Shan Herald Agency for News is under pressure of having to develop strategy maintaining its role for the future
The growing excitement is obvious in the small room filled with computers, book shelves and a white board. About 10 people are sitting around, except one person is walking back and forth, listening to others attentively and sometimes writing on the board. All of them are anxious to share the breaking news that more than 600 prisoners were granted amnesty by the government of Burma today. Among them are 1988 generation students’ leaders and Shan prominent leaders who have been jailed for long prison terms. This has been dominated their conversations since they started the news room meeting at 9 a.m.
It's the morning on the 13th of January, 2012 and editors and reporters are pitching their story ideas for today news in the office of Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N), an ethnic Shan news organization based in the outskirt of Chiang Mai near the international airport. The one standing in the middle of the room is Khuensai Jaiyen, 64, founder and chief editor of S.H.A.N.
“Today will be the busiest day for you all as you will have to follow the news asking our sources to confirm who those released ones are,” he said to his reporters, adding that they should first post the brief breaking news of the release of Shan leaders out on the news websites.
One reporter jumped in saying that she already talked to the family members of those Shan leaders last night after the announcement of the amnesty on the government’s Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV). They confirmed her that all three leaders of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which won the second largest seats in the 1990 election, were included. SNLD’s chairman Hkun Htun Oo, general secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin and one Central Executive Committee member Sai Hla Aung had been charged for treason and put into jail in 2005 for their political activities. Their prison terms ranged from 79 years to 93 years, along with other Shan leaders for attending a meeting to form Shan State Consultancy Council. This was accused by the government as subversion, which the Shan leaders denied.
Shan is one of the ethnic nationalities and has more than six million populations in Burma’s 60 million people. Shan State, the biggest among seven states and seven divisions of the Union of Burma, a Southeast Asian country, was ruled separately by the British as a Federated Shan States before joining the Burma proper and other states to gain independence in 1947. They signed the historic Panglong Agreement which guaranteed ethnic states to have equality and self determinations. But when the Burmese government failed to realize the ethnics’ rights, they took up arms to fight against the military junta.
S.H.A.N has been reporting about the situation in Shan State and across Burma through exile for more than two decades. It has been well-known for its focus on reporting and exposing illegal drug trafficking and human rights abuse in Shan State. It publishes reports and periodicals in five languages - Shan, Burmese, English, Thai and Chinese - which makes them different from other exiled media which mainly focus on two or three languages. Its readers range widely from Shan people inside and outside the country to academics, NGOs and foreign governments. Even though it started out of from an armed group more than twenty years ago, S.H.A.N transformed into an independent media organisation when it came to Chiang Mai, where they can write freely.
"We started fighting with guns; now we are fighting with pens and computers," says Khuensai explaining how they transformed from a propaganda outlet for the Mong Tai Army (MTA), a former Shan resistance force fighting for Shan State, to an independent news media organization.
The history of how S.H.A.N became independent as they are now dates back to 1973 when they started as a wall newspaper called Independence, published once a month as a propaganda leaflet under the information and public relations of the MTA, led at that time by Khun Sa, who was well-known for his involvement in drug trafficking, the claim which he denied. According to a former congressional investigator, Khun Sa even offered to sell the entire opium crop to the U.S. government, but the offer was refused. Nobody knew whether it would result differently if that deal worked out.
"In 1984, my deputy Hsengzuen Sarawin and I were given an old offset printing press and we started publishing monthly magazine Independence in the Shan language to raise awareness for our people and the soldiers about their duties and responsibilities and also to inform them about current events," Khuensai says.
In 1991, Khun Sa and MTA decided that the media should not be under the regulation of the resistance’s leadership and let Khuensai's group write freely and independently, but they sponsored to run the publication. That's when S.H.A.N was founded as an independent media organisation. Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese government in 1996, and died in Rangoon, former capital city of Burma, in 2007 after living under the protection of Burmese military rulers. Ex-MTA members formed a new army called the Shan United Revolutionary Army and also known as Shan State Army – South, which has just recently signed ceasefire agreement with the quasicivilian government.
As Khun Sa gave up, Khuensai and his group split from their leader, crossed over to Thailand and settled in Chiang Mai close to the Thai-Burma border, where they continued publishing their newspaper.
"I will always respect Khun Sa's decision to let us come outside the country and do our job as an independent media organisation," Khuensai says, adding that Khun Sa could have asked them to surrender with him but he said, "Go out and do your job" instead.
According to Khuensai, they uphold two principles of news writing adapted from the Buddha teaching: reporting that is true, pleasing and beneficial, and reporting that is displeasing but true and beneficial. This might be different from western media of the truth, he says.
“We started fighting with guns; now we are fighting with pen.”
Khuensai Jaiyen, S.H.A.N's Founder and Editor
"They (foreign media) claim to report the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But we don't. No matter what and how the truth is, if it's not beneficial, we are not going to say or publish it," he says. Even though this rarely has some problems concerning the truth, when it comes to being beneficial, this often does, Kheunsai says.
