The White House in Washington, DC on March 31. (Hein Thar | Frontier)

Searching for truth and rice in America


Frontier reporter Hein Thar reflects on a recent journalism exchange trip to the United States, and his hopes for Myanmar’s own media development.


As I sat on a bus from Washington, DC to Boston, gazing out the window at the unfamiliar landscape, I couldn’t shake off the chill of the April day. While my head was covered by a funny, cheap earmuff I just bought at a CVS, my gloveless fingers were numb from the cold.

In Myanmar, April is synonymous with a scorching heat that can make people sick and drive dogs crazy. I’ll never forget the oppressive heat of my attic room back home, where the metal roofing turned the sun’s rays into an oven.

I sat listening to “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles, finding solace from the cold in a song celebrating the warmth and light of the sun as a metaphor for hope. But when I looked at my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a post that had become popular with my friends back home – a picture of the sun rising with the caption: “Here it comes to bother the world.”

I found it funny at first, but soon I started thinking more seriously about how different contexts make people feel differently about symbols. How can people in Myanmar possibly say “it’s alright” to the rising sun, which brings with it the pain and discomfort of a brutal heatwave to an already suffering country?

I recently spent three weeks in the United States as part of the International Visitors Leadership Program, a State Department-organised exchange programme where emerging leaders from foreign countries can learn from American experts in their field.

I participated in the journalism programme, visiting newsrooms and meeting with prominent journalists in Washington, Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Alongside educational courses, we enjoyed cultural events, walking tours and unique experiences, like watching the solar eclipse in Boston, or attending stand-up comedy shows and a musical.

But the best part was the incredible opportunity to meet journalists from all over the world – some from nearby countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia and Cambodia, others from farther flung places like Ghana, Argentina and Trinidad and Tobago.

They shared stories that showcased the difficulties journalists face, often with limited resources and under immense pressure. Some work in countries where economic hardship forces them to hold three jobs at once. Others report from countries struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of brutal wars. Many are fighting for freedom of expression in countries where it’s under constant threat from an authoritarian government.

But few compared to my Myanmar, which according to some metrics has one of the lowest press freedom rankings and is experiencing one of the highest intensity conflicts in the world. I was the only exiled journalist in the group, and had a chance to share my experiences with them as well.

Plaything for super powers

The State Department hosted our first meeting of the trip, and told us about the ways China is waging a media war against the US. For example, they alleged that Beijing is creating imitations of American cartoons, to spread negative information to children via social media.

An American journalist later told me that that the US government also employs unconventional tactics in this information war. It felt ridiculous to me to imagine these superpowers using such childish tactics to undermine each other.

But I know how critical media literacy can be. I thought back to the days immediately after the 2021 coup in Myanmar, when social media was flooded with rumours and confusion.

One popular canard claimed that if everyone stayed calm for 72 hours, a United Nations task force would intervene to end the coup. My journalists friends and I laughed it off, but millions believed it, and perhaps the lack of concerted action in those first three days gave the military more opportunities to round up dissidents.

China plays a significant role in Myanmar too, through its relationship with the military and various ethnic armed groups, but we have little opportunity to scrutinise its activities in our country.

The armed groups that operate on the border with China are the most powerful in Myanmar, but are also the most tight-lipped. Seemingly taking their cues from Beijing, they only allow pliant, state-like media to operate in their territory, while independent journalists are not welcome.

On the other hand, many journalists from developing countries like us are inspired by and admire the democracy and freedom of the press in the US. We hope for and rely on grants and financial aid from Western countries, but we know this support often doesn’t flow to those who truly need it – like freelance reporters on the ground in conflict zones.

A TV crew reports from a Washington, DC street on April 2. (Hein Thar | Frontier)

But the Americans don’t always live up to their ideals. One fascinating thing I learned about in the US are the Sunshine Laws, helpful tools for journalists reporting on the government.

Basically, various states have laws requiring that government meetings be made public record. Formally known as the Open Records and Open Meetings Laws, they are sometimes nicknamed Sunshine Laws because they shine a light on what the government is doing. There’s also a federal law, called the Freedom of Information Act, which requires the government to disclose certain information if requested.

But despite these laws, authorities do find ways to violate their spirit, if not their letter. A common tactic involves providing an overwhelming amount of confusing data, intentionally obfuscating the specific information sought by journalists.

