The following is a piece by RJ Vogt excerpted from McSweeney’s Issue 51. In light of the distressing recent arrests of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar, we thought it appropriate to share this piece by RJ, a former journalist at the Myanmar Times who witnessed the newspaper’s deterioration at the hands of censorship.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: On Tuesday, December 12 a journalist named Wa Lone—one of my former Myanmar Times colleagues, now a Reuters reporter—was arrested in the outskirts of Yangon while working on what appears to have been a story about the military. Wa Lone and another journalist named Kyaw Soe Oo have been charged under a colonial-era law carrying a maximum 14-year sentence. He is one of the most talented reporters I’ve met and his arrest is the latest in a long line of attacks on press freedom in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, in the time since this story was submitted to McSweeney’s, the number of Rohingya refugees forced into Bangladesh has reached an estimated 623,000.
Let me start by saying I had no business being there. I mean, of course I was honored to be there, which in this specific instance meant clinging to an iron gate outside of a Mandalay polling booth alongside hundreds of yelling Myanmar men. This narrow ledge was a front-row perch from which one could witness the country sometimes known as Burma—one of the world order’s last holdouts, on the level of Cuba or North Korea—transition to a real, live, messy, dirty democracy. As a journalist for the Myanmar Times, I was downright thrilled to be there.
To be clear: I had few qualifications. Other than a flimsily laminated press credential and my camera, I was just a bespectacled white guy on the sidelines, sweaty and overwhelmed. I spoke little to no Myanmar language, had less than one hundred days’ experience in-country, and could hardly handle the dented Honda motorbike I’d rented—let alone decipher the intricacies of Myanmar’s first national election.
And yet there I was, peering through the bars as an official began counting the votes out loud in the compound courtyard. The crowd cheered every vote for the oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD), softly booing those for the ruling regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—cheers outnumbered boos three to one and grew louder as the count dragged on.
By the time I left the township, it was clear democracy had won the neighborhood. By the time I filed my story later that evening, it was clear democracy had won the entire country.
And by the time I quit the Myanmar Times, fifteen months later, it was clear to me—democracy can be manipulated. You can’t believe everything you read in the news.
What happens when a nation long mired in dictatorship transitions to a democracy? What’s it like to witness a country blossom, from closed off to opened up? These were not questions I was pondering when I took the job at the Myanmar Times. Myanmar was low on my list of prospective countries to work in—to be honest, I couldn’t have placed it on a map—but I was twenty-two years old and eager for any gig that didn’t include “social media coordinator” in its job description.
When I accepted the offer, Myanmar was set to hold its first-ever national elections in six months. I’d be there to help cover them, working for an organization billed as “the country’s oldest independent English-language daily” newspaper. Current and former employees gushed about their experience working there, and Southeast Asian news junkies considered it one of the best rags in the region. For a kid from Suburbia, Tennessee, with a degree in literary journalism, the appeal of working alongside seasoned foreign correspondents and some of Myanmar’s top journalists outweighed the concerns of moving to one of the least developed countries in the world. In retrospect, the fact that the publication had endured years of military censorship and was currently owned by a military-friendly businessman should have alarmed me; in reality, it only made the offer that much more exciting.
I arrived in Yangon during monsoon season, dazzled by streets teeming with rickshaws and off-brand Japanese cars and fried-cricket vendors, everyone ever-dripping from afternoon rain. The city overwhelmed me: rats skittered between grandmothers with machetes who squatted, flat-footed, over slabs of chicken; street dogs prowled through trash, pausing only for fighting or fucking; everywhere, monks padded quietly by with their alms bowls, accepting donations with bowed heads. Pablo Neruda, who worked in Yangon (then called Rangoon) at the Chilean consulate in 1927, wrote that its streets “engrossed me and drew me gradually under the spell of real life.” Nearly a century later, it seemed little had changed.
Then again, everything was changing. The price of a single SIM card had come crashing down, from $1,500 under the military junta in the mid-2000s to $1.50 by the time I got there, in 2015. Cheap Chinese smartphones had erupted into ubiquity, tucked into the checkered longyis wrapped tight around the waist of every man, woman, and child. With internet access came Facebook accounts, and suddenly the citizens of one of the most isolated countries on the planet were sharing selfies and memes of funny-looking farm animals. It wasn’t just technology—the Western world was entering in other ways, too: a flood of Kentucky Fried Chicken and German tour groups and, once, a Jason Mraz concert.
