Voices in exile
Struggles of Mizzima staff in the fight for Burma
Before leaving Mizzima’s Chiang Mai office, a 28-year old female employee furtively conceals a copy of the Mizzima Monthly Journal inside a Thai newspaper in preparation for her five minute walk home – without any legal documentation, she is scared of what may happen to her if a Thai policeman notices she is Burmese. Yet, asked as to whether she faces difficulties in her adopted home of Chiang Mai, she responds, “I have not had any difficulties so far, as I only spend my time and go between my room and the office.” To an unknowing outside observer such a mentality may be cause for bemusement, but in reality it is but one more indication of the daily obstacles, and sense of fear and unbelonging, that Mizzima staff must struggle to overcome as they work to bring the stories of Burma to a global audience from their forced homes in exile.
Four hours away by flight in New Delhi, a husband and wife sit down on a mat on a concrete floor, surrounded by all their meager possessions in the world, to a simple meal of rice and vegetables. Insects dart about the close, muggy night air, as another day in the life of Burmese refugees, and Mizzima exile journalists, comes to a close. It is not necessarily a sad life, there are many things to celebrate, but it is a Spartan livelihood, lending itself to daily hardships from paying bills to communicating with Indian society. But more than anything else, it is a life of uncertainty and questions, where dreams are denied due to government diktat and ordinances: “meanwhile” a general lack of resources available to the population in question means a limited range of options with which to address difficulties and hopes.
Though freedom of the press and democracy signal seminal goals of Mizzima, included in the pursuit of these aims are several tertiary endeavors, not the least of which is the development of human resources capable of filling a void in Burma once change does come to the country. The day is envisioned when Mizzima will be permitted to legally work in the country and, crucially, hopefully signaling the day when Burma’s vast exile community, inclusive of Mizzima staff, can return home in the absence of fear and with opportunities available to them in their native country.
Mizzima’s exile staff is near unanimous in their desire to some day return to their homeland when situations permit.
“Burma? Of course! It’s my dear homeland which is being ruined under a bad government,” says a reporter who only joined Mizzima following what she witnessed on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.
“Burma is my country, where I belong and where I have to go back some day when democracy is restored,” adds an employee in Mizzima’s New Delhi office.
And waxing poetic on the imagery of a country so close, yet often feeling so far away, a 26-year old male employee in Thailand’s northwestern city of Chiang Mai replies, “Burma is like an estranged love, though I miss her every day I cannot visit her often despite my desire.”
Life in exile is not easy for many of Mizzima’s employees, and several are actively pursuing resettlement in third countries. This is a sentiment especially strong among staff in the New Delhi office. With a relatively small Burmese exile community of a couple thousand, a major draw of India’s capital for those who left Burma is the presence of the country’s primary United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, the organization itself having recently stepped up its effort to relocate Burmese refugees in India. This reality lends itself to human resources problems in the Indian offices of Mizzima, as the retention of employees can be problematic and a long-term commitment difficult to obtain - though the New Delhi office persists in being Mizzima’s headquarters, employing over 20 full-time staff. This arrangement does however stand in contrast to the logistics of resettlement for Burmese in Thailand, where it is now the case that resettlement programs are run exclusively through refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Consequently, Mizzima staff who choose to stay and work in Chiang Mai or Bangkok are also making a decision to depriortize resettlement, if in fact ever considering the option at all.
New Delhi, for some, can be understood as a gateway, a stop-over, en route to a more permanent destination. Such a mentality differs considerably from staff based in Thailand, which offers a relatively porous border for millions of Burmese. Economic and educational opportunities in Thailand provide a hoped for short-term fix until the short move back into Burma can be made. Meanwhile, compared to New Delhi, a city of some 14 million and home to but a couple thousand Burmese exiles, Chiang Mai, a province of around 1.5 million people is home to an estimated Burmese population of a quater million.
