June 06, 2012 00:00
By Tulsathit Taptim
The streets of Yangon can probably be summed up in two words: "Anything goes".
Or maybe “Everything mixes” is another way to describe it. The relatively rich walk with the obviously poor. Trishaws, once a dominant city symbol, try to hold their ground against an ever-increasing number of automobiles, old and new. Roadside stalls refuse to be humbled by big hotels. Jeans have made a timid but noticeable inroad and co-exist peacefully with sarongs.
Political changes are responsible for much of the disorder. A young man who was practically my guide during my four-day stay said he couldn’t recall a time when Yangon traffic was this bad. We mostly talked trivia like football and nightlife, and kept politics out of it, which was an easy thing to do, because the presence of troops was next to zero.
“You will feel the vibrations of the city’s potential,” a Nation Multimedia Group executive who had been to the former capital of Myanmar three weeks before me said. Four days was too short a time to confirm that, especially for someone who was visiting Yangon for the first time. One potential I managed to see, though, has to do with the first “real” generation of Myanmar journalists in a few decades.
“We don’t have mentors,” said a man who had started off in IT at a publishing company and is now having to virtually double as chief of a news unit. “Journalism in Myanmar has lost a few generations.” He was not overstating the case. At Eleven Media, a major publishing company, for example, every senior newsroom position up to news editor is filled by people under 30, with the exception of one, who is 31.
“In most other countries, these people would be just interns,” said a representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who was assessing the media situation in Myanmar for possible assistance. In their own country, these young journalists struggle to learn by themselves, against a backdrop of harsh state control. When I taught some of them the “telephone call” trick of writing the first news paragraph – “If you have 20 seconds to tell your mother what happened, what you tell her is your first paragraph” – they were so grateful it made me feel embarrassed.
In fact, the lead paragraph is the easy part. What they should, or can, write about remains a murky issue, pending the government’s next moves concerning media restrictions. Myanmar’s young reporters know that writing what the government wants them to is not journalism, but the opposite of that can result in raw threats, serious legal action or persecution.
It’s “anything goes” on the streets, but not yet in Myanmar’s newspapers. The challenge for journalists is also becoming more complicated as the country slowly opens up. Fighting against dictatorship is at least straightforward, as you know exactly who you are up against. In Myanmar, corruption has many faces and is not fading as things loosen up. In fact, there are legitimate concerns that rampant graft will soon present itself as the country’s biggest problem.
Corruption now comes to journalists with a smile and its hair combed. Nepotism has become so commonplace it doesn’t seem so wrong, and nobody can tell if re-emerging “freedom” will help expose it or disguise it. The good news is that the new generation of journalists in Myanmar seem to be getting to know their responsibilities, and many veterans who have been living outside the country will be returning to give them help.
In many ways, Myanmar’s changing political situation is like the streets of Yangon. A lot of things co-exist without clear boundaries. Good signs are competing with bad ones. That opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi virtually represented her country at an international forum in Bangkok would have been unthinkable last year, but the state media made her visit look like it never happened. Reporters not working for the government also wondered how far they could go in covering her historic trip.
You can easily feel that the trishaws’ days are numbered. Sarongs may hold sway for some years yet, but the poor-man’s roadside stalls could soon be edged out of key streets. Pubs and late-opening restaurants are sprouting up. (Even one of the world’s most ruthless dictatorships is helpless against K-pop penetration.) Young people are enjoying nightlife, and, thanks to the country’s still-slow IT progress, they are doing it with heads looking up. One great thing about Myanmar, a foreigner commented, is that people don’t walk like “cellular zombies” as in other countries.
Most people say more big changes are in store, and they will come fast. Even Suu Kyi has urged caution, calling on those who matter to think of the people first. She certainly knows that democracy means a free-for-all, which is not necessarily good. What happened over the past three decades has become a way of life, and greater freedom will come at a certain price.
Myanmar is rolling into new territory, and is hoping its wheels hold. For years under dictatorship, nothing moved. When all of a sudden anything goes, the people will face a challenge far more complicated than fighting or trying to live with the men in khaki uniforms.