The staff of the Myanmar Times captured these changes in print from a proud old office on one of downtown Yangon’s most prominent street corners. The paper’s name is boldly printed in four-foot-high black letters, stark against the white paint flecking off the walls. A portico out front bears the slogan “Heartbeat of the Nation.”
During my early days at the paper, it really did feel like the heartbeat of the nation. Each morning I stepped over the office’s snoozing street dogs and climbed a grand wooden staircase to reach the newsroom, an entire floor of renovated urban decay dedicated to editorial. My co-workers included award-winning editors and some of the best local reporters in the country, most of them spending breaks blowing cigarette smoke out the window of the drafty third-floor lounge. Stub the butts and back to our desks—sure, there was fluff in the twenty-four-page tabloid the team pumped out each night, but it ran alongside some of the most trustworthy political and national news in the country.
The tail end of a Bay of Bengal cyclone had flooded much of the country the week I arrived, and just a few days later I was sent to cover the relief effort, bouncing wildly through the Ayeyarwady River delta on a jerry-rigged bus of volunteers. The country of 54 million people is largely agrarian, and once we left the Yangon metropolis we entered a verdant world of rice paddies and bamboo houses. After sixteen hours we reached our destination, a flood-ravaged village desperate for food and fresh water. In between interviews with community leaders and local residents, I remember looking around and realizing, Wow, there are no other Western reporters working on this story.
That trip led to a front-page story on how Aung San Suu Kyi, the beloved human rights icon and NLD leader, was illegally campaigning before the election season had kicked off under the auspices of donating rice to flood victims. Our translation team translated the English version for the weekly Myanmar-language edition, ensuring more people would read the story: the Myanmar Times was covering real news, publishing truths that nobody else would.
Monsoon season petered out and campaigning officially started. Mango stands turned into avocado stands; the news cycle grew hectic. I was dispatched to cover the election from Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city. When Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won by a landslide, my coworkers and I interviewed revelers dancing in the street.
Back in Yangon, the staff swapped stories of watching old women weep outside voting booths after casting the first vote of their lives. The Myanmar language does not have a word for “democracy,” so its people have simply co-opted the word: suddenly I began to hear it dripping from everyone’s mouth.
In hindsight it’s hard to believe how quickly the newspaper’s optimism unraveled: within a few weeks of Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarkable electoral victory, the Myanmar Times had begun to lose its grip on independence.
We weren’t always so independent, I learned from the senior staff. They told me how the paper was founded by an Australian media magnate named Ross Dunkley in 2000, in partnership with Sonny Swe, the son of a general in the military intelligence unit. Some critics accused the Aussie of getting in bed with the junta to make a buck, but he told one film crew, “I’m not in bed with anyone. Not even my wife.”
Despite its early reputation for toeing the military line, the Myanmar Times turned a corner in 2012, when the reformed military government lifted prepublication censorship laws. By then the Aussie and the general’s son had suffered arrests, imprisonment, and targeted media attacks—partly due to military purges, partly due to Dunkley’s penchant for mischief—and within two years, majority ownership had fallen into the hands of U Thein Tun, a prominent beverage magnate.
Around the office, U Thein Tun was called “The Chairman.” All I knew about him was that he had brought Pepsi into the country during the early 1990s and maintained connections to every beer produced in-country. My colleagues said he owned the newspaper just so he could say he owned the newspaper.
The Chairman kept such a distance from its day-to-day operations that I did not experience his influence over the staff until a month after the election. We had published a story about twelve men convicted of training with the “Myanmar Muslim Army” (a dubious, unheard-of threat) and our coverage ran on the front page, above the fold.
[A too-brief Myanmar political history: Buddhists and Muslims don’t always get along, especially when it comes to the Rohingya. A Muslim ethnic group from the far west of Myanmar, near the border with Bangladesh, the Rohingya make up roughly 2 percent of Myanmar’s total population. Records from the eighth century attest to their presence in the Arakan kingdom nearly a thousand years before the Burmese kings conquered the region (now called Rakhine State), but the Myanmar military government has long denied them citizenship and claims they are Bengali immigrants. (Bangladesh, with its own substantial crowds of impoverished people, wants nothing to do with them.)
