Freelance journalist gets insight into insular Myanmar

byLes Neuhaus
Oct 20, 2014 in Freelancing

Hereward Holland, a British freelance journalist currently based in Yangon, Myanmar, is getting a glimpse into a country that was previously closed off to the world for decades, as the military junta there barred both a free press and a democratic political system.

Although there are still gains to be made in the country formerly known as Burma, the fact that any Western media are getting access to the country has been hailed as a milestone.

Holland began his career as an intern at the Reuters bureau in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2008, at the young age of 23. He was later based in Central and West Africa, and finally in southern Sudan as it entered nationhood in 2011, before he relocated to Southeast Asia.

IJNet caught up with Holland as he was setting out on an assignment to cover a double murder in neighboring Thailand.

How did you come to be based in Yangon?

I moved to Yangon almost exactly a year ago to string for Al Jazeera. I was interested in transitioning from writing with a bit of video on the side, to focusing on becoming a video journalist. Myanmar caught my imagination as a country in flux, undergoing huge changes to the social, political and economic landscape. I also wanted somewhere that was engaging but less high tensile than somewhere like South Sudan, where I'd worked under really stressful conditions for two years and needed some time to unwind and recalibrate.

I know you were based previously in Rwanda, Ghana and South Sudan prior to Myanmar. How does it compare to those previous international postings?

Each of those African postings posed their own very different challenges, and Myanmar is no exception, but there are elements of each country that I recognize in Myanmar. It's less overtly violent than South Sudan, although its transition to democracy [is] dogged by the similar ethnic rivalries vying for recognition and power. As a police state it's similar to Rwanda and people are still afraid of speaking their minds, but it doesn't feel like it has the same pent-up frustrations among the people.

The government's suspicion and disdain for the media is similar to Ghana in that it's almost impossible to interview ministers, or anybody in authority. The splintering of armed groups and endless insurgencies on the borderlands of China and Thailand, through which billions of dollars of gems, precious metals and logs are smuggled, reminds me distinctly of Congo's ills.

What outlets have you freelanced for from Myanmar?

Al Jazeera, BBC, National Geographic, CNN, Sky News, Financial Times, AFP, Sunday Times, ABC, VOA and the Daily Telegraph. It's exhausting filing all over the place, especially if you're as bad at finances as I am.

The junta has opened up the country more in the last couple of years. How has that impacted your reporting? Are you restricted in any way, or have things become easier?

I've been privileged to only see the good times, when the doors were already flung open, so it's difficult for me to say how much things have really changed. My impression is that the status quo of total draconian censorship was thrown out of the window and the authorities are still trying to work out how much to let journalists get away with.

The lines are still being redrawn so it's up to local and international journalists to keep up the pressure to establish and cement the new normal. That also has to be tempered by responsible and ethical journalism, which many of the eager but untrained reporters don't really understand. Poor journalism could both sharpen ethnic divisions, spark intercommunal violence and create a pretext for reintroducing the censorship so long despised.

Tell us a little about what you had to do to complete your recent National Geographic assignment and of any difficulties you experienced.

I've written a couple of stories for NG now. The first was the most challenging, mostly for logistical reasons. We had to fly into China and be smuggled across the border back into rebel-held Myanmar by fording a river in the middle of the night. I shouldn't overdramatize it though; I slept in the back of the taxi all the way and woke up outside the hotel.

The next challenge was persuading the rebels to provide data on the "taxes" they extract on timber-smuggling trucks taking wood from lowland Myanmar to China. At first the rebels wouldn't give us any data at all, for obvious reasons that it would implicate them in assisting the trafficking of endangered wood. The key was to find a way of gaining their trust and explaining how releasing this data would work to their advantage.

I decided to challenge their senior generals to a game of golf on this 6-hole course they built in 2006 on the Chinese border, 5km from the frontline. Brilliantly, it worked. Over beers at the clubhouse I explained that if the rebels were more transparent about their revenue streams, it would show to Western diplomats that they're serious about finding a political solution to the 50-year conflict, and less interested in just continuing to make money through smuggling contraband, and that way the diplomats will be more sensitive to their cause at the ongoing peace talks.

The next day we were taken to the rebel economic department and shown maps with smuggling routes, yearly revenues from each checkpoint and much more. It was the first time this kind of data had been written about. And I hit a par 3 in rebel-held Myanmar.

Is the civilian population distrusting, or leery of you when you are working on a story?

With most of the stories I've worked on, normal people are very keen to talk and express themselves. Despite decades of dictatorship, people in Myanmar are bookworms and far better read than my generation in the U.K., so they understand the travesty of the junta and are aware of their democratic rights. The people who are scared and distrusting work for the government, and I think that's a healthy fear. The real danger is when a government gets complacent about the opinions of its people and the international community.

What would you say to prospective journalists interested in covering any issues in Myanmar?

It's a weird country, and I say that with great affection. The country is changing so fast, and that creates a fertile ground for feature stories about every sector and facet of life. Everything is in flux. That said, I've been surprised how little hard news there's been in the last year. I've found myself doing lots of features and investigations and covering only one or two stories that have made it onto the global agenda.

In essence, it's cheap to live, the food is ok, the country is beautiful and, without wanting to orientalize and mystify it too much, it has been isolated for so long that it feels distinctly exotic compared to neighboring Thailand, which has seen millions of tourists, billions of dollars of investment and decades of exposure to Western culture.

Oh, and it's hot. When it's not hot, it's wet and moldy.

Main image via Hereward Holland.