Understandably, staff in Thailand are far more likely than their New Delhi counterparts to visit Burma as well. Even for those lacking proper identification to enable them to legally make the journey to the border, arrangements for the four to five hour land journey to the border can be readily made through an entrenched sub-culture of alternative transportation, corruption and bribery. The cost of a secure ride covering the short distance can, however, run to 5,000 baht (approximately US$ 140), while the standard fine to be paid, before being allowed to continue onward, for traveling by public or private transportation is said to be 3,000 baht.
Reflective of the general divide in Mizzima’s staff in their prioritization of moving to a third country, a 30-year old male staff member in India relates, “I want to resettle in the West, to build up my future, but if a federal democratic system comes to Burma I would gladly return to my homeland.”
Another reporter in the New Delhi office, frustration over the decades long political impasse clearly taking its toll, adds, “I am trying to move to a third country with help from UNHCR. I don’t want to go back to Burma because I don’t want to face the same things as I have been experiencing for more than 20 years, there is no hope for me there at present.”
In contrast, many staff in Thailand do not even raise the subject of third world resettlement when asked of their future plans, and those that do are just as likely to raise the issue as a negative option. “I don’t want to go to a third country for resettlement,” explains Zarni. “If I go like that, I may not go back to my country. I want to remain here [Thailand] and want to often go back inside Burma to cover news.”
The most common reason given, among all exile Mizzima employees, for their decision to leave Burma is the absence of educational and professional opportunities in Burma. For several young employees, Mizzima maintains multiple identities, including family, job and educational institution. With limited opportunities often available to Burmese refugees and exiles in neighboring countries, Mizzima constructively fills a distinctive void in their livelihood while allowing them to assist in the work to build a better Burma for the future, a concept dear to everyone’s heart.
“Mizzima gives me practical knowledge and experience about news information flow. For me, Mizzima is my education and my school.” - Noah Makungang
“Because of the political, social, educational and economic situation in Burma I see no good future, there is no hope. I want to have a good future and study and I really don’t want to live under a military dictatorship because I want freedom of movement and expression. Mizzima is now my home, not only place of work.” - Solomon
“I graduated in 2000, the year the government temporarily stopped recruitment for government employees in our town. Thus, my dream of working as a government employee could not come true. There were no other job opportunities in my town. Mizzima has been giving me a lot of work experience and upgraded me to a certain level where I can work together with others. Mizzima is my sole income in India. I may not be able to get a stable job in other places. I feel at home working for Mizzima.” - Dee Baing
“Everyone wants to promote themselves and build a beautiful life, which forced me to leave Burma. It’s become the case where moving somewhere people can have a better life as an immigrant.” - Andrew Shin
“Personally, to me Mizzima is dear and close to my heart. I have been raised by Mizzima and have been made to see a lot of things that I would never have seen if I were not associated with Mizzima. Mizzima did not just teach me journalism but also gave me a career.” - Mungpi
“Mizzima is like my new home, and working with Mizzima has much impact on my daily life in a good way. I’m very proud of working with Mizzima, of getting good support, and I’ve committed to work with Mizzima in the long-term, provided I continue getting good moral, financial and educational support from Mizzima.” - Sai
Yet, despite the positive impact Mizzima has had on its exile staff, the truth remains that Mizzima’s exile staff face numerous obstacles in their daily livelihood. For some, the obstacles started even before they joined Mizzima, simply crossing an international border without the proper paperwork meant that some Mizzima employees began their life in exile behind bars. For others, the persistent lack of legal documentation means the threat of landing in prison or, worse yet, deportation to Burma. Even those who hold migrant permits in Chiang Mai are typically confronted with restraints on their freedom of movement, it being illegal for them to travel beyond the virtual walls of Chiang Mai – a city whose original brick walls were erected to keep Burmese out. Similarly, while UNHCR status in India secures a right to travel within the country, any ventures beyond Indian territory are off limits.
Additionally, there are the more mundane of life’s daily struggles, not unique to Mizzima staff, but often exacerbated by who they are and where they come from: insufficient income to care for family members, difficulty in lining up adequate accommodation, the inability to communicate with those from their adoptive homes.