Over the past year and a half, the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies have accused Myanmar’s military of the mass systemic rape, pillaging, torching, and murder of the Rohingya based on interviews with refugees and satellite footage of razed villages. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled on boats operated by human traffickers, risking slavery rather than death at the hands of soldiers. Many others, mostly children, have drowned in river crossings at the border.
Despite its ranking as “the world’s most charitable country,” Myanmar, with its 90 percent Buddhist majority, harbors no pity for the Rohingya, with military officials claiming that “the Bengalis” (the government refuses to use the word Rohingya) set fire to their own villages to earn undue media sympathy. In fiery sermons, nationalist monks stoke fears of an Islamic terror attack, injecting even more hatred and vitriol into the narrative. Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, even non-Rohingya Muslims, were a consistent part of our coverage in the months leading up to the election, even before the “Muslim Army” story broke.]
Considering the circumstances, the “Muslim Army” allegations were big news—if true, they proved that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, had evidence of an imminent insurgency. If they were false, as was more likely the case, the news showed the former junta leaders rounding up innocent Muslim men on trumped-up charges. It was obvious front-page content.
A few days after the coverage ran, the Chairman told us not to use the word Muslim on the front page ever again. He extended that decree to anything “religious,” apparently incensed to discover that our paper was considered “pro-Muslim” in some circles. The demands came in a list, bullet-pointed and signed by our British CEO, an affable old businessman with an eye toward retirement.
The editorial staff was stunned. Just as a nationwide democratic transfer of power had finally taken hold, our owner wanted to regress and censor a major news story? A few of our veteran leaders—including some who’d endured years of government censorship during the previous regime—fired off a response. My favorite excerpt comes from an early draft:
We were informed at our meeting with the CEO and COO that the Myanmar Times was a “pro-Muslim” newspaper. This allegation is false. Neither official could, when repeatedly asked, provide the slightest evidence to support it. The fact is that much—but by no means all—mainstream Bamar/Buddhist opinion is anti-Muslim, a sentiment not shared by the editorial staff of our newspaper, nor, we believe, the huge majority of its readers. We believe the self-contradictory, inept and unrealistic instructions contained in the December 14 Notice would, if widely known, lead to a significant drop in the number of readers who now trust our newspaper to provide them with impartial, factual, balanced and well-researched information about what is going on in this country.
The showdown felt like a big deal to me, the newest member on staff, but then the office closed for a week between Christmas and New Year’s. In absentia, tensions diffused. No newspapers were printed; no rules were followed or not followed. When everyone returned to work in January, we tentatively eased back into the way things used to be.
One strange thing about the Myanmar Times: the paper didn’t have a true editor in chief. A beloved managing editor with a calm demeanor tended to make final calls, but each beat editor worked with their staff to oversee their individual section. It was organic and ad hoc.
In the heart of the dry season, the Chairman ended that tradition and brought in a Malaysian man named Bill Tegjeu to serve as our new editor in chief. The incoming supervisor’s CV revealed that he’d worked at a Malaysian newspaper in the early 1990s before leaving for a stint in advertising. There was a restaurant/pub/beach resort he ran for four years. That flamed out, apparently, leading to a few years of freelancing before the most alarming résumé entry: helping an online news site hire “an entirely new back-end operations team, including the subs desk.”
The expat editorial staff swapped conspiracy theories over milk tea at the sidewalk tea shop. Some of us were convinced he’d been hired to fire us all, but the most logical conclusion was that the Chairman had hired Tegjeu to gain a tighter grip on editorial control in response to the Muslims-on-the-front-page ordeal. I wondered how the local reporters would feel about the new supervisor.
He arrived in February, a scowling man of few words who spared little time to communicate with us. Nobody knew how he was supposed to fit into our editing workflow, and uncertainty blossomed into scarcely concealed frustration. One of our most experienced editors kicked a desk after Tegjeu pushed to keep a religion story off the front page—in the end, the story was buried and our editor limped off a broken toe.
Meanwhile, the world outside the newsroom looked sunnily upon Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition. Aung San Suu Kyi, imprisoned for fifteen years over a twenty-one-year period due to her role in the democratic uprising of 1988, was technically barred from assuming the presidency due to a clause in the military-designed constitution; in a clever twist of semantics she simply declared herself “state counselor” instead and appointed a puppet president in her shadow.
