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September 19, 2017

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Myanmar to face up to even more challenges

BANGKOK -- The streets of Yangon can probably be summed up in two words: "anything goes."

Or maybe "everything mixes" is another way to describe it. The relatively rich walk with the obviously poor. Trishaws, once a dominant city symbol, try to hold their ground against an ever-increasing number of automobiles, old and new. Roadside stalls refuse to be humbled by big hotels. Jeans have made a timid but noticeable inroad and co-exist peacefully with sarongs.

Political changes are responsible for much of the disorder. A young man who was practically my guide during my four-day stay said he couldn't recall a time when Yangon traffic was this bad. We mostly talked trivia like football and nightlife, and kept politics out of it, which was an easy thing to do, because the presence of troops was next to zero.

"You will feel the vibrations of the city's potential," a Nation Multimedia Group executive who had been to the former capital of Myanmar three weeks before me said. Four days was too short a time to confirm that, especially for someone who was visiting Yangon for the first time. One potential I managed to see, though, has to do with the first "real" generation of Myanmar journalists in a few decades.

"We don't have mentors," said a man who had started off in IT at a publishing company and is now having to virtually double as chief of a news unit. "Journalism in Myanmar has lost a few generations." He was not overstating the case. At Eleven Media, a major publishing company, for example, every senior newsroom position up to news editor is filled by people under 30, with the exception of one, who is 31.

"In most other countries, these people would be just interns," said a representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who was assessing the media situation in Myanmar for possible assistance. In their own country, these young journalists struggle to learn by themselves, against a backdrop of harsh state control. When I taught some of them the "telephone call" trick of writing the first news paragraph — "If you have 20 seconds to tell your mother what happened, what you tell her is your first paragraph" — they were so grateful it made me feel embarrassed.

In fact, the lead paragraph is the easy part. What they should, or can, write about remains a murky issue, pending the government's next moves concerning media restrictions. Myanmar's young reporters know that writing what the government wants them to is not journalism, but the opposite of that can result in raw threats, serious legal action or persecution.

It's "anything goes" on the streets, but not yet in Myanmar's newspapers. The challenge for journalists is also becoming more complicated as the country slowly opens up. Fighting against dictatorship is at least straightforward, as you know exactly who you are up against. In Myanmar, corruption has many faces and is not fading as things loosen up. In fact, there are legitimate concerns that rampant graft will soon present itself as the country's biggest problem.

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