An ex-hijacker, a business mogul and a Burma media veteran will team up to lead a revamped Mizzima, a formerly exile news outlet once based in India that has moved operations into Burma and plans to expand its news coverage, the company’s founder and editor-in-chief said on Thursday.
Soe Myint, who in 1990 hijacked a Thai Airways plane flying from Bangkok to Rangoon in an act of protest against Burma’s former military regime, told The Irrawaddy that Mizzima Media Group (MMG) would be led by himself and two other shareholders.
“With two more partners, we will continue to focus on the quality of our media work while expanding it,” said Soe Myint, who was acquitted for the hijacking by an Indian court and went on to found Mizzima in New Delhi in 1998. “We have decided to do whatever media works available during the country’s reform process.”
Among the three MMG shareholders, Burmese business tycoon Thein Wai, better known as Serge Pun, will serve as a member of its Board of Directors. Sonny Swe, cofounder of English-language weekly newspaper The Myanmar Times, and Soe Myint will take the chief executive officer and editor-in-chief positions, respectively.
“We three will hold equal shares,” Sonny Swe said.
Serge Pun is founder of the multinational Serge Pun & Associates (SPA) Myanmar Limited, which he established in 1991. He set up Yoma Bank the following year. SPA Myanmar has since become a sprawling conglomerate of some 40 business enterprises with interests in financial services, manufacturing, technology, construction, real estate, the automotive industry and health care.
Sonny Swe is the son of former Military Intelligence (MI) officer Brig-Gen Thein Swe and held a majority share in The Myanmar Times until he was arrested during a purge of the MI by former junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe in 2004. Tin Tun Oo, a media magnate with close connections to the junta, took over Sonny Swe’s Myanmar Times shares.
“I was imprisoned but still dreaming about media works,” said Sonny Swe. “I have tried to reintegrate with The Myanmar Times since my release but have not been successful for various reasons. Then, I was given an opportunity to join Mizzima, so I thought I couldn’t pass it up for any reason.”
Many challenges remain in Burma’s reform process, according to Soe Myint, but the former exile said he decided in 2011 that he would be part of the country’s increasingly open media scene.
“The new government relaxed restrictions on foreign media,” said the Mizzima editor-in-chief. “People inside Burma were able to directly access the websites of exile media groups such as The Irrawaddy, Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma [DVB]. They had to use proxy servers to visit them before. So, in late 2011, when private journals were allowed to publish, we decided that we would return and be based inside the country.”
Burma’s government has significantly eased once-severe restrictions on media as part of reforms in the country undertaken beginning in 2011. The country’s censorship board, to which all private journals were required to submit content prior to publication, was effectively shuttered in 2012 and on April 1 of this year, private dailies were allowed to print in Burma for the first time in decades.
Currently, two websites, a daily Burmese-language newspaper, an English-language business magazine, and weekly economic and sports programs are produced under the Mizzima umbrella. In the future, the MMG will reportedly focus on additional media ventures such as a weekly women’s TV program, a daily English-language newspaper and other TV programs.
When asked how much the shareholding trio has invested in the new MMG, Soe Myint declined to provide details, saying that was an internal matter and revealing only that the three men had “enough money to run the media group.”
“My dream to establish my own newspaper began in 1997 when I was responsible for the production of The Mandalay Daily Newspaper,” Sonny Swe said. “I want to push for digital media because it is now more popular than print at the international level. I will put special effort into this. Since we have established a multimedia news group, I will also prioritize FM radio channels and TV broadcasting.”