Though it retained an effective veto in Parliament, the military peacefully handed over power and accepted its electoral defeat, giving the woman they’d once confined to house arrest the reins to run the country. Myanmar-language newspapers on every street corner trumpeted the positive changes to come, with photos of the national heroine on every front page.
The changes inside the newsroom continued to dismay us. By April, our managing editor had resigned to work at a new rival publication. Tegjeu hired a friend from Malaysia to replace him—a man with no Myanmar experience and uncertain editing skills. Then the editor who’d kicked the desk quit, fed up with our ebbing independence after Tegjeu forced us to print an unmerited apology to one of our owner’s friends. His position went unfilled. When our CEO finally retired, exhausted by all the personnel decisions, the Chairman named Tegjeu the CEO, awarding him financial control to go along with his grip on editorial content. The new CEO/editor in chief immediately promoted our chief Myanmar political reporter to chief of staff, effectively pushing one of the country’s most well-connected reporters out of the game.
The skeletal remaining staff was shocked, but we kept reporting as best we could. A watershed moment came in October, when a major Rohingya story broke: military sources were reporting that a band of Muslim insurgents had killed nine border guards in northern Rakhine State. In response, the Tatmadaw kicked off a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign in the area where most of the nation’s Rohingya live. As the military carried out its hunt for terrorists, our special-investigations editor wrote about dozens of rape allegations leveled at the soldiers by Rohingya women.
It was an explosive piece. Over the weekend, the spokesperson for the puppet president weighed in on the story via Facebook, viciously attacking the author’s reporting and ethics. Soon, Myanmar’s equivalent of the far right was calling the Myanmar Times “fake news” on Facebook. The presidential spokesperson even posted a photo of the article, circling the author’s name and photo in red. We were horrified: a representative of Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration had targeted one of our own.
Tegjeu and a newly hired COO—a former spook in the ministry of information—met the editor at a downtown bar four days after the story ran. They fired her on the spot, citing a clause in our contracts that prohibited “behavior that brings ill repute to the brand.” The entire staff was also reprimanded, and instructed not to report on the ongoing security operations, Muslims, or the military.
We all wanted to, but only the business editor rage-quit in response. The rest of us struggled with what to do. On one hand, none of us wanted to be complicit in the cover-up of outrageous human rights abuses. But on the other, nobody wanted to abandon our paper, or our local coworkers, to this new standard. We’d entered the realm of full-on, government-driven muzzling of independent press—a relapse into the years of military dictatorship. Fight-or-flight instincts kicked in.
By the end of 2016, more than a year had passed since the landmark election, and the NLD was slowly establishing control in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent activism against the military regime, had tried to plough ahead on a peace process to end the country’s decades-long civil war. The United States had lifted the last of its sanctions on certain members of the elite “crony” class, many of whom had been blacklisted due to connections with the former military regime. Tourism companies routinely listed Myanmar as one of the hottest destinations for the intrepid wanderluster.
And yet the country’s new leader remained largely silent on the Rohingya issue, refusing to grant journalists access to the region, denying reports of abuse, and defending military protocol. The Myanmar Times remained mute, too. I participated as needed, filling the sports pages with updates on the national team’s soccer matches.
One former editor would later point out the irony of watching a newspaper that had endured so much hardship under military rule being reduced to rubbish at such a promising time. The Myanmar Times had survived an official censorship program (complete with redlining government officials and last-minute front-page redesigns), a major cyclone, two different military leaders, and a monk-led revolution—censored or uncensored, it had always maintained a singular and independent mission, bent on covering the news it could. But just as freedom of the press seemed more assured than ever, we lost all semblance of editorial independence.
I realized then that truth doesn’t depend on who runs a country; it depends on who runs a country’s newspaper.
Morale dried up as more staff left. The newsroom, once electric with the hum of gathering news, lost its buzz. The pages grew thinner on local content and heavier on wire-service material that we simply copied-and-pasted into print. Subscribers began to pull out.
I stayed on longer than I should have. I needed the money and the job was easy. The paper was no longer “the heartbeat of the nation”— or maybe it was, and the nation just didn’t have much heart for news about the Rohingya. Regardless, I’d long since abandoned my wide-eyed idealism. Facebook was right: we were fake news, the dregs of what’s left when you omit the real story.
