Journalists Help Bring Reforms to a Changing Burma

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Earth Journalism Network, Washington, DC

A historic Internews-sponsored journalism expedition on the Irrawaddy River is being credited with helping to turn the government against supporting construction of a controversial dam.

Internews’ Earth Journalism Network supported an eight-day trip by a group of 26 journalists, writers, photographers and documentary film-makers on the Irrawaddy River north of Mandalay in 2009. The participants traveled along the river to Bamaw and back, visited local communities, engaged in on-board roundtable discussions with expert speakers, and produced plenty of stories for their home media organizations.

“It was a remarkable trip,” recalls Internews trainer Ye Naing Moe. “We still have journalists coming up to us and asking when we’ll do it again.”

It also had a remarkable impact. Beginning in 2010, some of the Internews alumni joined together with a local donors and an NGO, the Green Hearts Environmental Network, to produce a pictorial book, “The Sketch of a River: The Ayeyarwady,” and organize a series of photo exhibitions on the Irrawaddy, using pictures taken during the expedition.

In 2011, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi joined one of these events and spoke at the opening ceremony, drawing huge media attention to the issue of the river’s health and the potential impact of the Myitsone Dam being built near its headwaters. “All the attention really helped push Prime Minister Thein Sein into eventually suspending the dam construction,” adds Ye Naing Moe, who credits fellow Internews trainer Jeff Hodson for helping to carry out the project. “Internews’ support has become historic.”

Signs of change have been evident in Burma since the end of military rule in November, 2010, with the elected government of President Thein Sein taking office the following year. One of the first major reforms was the suspension of the construction of the Myitsone Dam on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River because of concerns about the environmental impact of the dam.

“It’s amazing how a modest but targeted media development grant can have such a big ripple effect. In this case, it enabled Internews to provide the critical initial investment for the expedition,” concludes Hodson. “And it shows the power that enterprising journalists can have even in the most unlikely places.”

Still, there is more work to be done by journalists to maintain transparency and keep reforms in place. The main contractor and financial backer of the Myitsone Dam - the China Power Investment Corporation Yunnan (CPI) – is still pushing to have the project completed.

Internews’ Burma country program and its environmental program, the Earth Journalism Network, have collaborated on numerous journalism training programs inside the Southeast Asian country for more than a decade.