RANGOON — Brang Mai is the man behind Burma’s first and only newspaper serving the ethnic Kachin population. He returned to Burma in 2012 after six years in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he worked as a manager and IT officer for Inter News. He also works part-time producing radio packages and providing video-editing training at Voice of America, and as a video editor for Radio Free Asia.
In January, Brang Mai and two fellow Kachins—both of whom have experience working as journalists—launched the Myikyina News Journal, which publishes news for people in Kachin State in the Burmese language. Its editions, which come out fortnightly, are distributed all over Kachin State.
Brang Mai spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Yen Snaing in Rangoon about the challenges of launching one of the first publications in Burma to be targeted at an ethnic minority population.
Question: How did you start the journal?
Answer: First we put our savings together. Then, we invited donors while we got started on our project. They gave one-off donations, with no strings attached. The three of us have ownership of it.
Q: How many copies did you print when you started?
A: We published about 8,000 copies. We publish once every two weeks. We want to publish weekly but we have some problems. We have mechanical problems. There aren’t any of the machines we need to print in Myitkyina. They are only in Rangoon and Mandalay, so we do it in Mandalay. There are only two print shops in Mandalay. We do the design and layout ourselves in Myitkyina. Then, we send the design on a CD to Mandalay. It’s quite costly. The plates are then sent back to Myitkyina , and we print it there.
Q: Can you tell me about your newsroom in Myitkyina?
A: We started with three people. We called for reporters to join us, and five came forward. We gave them basic journalism training, and now we have eight reporters.
Q: What is the situation for reporters covering the conflict in Kachin State?
A: We cover battles by phone because most battles happen at the border. Some of our reporters are quite new, so they can’t handle big issues yet. They cover news in town such as news about IDPs, the issue of people displaced by the Myitsone Dam, the establishment of small political parties. We can’t really cover big battles yet.
Q: What is the difference between your journal and other daily newspapers?
A: As we are local media, we can cover some issues that big media can’t cover. We can also do follow-up news. Local residents also really want to read about their local news. The mainstream Burmese media are writing about big issues like Parliament, the government, politics, policy and international news, but local Kachins want to know what is going on inside Kachin State.
They are more interested in that, and that is our strength. Now there are ceasefire discussions, the Myitsone issue and as we are close to the border, there are also issues like human trafficking, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. We also have lots of drug users in the state. There are also environmental issues as people dig for gold and precious stones. Big media can’t cover these things in detail, so we cover them.
Q: What issues are you focused on?
A: We don’t set a theme. For example, if there are peace talks, then we focus on that. If there is a battle, we focus on that. If there is no such issue going on, we might report on the land grabbing issue. We write based on issues. We cover most sectors: politics, economics, social and a little bit of entertainment.
There has not been any privately owned free media before in Kachin State, so we have support from our audience. They call us and send letters. They even report things to us as if we were a police station.
Q: How do you sustain the paper financially?
A: We can support reporters’ salaries and office rental from selling the paper. But we have to buy equipment with donations. We print 8,000 copies, but we also have to pay distributors.
We also get advertising in the paper. Locals are quite open-minded too. The problem is the pricing of advertising in the government-owned newspapers. They reduce their advertising prices so much we can’t compete. Then, we have to reduce the price. They still can make profit although they reduce the price because they are publishing across the whole country. For us, as we are distributing only in Kachin State, it impacts upon us.
Q: Why do you publish Kachin news in the Burmese language? Do you plan to publish for Kachin-language readers?
A: We publish in Burmese because Kachin people have already suffered from most of the issues happening in Kachin. They know it already. We will have less impact if we publish in Kachin and distribute just to those who have suffered. We want to have more impact by reaching all people living in Kachin State.
Q: What is your plan for future of the paper?
A: We would like to increase the copies of the paper and expand to Mandalay, Shan State and the Kachin community in Rangoon. We will post on social media and we are now working on a website. We want to buy our own printing press because this is a difficulty. Then, it could become a weekly or a daily.
Later, like Laiza FM or Pandamya FM, we would like to launch Myitkyina FM. We are trying to contact with potential funders. We are trying at least for community radio, if not FM yet.
Q: How much freedom do you have to cover stories?
A: When we got a license to publish, we started to cover stories. The official department hasn’t said anything or complained so far. Officials give us interviews: Gen. Gun Maw from the KIA has also given us an interview, even the [Burma Army’s] northern divisional commander.
We haven’t started to write much about sensitive issues yet. We don’t know how it will be when we start to do that.