It’s just past 8 o’clock on a cool and cloudy morning. It looks like another dry day. I’m hoping it will be a hot one.
Thingyin (water festival) is near but there is training in our office. I’m disappointed because some of my friends have already returned home and others are starting their holidays early. We have to attend the training, however.
I was hopeful I would learn something about writing features, which interested me.
I soon got my first look at the trainer. He wore a brown hat, down a little bit over his face and black sunglasses. He had a big belly.
He is a foreigner, in his fifties I thought.
There was another man, who wore smart trousers and shirt and is in (middle aged), walking with this foreigner. I thought he must be Burmese because he was chewing beetle nut. So, his teeth were red. I hoped he was a translator.
When the foreigner took off his hat, his head was bald like the famous Burmese comedian Zar Gana, and looked like it had polish on it.
I was disappointed. His style was that of a comedian not a serious trainer.
He looked like the tourists I’ve seen who walked on the wooden bridge in Sangkhlaburi in the evening.
I earnestly prayed the training would not be disappointing.
However, we soon got to know the trainer a little. And, he was very strange to us. His skin and accent showed he is a foreigner but he didn’t act like a foreigner. He ate Monthingar (Burmese traditional food) for breakfast with the trainees. He ate deep fried Indian Platar and boiled peas mixed with oil and salt. It was all very strange for me. I saw many foreigners who did not eat hot, spicy, or cold traditional Burmese food. However, our trainer ate everything that we provided.
He told us a little about himself during the morning of the first day of training. It was interesting for me to learn he worked many different jobs over thirty years as a print, radio and TV journalist, in the west.
He ate and lived together with us and came to help exiled ethic media along the Thai-Burma border. I was impressed with his attitude, a lot. And, I was more impressed when I heard his ideas and convictions about journalism during the training. That’s why I decided to write this profile feature, introducing him to our audience.
Question 1: first of all, can you introduce yourself?
Answer: My name is Paul Pickrem. However, people know me as Paul. I am 57 years old. I was born in Canada. I am a Canadian citizen.
Question 2: How long have you been here? What organization do you work with? Can you explain about your responsibilities to the audience?
Answer: I arrived in Southeast Asia two and a half years ago. Currently, I train journalists for Burma News International (BNI). My main job is to train exiled Burmese Journalists on the Burma border in basic journalism, feature writing, and video journalism. I act as their writing coach and as the English language feature editor for BNI.
Question 3: What is BNI doing to develop Burmese media?
Answer: BNI was founded seven years ago. I describe it as a news co-operative, made up of by eleven different exiled media organizations representing the major ethnic peoples of Burma. BNI’s mission is to provide accurate, balanced and timely news coverage from inside the ethnic regions to people inside Burma, who need that because the government works hard to limit their access to accurate, balanced news. As well, BNI provides that ethnic perspective to the regional and international audience as well.
I am concerned the Burma story is not as high in the news cycle as it should be. This is an important story. I believe strongly that what has happened and is happening in Burma can happen anyplace government is allowed to brutalize their people and rob them of their freedom over a long period.
However, I also believe Burmese journalists need to grow in their ability to tell their own story to the world.
Question 4: Why do you choose to work for BNI?
Answer: I’m happy and proud to work for BNI. It’s a unique opportunity to help the peoples of Burma tell their own story, to help them find their own voice.
Many Burmese journalists, both inside and on the border, work very hard under very difficult circumstances, with little money and inadequate technology. They work under severe restrictions and face challenges few journalists in the west could imagine. I respect them for that. I respect the work they do.
However, that doesn’t mean their capacity and skill level cannot improve. BNI works as a facilitator, whenever possible, to provide training and opportunity to gain experience so they can push the Burma story up in the news cycle across the world.
I don’t have a degree in journalism. Instead, I learned on the job over a number of years through training and from the older journalists I was fortunate to work for and learn from. I also have a wide range of experience, having done many jobs.
I want to pass that experience along to my students, so they can run with it.
