In a matter of decades, the primarily agrarian ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have rapidly transformed themselves into economic powerhouses. There are now glittering skyscrapers in Bangkok, new ports along the coasts of Vietnam, and a business boom in Jakarta. The high growth rates enjoyed by these emerging economies also signify an impressive rebound from the financial crisis of over a decade ago. In many ways, there’s much reason to be optimistic here.
Similar optimism is now being carried over to Burma, a country once isolated by the West, but now heading into transition at a pace so rapid, some critics are decrying the hasty speed of reform. The nation’s most famous dissident, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, recently registered to run in an upcoming parliamentary by-election. Censorship of the press is also on the wane. But is it still too early to tell what will happen next?
To learn more about the changes that are sweeping Burma, AsianTalks spoke to Patrick Boehler, a Hong Kong-based contributor at The Irrawaddy, founded in 1993 by dissidents with an exclusive focus on Burma. Boehler maintained guarded optimism for Burma’s future, provided insight into Sino-Burmese relations, and expressed understandable admiration for his fellow Burmese journalists-in-exile who have played no small role in bringing about change. “I feel very privileged to contribute to a newspaper run by Burmese,” the soft-spoken Boehler noted. “Launching a journalism career is not easy anywhere right now, but it is probably still easiest in East and Southeast Asia. So a lot of people try to work here.” Here are some additional excerpts from our interview:
AT: Burma by any measure is a fascinating country. What interests you about Burma?
Patrick: I’ve been involved in NGOs, dealing with human rights in Burma and in Austria. When I lived in Beijing, I worked as a civil servant for the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was fascinated by the people in the border areas, between China, Burma, and the trade that is going on. If you go, it’s fascinating just to see what a vibrant place Yunnan is. You have a pipeline project, the highway, and the railway project. You have free trade zones being set up, but largely ignored by the Western media.
AT: Could you tell us about The Irrawaddy, and the kind of reporting you do for the media?
Patrick: The Irrawaddy used to be an exile magazine. It was published in Chiang Mai and founded in 1992 by Burmese dissidents. Recently it has stopped print publication, and is becoming an online news service.
There are three major exile media organizations for Burma. The Irrawaddy has the most traffic. The other two are Mizzima and the Democratic Voice of Burma. I write stories on Sino-Burmese relations for The Irrawaddy, so I’ll cover anything from car exports, cross-border crime, to drug smuggling. I also try to cover as much as possible, because as we said there are a lot of things happening in the border area.
AT: You’ve already mentioned the border area between China and Burma a couple of times. How would you characterize the region, and why are there such strong cultural and business ties between the two countries?
Patrick: Just to put it in perspective, Burma has 60 million inhabitants, Yunnan has about from 45 to 50 million inhabitants. The border areas are in the Burmese northeast and most of Burma’s border trade goes through Yunnan.
There are many infrastructure projects taking root. In the Second World War, the Allies built the so-called Stilwell Road to supply the Chinese war effort against the Japanese. That root is being dwarfed by new Chinese efforts of building a highway. There’s also a MOU signed for a railway.
But Yunnan is a special case. It has a very complex history. It’s hard to say when Yunnan became a part of China, because of its ethnic diversity. You have a Muslim population, the ethnic minorities like the Naxi, the Dai that have their own identity. But it’s really hard to say when Yunnan became a part of China.
AT: And would you say at least some Burmese can probably trace their ancestry to Yunnan?
Patrick: Oh yes, absolutely. That’s correct. If you look at the Kokang (‘Guogan’) region, there many speak Chinese. The Wa ethnic minority, their television station is broadcast in Chinese. And they copied a format of CCTV (Chinese Central Television), which probably wouldn’t be appealing to a Western audience. But there’s a huge cultural, if not ethnic, connection towards China.
AT: Given the recent changes, do you believe there is reason than ever before to be optimistic about Burma, than two or three years ago?
Patrick: Absolutely. I think the hardliners have underestimated President Thein Sein. I hope they have underestimated the impetus that these reforms have created. And I’m optimistic, but cautiously optimistic.
AT: How would you best capture the experience of working alongside Burmese dissident journalists at The Irrawaddy?
Patrick: I feel very privileged to contribute articles for The Irrawaddy. Because The Irrawaddy is an exile media run by Burmese. It is not run by foreigners imposing Western values on Burma. It is Burmese civil society, basically. Most of the people at the Irrawaddy are Burmese, and they have been in exile for several years, but they feel very strongly about their country. I come from Austria, so I come from a position of relative comfort. I have never lived in a military dictatorship or been to prison. They sort of have a different approach to the military junta than I have.
But I truly admire them for the work they do. I hope they can contribute in the future. And I would be thrilled if it is safe for them to go back and do the reporting they have done in Chiang Mai, and doing it in Rangoon. Because the media right now in Burma is undergoing huge changes. Not too many media outlets in Burma have the authority of the exile media, and especially the kind of authority The Irrawaddy has.
AT: Lastly, a translation question. When you write your stories, do you need translators?
Patrick: Most people I meet speak Chinese. And Burmese businessmen actually speak excellent Chinese, better than me! So Chinese and English have worked well. But I have to start learning Burmese. It’s a beautiful language.