said some officials refused to speak with Karen News reporters. “Sometimes they ignore us. But when mainstream media and big media agencies approach, they cannot refuse it.”
Nan Paw Gay and her team press on and meet, virtually – from Mae Sot, Hpa-an and Yangon – each morning for an editorial meeting. “Some of us talk on the phone and others are on Facebook. And even if the weather is bad and a line is cut off somewhere, or we cannot access internet, or a reporter doesn’t have electricity, we find a way to communicate.”
(This is the second article in a three-part series on Myanmar community media on the Thai-Myanmar border and the unsung heroes working to empower migrants through information)

This Article first appeared in the February 12, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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