In New Delhi, farther removed from Burma, employees commonly relate how they face daily prejudice because they don’t “look” like they belong. “I don’t feel like that [accepted by Indian society] because our faces look like Nepalese and they look down on Nepalese, and I cannot speak Hindi properly,” laments one Kachin employee. Agreeing with his colleague, Ah Sein, who says he would feel right at home in India if it were not for the discrimination, states, “Indians do not like other faces, they only like their own face.” And especially for those from Burma’s north and northwest, a disproportionately high number of those staffing Mizzima’s New Delhi headquarters being from Burma’s Chin and Kachin states – there are stark cultural divides: predominantly Christian versus predominantly Hindu, beef-eaters versus those who revere the cow as a sacred vessel of Lord Shiva.
“I do not feel I have adapted to Indian society, I think I will never adapt to this society because they already have a social problem with the caste system, poor and rich background,” explains one Mizzima reporter. “I feel no security because I am afraid that if there is a problem with them they will beat me and I will die, no one will know or respond to me because there are so many people and no one cares for our security.”
Having left Burma because of the lack of human and economic security in their homeland, those in exile often find that instead of alleviating the problem in its entirety, they have simply managed to trade up to a slightly better condition – though they continue to be confronted by daily questions of human and economic security. “Since we are foreigners in India we are treated so differently by local people,” tells an India-based Mizzima staff member. “We are looked down upon and are not being given equal respect in all areas.”
Rent, often owing to the absence of proper identification and skepticism over financial solvency, is a pervasive problem. Without papers, staff in Chiang Mai are typically still able to make some arrangement regarding living accommodations – the Burmese refugee population is no foreign issue to the northwestern Thai population. However, in the Indian capital, even when in possession of a refugee card, certified status as being under the UNHCR’s protection, arranging housing can prove extremely problematic.
“When we were looking to rent a house, it was very hard to get. Indian people usually do not desire to rent to us Burmese people. The house owner thought that since we are staying on refugee status we could not pay them the rent. They also asked us for many documents proving our identity, including the refugee identity card,” says Andrew Shin of his experience with the New Delhi housing market.
Mizzima, for its part, is doing what it can to try and alleviate some of the hardship of exile life for its employees. In the coming year, 2009, Mizzima hopes to be able to increase the salary of permanent staff, editors, reporters and contractors in India, Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh and China by a minimum of a 12 percent. However, with Mizzima currently able to compensate junior level reporters at around 4,000 baht or rupees per month (US$ 1 = 35 baht or 48 rupees) a salary hike, while undoubtedly appreciated, falls well shy of permitting true financial freedom.
Certain trends of thought among exile Burmese are both common and illuminating. To begin with, for many of those that come from the former Frontier Areas of the country, as some of the country’s ethnic enclaves were classified during the period of British suzerainty over Burma, ethnicity is a core component of personal identity. One can argue that ethnic affiliations are artificial creations and thus should not matter, but the fact remains that ethnic identity does matter to people. And, of course, the ethnic divisions of the country have played, and continue to play, a major role in the direction, development and problems of state and government. Ethnicity is also an issue that many hope can be overcome through the instillation of democratic governance, one more reason Mizzima’s staff feel they are working in the best interests of a diverse, yet strong and unified Burmese state.
Along this line, Mizzima’s exile staff invariably equate a future, prosperous Burma with the advent of freedom of media and democracy – the two factors deemed significantly intertwined. In contrast, present views held by Mizzima staff of Burma, under military rule, depict a country on the brink of total ruin, a sad, impoverished and disconsolate land. “Burma is still an undeveloped country, lacking an international level in every single field,” summarizes one individual.
“Burma is becoming one of the poorest countries in the world and youth are losing their future,” adds another distraught voice, “more people are submitting to moral corruption due to the bad economic situation.”
Despite investment into the well-being of Mizzima’s exile staff, life, as seen, is not easy – the future uncertain – and by in large Mizzima’s employees do not feel at home in their adoptive countries and communities of residence. After all, if the problems inside Burma were not so grave, they would not be in exile, they would be home – working and studying. For many exile staff then, involvement with Mizzima, in pursuit of the goals of Burma’s independent media, is at one and the same time working for and serving both self and country.