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Q&A: ‘We’ve Become More Interested in ASEAN’

Myanmar’s weekly newspaper ‘The Voice’ is one of the survivors of the country’s transition to media freedom over the last decade. Today, Zeya Thu, deputy chief editor of the paper, says “we are in a transitional society” and that the country is now learning about ASEAN.

Excerpts from the interview with Seulki Lee:

Q: How does Myanmar media see ASEAN today?

Zeya: We like to be part of the ASEAN because this is the only group that we have participated in. We have just hosted the chairmanship in 2014. The public’s interest in ASEAN is at the highest. In the past, we only covered (ASEAN) two or three times, head of states meeting each other to hold hands. Nowadays, a lot of attention is on Myanmar from ASEAN and the whole world outside. Generally, media people in Myanmar have become more interested in ASEAN because of this situation.

Q: How does ‘The Voice’ cover stories about ASEAN?

Zeya: We have been covering ASEAN for long time, because this is an important issue. But we have difficulty trying to present it to attract more people. We don’t know much about ASEAN and the ASEAN governments do not open up. But we do cover and maybe we are the one of the very few media that prints ASEAN news on the front page in the Myanmar language. There are three or four countries we are more interested in, like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, where Myanmar’s unskilled workers and students go.

Q: What is the reaction or feedback from your readers about these ASEAN stories?

Zeya: It depends on the presentation. If it is on the organisation itself, if we use the picture of the leaders holding hands and posing, then it doesn’t attract audiences. If we publish it relating it to people’s lives, then it is more attractive and they can identify with that. For ASEAN nationals, because of the freer movement of (people). . .  now a doctor from Myanmar can work in Malaysia. And people are interested (in ASEAN stories) because they can easily identify with their relatives and friends. So the packaging is important.

Q: As a Myanmar journalist and ASEAN journalist, what is your biggest concern about ASEAN community-building?

Zeya: I think we should have more capacity and be more proactive in our organisation to make it more accountable. Foreign news agencies, ‘New York Times’, ‘The Washington Post’, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ – we are triggered by their reports on ASEAN. We should be taking the initiative other than following their news leads.  We have to study more and be more creative. We are in the region so we have knowledge and we talk the languages, like Indonesian or Thai. (But) Perhaps we cannot do that because we are living quite closely (to one another). When we live closely, we cannot see the bigger picture.

Q: How did ASEAN affect Myanmar’s media freedom or democratisation?

Zeya: ASEAN put friendly pressure. When your friend puts pressure, you feel (it) more. You feel bound to act because we are friends. If your enemy pressures you, you won’t do that because you hate your enemies. That’s the kind of the friendly pressure that the ASEAN has to us. In terms of the economy, if your country has more money, it is more likely to become democratic and you start to think about democracy. . . .But when you talk about democratisation in ASEAN, to Myanmar it is sometimes controversial because many of countries are also not democratic yet.

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