"When the news is good and beneficial for Shan people but some organizations involved still do not want it to be published, sometimes we have to negotiate," he says.
Having good contacts and connections with many political parties and armed groups fighting against the Burmese government enables S.H.A.N to be reliable sources when it comes to Shan issues. They also have a close relationship with Thai authority that they share information with due to the need to shelter in Thailand.
Sai Hark Khur, 35, who joined S.H.A.N as a reporter in 2006, says that even UN officials based inside the country came out to consult their editor about Shan affairs. "When it comes to information connecting with Shan, we are resourceful and credible," he says.
Sai Hark Khur and his wife Nang Hom are responsible for Burmese language of S.H.A.N website. Both of them also produce radio news package broadcasted once a week by Radio Free Asia and Democratic Voice of Burma, exiled broadcast media that S.H.A.N cooperate with. Sai Hark Khur believes that their news reporting has had so much impact on local level officials in Shan State. For example, he says, once they exposed corruption of police officials connected with organizing gambling in Lai Kha Township in middle
Shan State, and the events was stopped as a result.
But being a multi-languages news provider has its own strengths and challenges. They can attract and reach more diverse readers. On the other hand, they need more human resources to be able to manage the news reporting efficiently and stay up to standard.
"We need to use more human resources than other exiled news media because we are the only news agency providing for the five languages and some of our reporters lack of IT skills," says Sai Thein Han, S.H.A.N’s general manager. He explains that while other news media can use one person to do all the things like gathering the news, writing it, and uploading on the sites, S.H.A.N has to use two or more people. The more they have to use human resources, the more they need to pay them.
S.H.A.N at the moment has two board members, five full-time employees, 14 part-time and 15 volunteers who are mostly stringers inside and outside Burma. Apart from the news websites, S.H.A.N has also provided an email news service since 1998 and published a number of booklets.
Their monthly trilingual journal Independence stopped publishing after 271 issues in November 2010 due to the funding cut from their donors. The recent positive changes initiated by the Burmese government like releasing most political prisoners, relaxation restrictions on media, building peaces by signing ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed groups and letting the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to participate in the by-election. Many western countries including the U.S and Europan countries started lifting sanctions imposed on the former junta. As many NGOs which have been supporting exiled media become more interested in giving and supporting organisations inside the country, many donors' foundations are cutting their funding.
S.H.A.N is one of the ones that have been affected by funding cut and it became difficult for them to manage their news room within limited budgets. S.H.A.N has been supported by National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Open Society Institute (OSI) and Euro-Burma Office (EBO).
"When compared with two giant Burmese exiled media news agencies like Mizzima and The Irrawaddy, even though they came in later than us, they have got more readers and more funding as they cover all Burma," Sai Hark Khur says. "Most donors don't want to give more as they consider us as an ethnic agency with primary focus on only Shan State."
This year S.H.A.N reached its 21st anniversary and the growing anxiety of many of their reporters and staffs are obvious while celebrating their landmarks and achievements as their future remained unsure.
In order to survive in the long run, Khuensai thinks that they need to improve both the quantity and quality of their news reporting. They can only cover two or three news stories daily and sometimes only one as most of other languages' websites only have to translate from Shan or Burmese, which is the main website. Ideally they want to write more as there are around 50 townships in Shan State, he says.
Sai Hark Khur agrees with his editor by echoing that even though they cannot cover news across the country, he wants S.H.A.N to be able to cover most of the news happening in Shan State.
"I want S.H.A.N to be able to do more reporting. Our motto reads - S.H.A.N represents the voice of the people in Shan State. How can it be if we only can produce that quantity?" he questions.
According to Khuensai, they need to upgrade their news gathering and writing methods to reach the international level. "In order to catch up in this IT age, we need more funding, more training on how to use social media like Facebook and Twitter for news gathering and disseminating and more qualitative technique in taking pictures, using sound and videos for our news websites," he says.
All reporters and editors of S.H.A.N realize that in order to keep going and be able to compete with other news media, they need to professionalize their careers.
"We need to persuade educated people who get education abroad to be able to come and work with us," Arn Tai, Thai language reporter and webmaster of S.H.A.N, says, emphasizing that most reporters became involved in this profession based on their strong desire to bring freedom and democracy to the country as a good cause but lack formal education in journalism.
"I cannot predict how long and how far S.H.A.N will be able to continue serving the public. But starting from now, I think we have to recruit young people with journalism education and interest to serve for the country," he says.
“We uphold two principles of news writing adapted from the Buddha teaching: reporting that is true, pleasing and beneficial, and reporting that is displeasing but true and beneficial.”
Khuensai Jaiyen, S.H.A.N's Founder and Editor
This article is contributed by Sai Aung Hsen, a student in Journalism - Editor