But prominent media outlets, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are finding innovative ways to deal with this, like submitting the data to machine learning systems to help extract the relevant information for further analysis.

AJC told us they used this method to scrape public records in search for doctors who had abused patients and then were allowed to continue working. A custom learning machine went through 100,000 records, sifting out 6,000 likely cases for the reporters to then review.

Some days, like when we learned about this kind of sophisticated data journalism, I left feeling a little dejected about the state of media development in Myanmar. But other days, we met with local newsrooms that functioned much the same as us – small teams of tenacious reporters hitting the ground to expose what’s happening in their communities.

Regardless of whether I was feeling discouraged or inspired, every evening ended the same – prowling the colourful streets of whatever US city I happened to be in, searching for a decent Asian restaurant so I could have a meal with rice.

Crossborder cooperation

During our trip, we visited the newsrooms and offices of some of the most famous American media organisations – including the Pulitzer Center, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Voice Of America, the Fuller Project, the Boston Globe – and met with several renowned journalism professors.

In our discussion with ICIJ, I saw the crucial role collaborative journalism plays today, particularly in covering corruption. Corrupt individuals increasingly take advantage of international systems to hide their ill-gotten wealth, which needs an increasingly international form of journalism to hold them accountable.

While Frontier has been a part of a number of collaborative investigations – including our latest exposing a Myanmar arms broker’s luxury apartment in Dubai purchased with an illegal second passport – it’s still a rarity in local journalism in Myanmar and the broader region.

We also visited the WSB radio station in Atlanta and had an opportunity to talk for several hours with their young and energetic reporters. One asked me a question that stuck with me – how does it feel to cover the war in Myanmar when the world’s attention has shifted away to other crises, like Israel’s assault on Gaza?

“Honestly, I feel very small, but I am honoured to have the opportunity to record our history and expose the truth,” I answered.

While we know Myanmar is a forgotten war to the rest of the world, it’s still sometimes a shock to hear it, because for us it’s a fire that consumes our every waking moment. During my trip, I was mostly with other journalists, who were at least aware of the conflict, but knew little of the context. They’d ask me questions that I didn’t really know how to answer.

“Who do you think will win? When is this going to end?”

But what I learned on this trip is that every country has its own struggles. From organised crime in the streets of Kosovo, the conditions of Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, corruption in Ghana and modern-day slavery in Cambodia, I learned so much from my fellow reporters.

Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but I also felt hopeful and motivated by this. Because of the different contexts and cultures, stories from far away can be confusing and difficult to understand, but everyone can emphathise with the difficulties ordinary people experience.

Even within the well-established newsrooms of the US, journalists encounter challenges. They contend with the wiles and stratagems of politicians and affluent individuals, all while facing the pressures of fierce competition. Journalism programmes at universities often come with hefty tuition fees, even though journalism itself is not particularly lucrative, gatekeeping poorer people from joining the industry. Meanwhile, newsrooms can struggle to accurately represent minority communities in diverse cities like Los Angeles who feel marginalised by the mainstream media.

I remember a comment from Pulitzer winner Mark Schoofs, who told us, “investigative journalism cannot happen in a place that does not allow it to happen.”

He added it’s not just government, but societies and cultures that are killing investigative journalism.

In Myanmar, there is little tolerance for investigative journalism that doesn’t align with popular narratives. Widespread anti-Rohingya prejudice resulted in huge domestic backlash against reporters who dared to investigate human rights abuses committed against the Muslim minority group in 2017. Similar blowback can be expected today if one reports on abuses committed by pro-democracy resistance groups and ethnic armed groups battling the deeply unpopular military regime.

Despite this societal intolerance for certain types of investigative journalism, the US can still play a vital role. Increased support for independent media, both financially and through training programmes, can make a difference. Sharing best practices in investigative journalism, and promoting media literacy initiatives both for journalists and readers, would empower our people to seek and share the truth.

While the world may be turning a blind eye to Myanmar’s plight, journalists will not be silenced. The fight for democracy and a free press in Myanmar is a fight for a better future, not just for us, but for everyone who believes in truth and accountability in a time of protracted conflict.

Before the end of April, I said good-bye to my new international journalist friends. When I got off the plane in Thailand, I was immediately buffeted by winds heavy with oppressive heat. My head hurt and I felt sick, but I’m from Myanmar, and I was sure this weather would feel normal again in a few days.

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