The story behind the story: Jeff Howe on a changing climate for reporting in Burma


Young women dock workers unload firewood from ferries on the Irrawaddy river in Mandalay.


Gary Knight/VII

BOSTON—Empires have practiced the concept of ‘soft power’ since the beginning of history, but how do you see ‘soft power’ as a photographer, and how do you reveal it as a reporter working in the field?

That was the question that drove award-winning photographer Gary Knight and veteran correspondent Jeff Howe as they set out on a journey through the Golden Triangle and onto the Burma Road. Their goal was to take GlobalPost readers into the story of how China exerts ‘soft power’ in a new Myanmar.
In our continuing video series titled “The Story Behind the Story,” GroundTruth interviews Howe about the GlobalPost Special Report, “Burma Road,” and how he and Knight navigated their way this summer over some difficult terrain in pursuit of understanding ‘soft power.’ 

So what is ‘soft power?’ The phrase was coined by Harvard University Professor and retired US Navy Admiral Joseph Nye, and it describes the ability for a nation to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, using force or giving money as a means of persuasion.

China embraces this concept in Myanmar, also known as Burma. As Howe explains in this video, he and Knight traveled the Burma Road, a 700-mile stretch of asphalt that connects China and Myanmar, to better understand a country that is opening up to democracy and writhing with change. Along the way, Knight and Howe visited a new, Chinese-constructed hydroelectric dam and the Sino-Burmese Pipeline. These two massive public works projects embody China’s soft power in a region where it is aggressively extracting vast amounts of natural resources to satiate its voracious, rapidly growing economy.

As Howe explains in this interview, these two projects stand as towering metaphors for China’s exertion of soft power in Myanmar.

More from GlobalPost: Myanmar: A power play on the Irrawaddy River

China building massive energy lifeline through Myanmar