Many Burmese activists and journalists have asked why the international media ignores Burma and the plight of its people. My conviction is it’s the responsibility of the Burmese press to push Burma into the international spotlight. And, it’s also my conviction that the future viability of the human rights pro-democracy movement inside the country and on the border depends on it.
Six months before I came to Thailand, I knew nothing of significance about Burma. I was a fifty-five year-old, university educated journalist.
As an Arts and Entertainment columnist for a large independent daily newspaper in eastern Canada, I met an American couple, Susan and Nat Tilestone, who lived near my home. They are photographers who spend their winters in Mae Sot, Thailand, and teaching digital photography to mostly Karen young people. They created the My Story Photo Project. I didn’t know Karen, Shan, Mon and the other ethnic Burmese existed, let alone their moving story.
They showed the student’s photos in a gallery in the area to raise money for new photography equipment for their students. I got to know them after writing about the project and the exhibit.
I came to Thailand to find a job as a teacher; what I call a well-managed mid-life crisis. After 2 weeks in Bangkok, I went to Mae Sot to visit the Tilestone’s, for what I thought would be a few days.
One thing led to another, and my weekend in Mae Sot changed my life, my view of the world.
I facilitated four, week-long, journalism workshops in the area, which was my first exposure to the exiled media. As well, I taught English at a migrant post-ten school and helped the students produce the school newspaper. Soon, I taught English to Burmese monks being resettled to the USA.
What I learned from my students about their lives, their families and their people’s suffering stopped me in my tracks. Knowing their story has changed my life. Their story makes me want to stay here and be part of telling that story to the world because, as I said above, this is a valuable lesson in fighting to regain freedom for people everywhere.
I believe this powerful story can have a profound effect on many, many other people who are ignorant of the situation faced by Burma’s peoples, like I was.
This, in my opinion, is essential because pressure from the international community, which to me has been anemic at best, could be one of the vital ingredients in turning the tide in Burma at a critical time in the future.
Now, my years of experience in media and the news business has taught me some things. I can tell a story. However, I think the Burma story is told best by Burmese journalists. It’s their story to tell. I, and others, can help them develop their skills. However, I think they should take responsibility for getting the truth into the minds of people around the world, who can pressure the Burmese government from the outside, while the Burmese people pressure it from the inside.
Question 5: The salary in the BNI is very low, if compared to the mainstream media in the west. However, you decide to work in the BNI. Why?
Answer: An interesting dynamic for me, has been working with some exiled Burmese journalists for whom journalism is not a job, a career, it is a patriotic duty. For most of my colleagues in the west, it’s a job, a profession. For some, in the west, it’s a very lucrative career.
However, life for many exiled Burmese journalists I know is very different from the western journalists. Not all, but, many exiled Burmese journalists have been working hard to tell the story because they want to see substantial change in Burma. Their salary is also extremely low and they live in sparse conditions and face many challenges that western journalists would find difficult to work under.
I am impressed with their attitude (spirit) a lot. I respect what they are doing. I am proud to be part of their team, to be their Sayar (teacher). Many journalists, from many organizations, are risking imprisonment and torture. Several journalists are serving hard time in brutal Burmese prisons as political prisoners (that’s what they are to me) for the crime of trying to provide accurate, balanced news about the struggle for freedom against one of the planet’s most brutal regimes.
Why are they doing this? You don’t do this for a job. They believe the old fashioned journalism tenet that says, “The people have a right to know.” It’s a human rights issue.
However, I stress to my students the importance of increasing their skills and experience so they can play an active role in the international media’s coverage of the Burma story.
I have told them often I want to see BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and other major media outlets introduce one of them as the network’s new South East Asia/ Burma Correspondent or as an expert contributor.
Question 6: You always urge journalists to write features in your training. So, is news not important? Can you explain your opinion on it to audience?
Answer: I stress features will never replace news. News style writing and feature style complement each other very well. To me, an argument about the importance of one over the other is a waste of time. We should use them both to get the job done.
