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India must show interest in Myanmar: Pulitzer-winning journalist

Rajeev Bhattacharyya | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

More than 2,000 captive workers were released after a four-member team of journalists documented how men from Myanmar were trafficked to Thailand, imprisoned at a village on an Indonesian island and made to slave on fishing vessels to manufacture seafood.

Esther Htusan, part of the team, was jointly awarded a Pulitzer for the story. The 28-year-old became the first journalist from Myanmar to win the coveted prize.

Htusan was born and grew up in Kachin, an area that has witnessed one of the longest conflicts in the post-colonial world. In 2008, after her graduation, she moved to Yangon and started her career in journalism. 

She was in Shillong on Friday for 'India-Myanmar Media Dialogue'. In a chat with Catch she talked about various issues: her award-winning story, the situation back home and regional geo-politics.

According to her, China has an inordinate hold over Myanmar, thanks to the previous Junta and a good deal of investments. India, on the other hand, is hardly known in the neighbouring country.

Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us something about your background. How did you get attracted to journalism?

After arriving in Yangon, I secretly attended a course in English language at the American Centre and another course in political science at the British Council.

I started working for a children's magazine in English as an editor. During the 2012 election, I assisted foreign journalists as a guide and translator.

Before I delved into the human-trafficking story, I reported on land grabbing by the Myanmarese Navy near Yangon.

Did that not attract trouble from the government?

I was lucky. The police came looking for me at my home, but I was not present. I could have been jailed or interrogated for several days.

Police came looking for me at my home, but I wasn't present. I could have been jailed

Tell us about the story that fetched you the Pulitzer.

Poor men from Myanmar are trafficked to Thailand, which has some of the biggest sea-food exporting companies in the world.

People are trafficked in fishing boats. From Thailand they are taken to a remote island in Indonesia from where they cannot return.

Some victims have been holed up for years, working in fishing boats. Fish is sent to Thailand for the manufacture of seafood, which is then exported to Europe and the United States.

We had started to report on the phenomenon and our investigation took us to an Indonesian island where we saw the situation for ourselves.

Does the trafficking continue?

More than 2,000 slaves were freed after our reports. But, yes, human trafficking continues. The governments in both Thailand and Myanmar are responsible, especially the Thai police. Every factory in southern Thailand is full of Myanmarese.

Landing at the Indonesian island must have been exciting and dangerous

The name of the island is Penjina. Nobody is allowed to land there, but somehow I managed to sneak in unnoticed.

The Indonesian government gives concessions to Thai fishing boats for fishing in the region. But in that island, fishing companies have set up prisons to lock up victims who did not work or who wanted to go home.

I reached one of the prisons and took photographs from a tiny camera hidden in my pocket. While talking to a prisoner, an official from the Indonesian immigration, hand-in-glove with a Thai company, pulled me away and began to interrogate me.

But somehow we were able to return without arousing much suspicion.

Other journalists and academics from Myanmar at the seminar said India is hardly known in Myanmar. What is your take on this?

I can't understand why India is so reluctant and slow in getting involved in issues related to Myanmar.

I can't understand why India is so reluctant and slow in getting involved in issues related to Myanmar

The Chinese, on the other hand, are fast and seem to be involved in everything in our country.

India must be more cooperative, not only at the government-level, but at the grassroots. By grassroots, I mean people-to-people contact. India is not well known in Myanmar.

All that is known and visible about India are the Indians who have settled in Myanmar. Interest in India will have to be generated in Myanmar. Many of us were disappointed when the Chinese foreign minister arrived in Myanmar soon after the new president was appointed, but there was nobody from India.

You don't have to be the first person to arrive in the country, but the interest must be demonstrated. So, even at the government level, the interaction is weak. All this needs to be changed.

How do the Myanmarese view India and Indians?

Broadly speaking, India has a good image - quite opposite to the general feeling of the people towards the Chinese.

A huge number of Chinese citizens have settled in Myanmar, and the feeling of hatred towards them has only grown over the years.

The Chinese are hated and yet China continues to have a grip over Myanmar?

All this is the outcome of the policies during the military regime. The Junta accepted China as the 'Big Brother' against the wishes of the people. This is a primary reason why the Chinese are hated so much.

The Junta accepted China as 'Big Brother' against people's wishes - a primary reason why Chinese are hated

But there were indications by the Junta years ago that it would not like to be dependent on China. China's blue-eyed boy in the military, Khin Nyunt, was even jailed. How do you see the policies of the new government taking shape towards China?

The new government would perhaps not like to be dependent on China. Earlier there were sanctions against Myanmar and it was only China that the Junta could turn to.

North Korea was also a friendly country, but far off. Now circumstances have changed and this will help in changing policies.

But China gets more space in the Myanmarese media than India.

That's not because people want it but because of the earlier policies of the Junta.

Also, China has made huge investments, compared with India. The projects and investments in Rakhine state clearly prove that. The Chinese presence in Mandalay is so overwhelming that we call the region the 'Chinese Republic of the Union of Myanmar.'

So can we say that China is smarter than India?

Yes that is true. The Chinese are more cunning.

What about freedom of the press in Myanmar?

The situation is much better than what it had been. There is a big difference now but it doesn't mean that it is 100% free and fair.

Journalists are still in prison as political prisoners. People are still arrested for making fun of the military generals on Facebook.

Journalists are in prison in Myanmar as political prisoners. People are arrested for making fun of generals

Last years elections were a turning point. Where do you see Myanmar after 10 years?

Last March we had the first government. We hope for positive changes in the near future. There will be investments and the economy will improve and there will be a difference from the situation under the Junta.

What about the conflict in Rakhine state and the atrocities on the Rohingyas?

I have been reporting on the Rohingya issue since 2014. Very few journalists wanted to report on the topic. I focused on the humanitarian crisis and how they travelled to other countries by boat.

There were riots between Buddhists and Muslims, in which many Muslims were killed. Many were rounded up in concentration camps and the areas where they lived were barricaded to prevent them from having access to healthcare and other facilities.

It's difficult to estimate the number of people killed or have left the country. According to agencies of the United Nations, more than 10,000 left and more than a lakh are holed up in camps.

When can the world expect a government in Myanmar without any strings attached to the military?

That will take time. The Constitution will have to be amended and this could be time consuming.

(Rajeev is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey To Meet India's Most Wanted Men)

Photo credit: Biswajit Das

Edited by Joyjeet Das

First published: 23 April 2016, 4:45 IST
Rajeev Bhattacharyya

Rajeev is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of 'Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men'.