Violet Cho, a 25-year-old Karen journalist writing for Irawaddy magazine and living in Thailand, has won AUT Pacific Media Centre's inaugural Asian Journalism Fellowship. The fellowship is supported by an Asia: NZ Foundation grant. She arrives in New Zealand today and will join the Bachelor of Communication Studies (Honours) programme and be a resource journalist with the PMC for a year. Here is her story:
By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Centre
I was born in Pa-an, Burma, in January 1984. My family were farmers but we didn't have money to cultivate the land. I spent the first seven years of my life in Pa-an and Loikaw until my family fled to Huay Kaloke refugee camp in 1991.
My father was already working for the Karen National Union on the borderline so we were in a dangerous situation Even though he had a low position in the KNU, if the military realised about my father’s involvement with the resistance, my mother, brother and I could be arrested.
Later, my father called us to join him for our security. So we escaped across the border into Thailand. At that time, I was still young and I was sent to Huay Kaloke refugee camp where I could do some primary schooling.
The experience living in the camp wasn't a happy one. Almost all the time we were afraid of Burmese military attacks because the refugee camp was close to the border and not secure.
In 1998, Huay Kaloke refugee camp was attacked and burnt down by the Burmese military. Our house and all our possessions were destroyed and there was a lot of shooting.
This was my first direct experience with military oppression and human rights abuses and it is a day that I always remember. I was afraid and angry too.
By the end of 1999, my family and lots of others moved to a new camp called Umpiem Mai, where I could go to school. I was really pleased at having a chance to study again, even though resources were small.
I first became involved in media when I was a teenager living in Umpiem refugee camp. I volunteered for a new community radio station under Karen Student Network Group (KSNG) which I helped set up.
KSNG is a student organisation that organises Karen students in refugee camps and in the border areas of Burma to work together for the aim to find opportunities for refugee students and people without access to education, to prepare them to be leaders, to preserve and maintain the culture of Karen people, to raise awareness about human rights among youth and to work for campaigns to protect environment and human rights, such as the current Salween Dam campaign.
In KSNG, I have worked in all of these areas with a focus on community media. Through KSNG, I got a chance to study at a journalism school organised by Internews. In KSNG, I have worked as a secretary and radio and print editor.
While full time working with the student organisation on the Thai-Burmese border, I used to do some reporting and file stories to Kwekalu which is a semi-independent Karen newsletter based near the border with Southern Burma. I also did some news reporting for Burmese independent media agency Mizzima which it is now based in New Delhi.
I also spent one year working as a features reporter for Radio Free Asia. I made radio features in the Burmese language that were broadcast to Burma through shortwave. It was good because I love working in radio. Some of my stories included the problem of domestic violence in refugee camps, the daily struggle of undocumented migrant workers in Thailand and the dreams of refugee youth.
Since 2007, I have been working for Irrawaddy Publishing Group, which has a daily news website and a monthly glossy magazine. It was started by Burmese exiles and is the most prominent Burmese exiled media organisation.
It is an exciting place to work and has allowed me to get a lot of sources inside Burma and internationally. I spend most of my time writing stories for the website but I do some commentary for the magazine too. I really like to try and do investigative reporting – but since I am working with a media organisation that is unregisterered in Thailand, there are so many security challenges.
At Irrawaddy, I have been interested in reporting on migrant worker issues, environmental problems and the struggles of ordinary impoverished people. I also think media should be a watchdog of UN agencies and NGOs as they play an important role in my community – so I also have written some reports about their policies and actions that are problematic.
As a person from Burma, I have a high expectation about change. I do believe that the Burmese have to know their political destination and be working hard towards it.
As a person who has worked for the change of Burma as an indigenous youth activist and an independent journalist, I will continue working with free media and community organisations in exile.
Studying journalism at AUT University will greatly help my work as a journalist. To produce critical media, I need a stronger academic background in media and a theoretical framework.
I think I will grow a lot if I can also attend university and use the skills and knowledge to work to improve Burmese media so it can be a greater critical force for change.
Mizzima news agency
Asia: NZ Foundation profile