Yangon Diaries III – The Post-Dictatorship Newsroom

September 24, 2013

Betel nut women

LOCAL ECONOMY–Women sift through betel nuts on a busy Yangon street. Myanmar’s post-dictatorship recovery has yet to trickle down to its largest city’s residents–forty per cent of whom live in poverty or extreme poverty.

YANGON—The independent newspaper I’m working for is located in a six-storey low-rise just two blocks from our apartment. The English edition is on the fifth floor, where foreign staffers enjoy an air-conditioned room while local reporters and translators share a long, two-sided bank of open cubicles in the main hallway. The locals use decrepit PCs that seem ready for the dust heap—but at least they have computers. It was only after I got here that I was told editors are not provided with computers. We have to use our own laptops. Locals and foreigners alike, however, share the same frustration over lousy Internet bandwidth. How news actually gets reported in a timely fashion here remains a mystery.

The staffers are mostly just kids; fresh out of university with no knowledge or experience of journalism other than the brief training sessions they received before joining the staff. Although I don’t have exact numbers, a casual survey of the fifth floor suggests that most of my Myanmar colleagues are from the Bamar (Burman) majority. So it is safe to assume that they bring to their jobs their own predominantly Buddhist, cultural majority perspectives—handed down through the generations—on all that is happening in Myanmar. Since it is never a good idea for foreigners to challenge those perspectives too directly or impose our own views, I don’t. I simply take each translator aside to show them what I’ve done to their work, make sure that nothing has been lost in translation, and hope that my rewrite retains the intention—if not the clunky style—of the original.

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Two of the translators I work with are ex-staffers from The New Light of Myanmar, the government’s official mouthpiece. For the uninitiated, New Light once was to Burmese journalism what Pravda was to the Soviet Union: propaganda as Orwellian kitsch. During the bad old days, New Light could be relied upon to ignore everything that was actually happening here and focus instead on high-ranking Tatmadaw officials attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies, diplomatic meetings between SLORC/SPDC generals and the foreign ministers of such enlightened nations as North Korea and Iran, and Op-Eds on how wonderful everything was in Myanmar thanks to the SLORC/SPDC. If it wanted to get nasty, it called Aung San Suu Kyi a stooge of the West or a vulgar sexual slur for having married a Briton. The fact it still exists (albeit with a softer, more respectful tone toward The Lady), and continues to churn out self-serving military photo ops, is a not-so-subtle clue of who’s still in charge here.

That said, the former New Light staffers I work with seem like two of the gentlest men I’ve ever met. Gracious and humble, they are happy to receive feedback from me and the other foreign sub-editor on how to improve their English copy. I figure they must enjoy working for an independent newspaper that covers real news and even gets to criticize the quasi-civilian government of former military prime minister (now president) Thein Sein. I don’t know them well enough yet to presume to ask what it was like to be the paid translators of dictatorship spin-doctors. (“Were you true believers? Did you drink the Kool-Aid?”) But until I do, all that matters is that we learn from each other. They’re already teaching me not to prejudge.

One day, I showed one of them a subtle but significant change I had made to his story—a single-word edit involving sensitive political nuance: I had cut the word “democratic” from his phrase “…when the Thein Sein-led democratic government was elected,” and placed it in a new phrase at the end of the sentence (“…the people of Myanmar were hoping for better lives under a more democratic system…”). Instead of bristling defensively, as I thought he might, he smiled and nodded in agreement, thanking me for the change.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Amalie September 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm

I appreciate the tact and consideration you are showing your colleagues. The injunction “judge not lest ye be judged” seems to often be a hard one to adhere to for Westerners riding into Burma on their high horse. Yes, give the highest admiration for those who sacrificed so much under the military tyranny. On the other hand, there are many very fine people among my friends who were not on the barricades who wanted to have in their lives (a stable family and a livelihood) that we take for granted without a second thought. I look forward to your future postings from here in this incredible nation whose sons and daughters I teach at ISM.

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