In January 2017, a reporter turned in a carefully researched two-thousand-word feature story on military land-grabbing near the Thai border. By then, so many editors had left that I—with less than a year and a half of experience—was running the weekend features section. Knowing Tegjeu would want to see it, I ran the piece by him. He barely skimmed the text and handed it back with a shake of his head: “Nothing negative about the military.”
That was the breaking point for me, and I turned in my notice. There was only a handful of native English speakers left at that point, holding up various pillars of the old news beats, but we dropped off one by one. Our best Myanmar-language reporters left as well, some to better journalism opportunities at wire services and others to less-scandalous careers: the reporter who once covered rebel armies now runs a small convenience store on the outskirts of Yangon.
A few replacement native-English-speaking editors have finally been hired, and the paper continues to come out daily. Tegjeu quit not long after I did, citing family reasons. If he’d been hired to clean house, it seemed he did his job well: only two of the original fourteen foreigners who’d worked at the paper when I arrived remained after I left, and both jumped ship not long after.
The Chairman has hired a new editor-in-chief from Thailand, one with a surprisingly good reputation in the industry. Respect for him is falling fast, however, as he recently seemed to equivocate newspapers with propaganda. “The government wants to construct the Myanmar narrative, which is still absent,” he said in an August 2017 panel discussion. “You need a massive [number of] people to believe the same thing.”
The print edition still appears on newsstands, with misspelled headlines and stories about generals donating huge sums to monasteries. On some days it rivals the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar for its willingness to ignore any stories that reflect poorly on the Tatmadaw. Nobody I know takes the Myanmar Times seriously anymore.
And the Rohingya crisis the newspaper refused to report on has only grown more dire. In August 2017 an armed group claiming to be Rohingya attacked Myanmar border patrol agents in a strike reminiscent of the October 2016 attack. Twelve soldiers died, and, once again, the Tatmadaw responded with a scorched-earth campaign that has left multiple villages in flames despite the season’s heavy monsoon rains. More than sixty thousand people fled in the first week after the attacks, and scores turned up dead, many drowned, in the exodus. At the time of this writing, the UN estimates that the refugee population in Bangladesh could exceed three hundred thousand in a matter of days.
Once again, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to let international media into the area where the Rohingya live or even attempt to rein in the Tatmadaw. Days before the attack, her office released a statement accusing international aid groups—including the UN—of aiding and abetting “terrorists” inside the country. More and more of my Myanmar friends have begun sharing articles and status updates that warn about Western media “propaganda” and label any accusations of Rohingya mistreatment “fake news.” These days, the Myanmar Times doesn’t get the criticism it used to.
I ended up sticking around Yangon for a few months after I quit the paper. Hustling for airline magazines and the occasional online story, I attempted a career as a freelancer—but without a firm grasp on the language, I began to wonder if maybe these weren’t my stories to tell. This country needs trained Myanmar journalists, I thought. Not another foreigner trying to make a name for himself.
It wasn’t long before I purchased a one-way ticket home. My days became a blur of goodbye dinners and packing boxes; I found myself dreading my departure as much as I looked forward to it. The truth is, for all of Myanmar’s rough edges, it remains an exceedingly hard place to leave behind.
I flew out of Yangon on a typically rainy July afternoon one hundred weeks after I’d first arrived, landing in Nashville two days and nine thousand miles later. The reverse culture shock rattled me at first: all the country music, and American excess, and central air-conditioning.
But for the most part, it’s been pretty easy to assimilate. There’s plenty of fake news ’round these parts—and at least I have experience.
Mandalay, November 8 2015: A voting official displays a vote for the National League for Democracy to the crowd.
Mandalay, November 8 2015: Young voters sit on the courtyard walls of a polling station to listen to officials announce the election count live over a megaphone.
Yangon, November 5, 2016: A trishaw driver takes a midday break to read the day’s news in one of the Myanmar Times’ rival Myanmar-language publications.
Sidoktaya village, August 9, 2015: Aung San Suu Kyi delivers aid to flood victims in the Bamar heartland—and also campaigns for the upcoming national election.
Mandalay, October 8, 2016: The south wall of Mandalay’s Royal Palace still sports a billboard from the old military regime.
Sidoktaya village, August 9, 2015: Crowds of supporters crush forward to get a glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Photos by RJ Vogt