However, I am a fan of feature writing style because it gives us the advantage of telling the story behind the story. The sparse writing style of a news story is going to tell me what happened. The associated feature is able to tell me why it happened, to set the event and the people affected by it in deeper context, because it provides the writer with a larger container.
I also have the conviction that today’s readers, viewers and listeners often want more than just information and data. They are more capable of finding information on their own than ever before.
To me, they are not as curious about the news as they were. They are curious about other people. They want to know the people who are affected by the news from reading, viewing or listening to the story.
I have met many journalists who tell me they write about Burma. That’s fine with me.
However, I don’t. And, I encourage my students not to write about Burma.
I write about and I want them to write about the people of Burma.
I think the audience wants to read about the people whose lives are affected by refugee policy, rather than a story about policy. They want to meet the person, through reading the story, whose life is affected by the corruption and brutality of the government.
Features are a great vehicle for introducing Burmese people to readers, viewers and listeners across the world in such a way that they can know them and care about them as people.
I contend that stories about politics and policy are really interesting to mostly to the writer and a few others. The people affected by the policy are much more interesting to more people.
I will say again, my conviction is our readers, viewers and listeners are more interested in meeting the people affected by the news, than the news itself.
Question 7: When you train exiled Burmese journalists, what kind of difficulties do you have to face? What kind of differences do you see?
Answer: There is a language barrier and many cultural differences. I am fortunate to work closely with my translator and assistant, Ko Sai Leik, who translates for me during the training and translates most of my student’s writing into English. It can be time consuming and sometimes frustrating not to be able to speak directly to my students, except through a translator.
Another major difference, I see, is the difference in confidence level between western and exiled Burmese journalists, especially women.
Western journalists have confidence and function in an assertive manner- especially women journalists. They have rights protected by law and they know their rights.
I do not encourage my students to put themselves or anyone else in danger. However, they need to act in a professional manner and assert themselves so the people they work with respect their skills and the importance of their work.
I stress assertiveness as a skill to be developed.
Question 8: Have you written a feature you are proud of?
Answer: Well, I have been fortunate to have a good relationship with my readers and viewers, who have given positive feedback about many news and feature stories, in print and television.
Since arriving in South East Asia, however, I wrote a three part feature series for BNI called, “No Easy Road: A Burmese Political Prisoner’s Story”.
The story is about the son of a Burmese Army Colonel, who as a young student activist was sentenced to death for treason and served almost 18 years in five prisons in Burma as a political prisoner before being released. You can read this feature in the feature section on the BNI website, or in a book with the same title.
Presently, I am working on a second series about the secret diary of an ABSDF soldier’s mother. I hope that will be released in book form as well.
Question 9: Have you won any awards for your journalism work?
Answer: When I worked as a TV and photo journalist, I won an Atlantic Journalism Award, in eastern Canada, for a television feature I wrote, shot and edited.
Question 10: You have been in many countries in Southeast Asia. Do you have any plans to visit Burma?
Answer: No, I don’t plan to visit Burma until the people are free and the country’s political situation has changed. I have strong feelings about the treatment of the citizens of Burma by their government. I would not want to put any friends or colleagues in danger because I would not likely keep my convictions to myself while visiting the country.
Question 11: Currently, Burma’s new government has announced its intention to the world to work toward democratic change. Do you expect Burma will have media freedom under this new government?
Answer: I not aware there is a “new” government. The post-election government is, in essence, the same brutal military elite in civilian dress, instead of uniform.
They insulted (I am being polite) the democratic process with their actions during the recent election.
The government is in the process of throwing a heavy net over the inside media, intending to immobilize it in the same manner it did with the opposition during the election. There will continue to be no toleration of news coverage which criticizes it in a meaningful way.
Sayar Paul has also opened a free school for the children of Burmese migrant workers in Mae Sot, Thailand. At school, children are taught many subjects in Thai, Karen, Burmese and English.
Thank you, Sayar Paul. Your training is very helpful and meaningful. May you continue to promote Burmese media in the future.
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