YANGON, Myanmar — As twenty young journalists gathered Wednesday for the introductory session of a three-week reporting fellowship based in Yangon, the event’s very existence was something of a marvel.
That’s because freedom of the press is a very recent development in Burma, part of a series of reforms initiated by President Thein Sein during the past two years after decades of Orwellian censorship and violent repression.
“The fact that you all are here, running around with your cameras, that's a big change,” said veteran Associated Press correspondent Aye Aye Win addressing the 20 young fellows gathered for the “Burma Telling Its Own Story” fellowship co-hosted by GlobalPost and Open Hands Initiative. “The fact that you are physically here, that's a big change."
The country's private newspapers may now apply to publish daily and without government oversight, and journalists can access and report on a much broader range of stories. Burmese fellow Ei Ei Toe Lwin, a senior reporter at the Myanmar Times, explained what the country’s reforms have meant for her as a journalist. “Since the censorship ended in August 2012, I get more opportunity to publish and share information with the public more freely and openly," she said.
"The change is obvious," said Burmese journalist Nan Tin Htwe. "My stories were often cut but now they run."
All of the Burmese fellows agreed that their freedoms as journalists have expanded dramatically under the democratically elected military-dominated government, though Tin Aung Kyaw, reporter for the BBC, cautioned that reforms remain at an early stage.
“There are's a lot of things that need to change that can't be done overnight,” he said. “We'll see more changes over the next few years."
VII Photo Agency co-founder Gary Knight, a leader of the fellowship, asked the fellows coming in from outside the country to share what they were seeking in Myanmar.
“I'm here to witness history along side by those most affected by them," said freelancer and fellow Pailin Wedel. “There very few countries left in Asia where this kind of change is still possible. Very people get to see it from the ground and this project allows us to see it from the ground and that's what I'm totally psyched about."
Aye Aye Win walked the fellows, and the editors who will be heading up the fellowship, through her life under the highly repressive government — something the Burmese journalists in the room were already quite familiar with.
“There's a new generation sitting here, they have never experienced what a free press is,” she said. “We feel that we were very much suppressed. There was no freedom. There is now a lot of freedom of expression. now everybody if they're not happy, they can send a letter to the president.”
Aye Aye Win began reporting in the 1980s by following in the footsteps of her journalist father, U Sein Win, who was jailed three times by the military over the course of his venerated career.
A thorn in the side of the junta since becoming one of Burma’s first female journalists, Aye Aye Win said she and her media colleagues were surveilled, harassed, detained and treated as “enemies” of the state.
But now these very same “enemies” and “troublemakers” — Burmese journalists — will be essential to pushing the government toward greater reform and prevent it from repealing reforms now in progress, she said.
"I'm very confident that [government backsliding on current reforms] won't happen, but not because the government is so generous. Because our local journalists are working very hard. It's like the camel story, you put your head in and then your whole body is in. They will never allow the government to…,” she paused. “There is a lot of noise now."