National Press Club

Veteran journalist tells NPC, U.N. Development Program event about changes in Myanmar

September 16, 2013 | By Monica Coleman | monicacoleman@gmail.com

Veteran journalist Tom Cheatham discusses the changing culture of Myanmar at a joint presentation by the National Press Club's International Correspondents and Photography Committees, Sept. 11, 2013

Veteran journalist Tom Cheatham discusses the changing culture of Myanmar at a joint presentation by the National Press Club's International Correspondents and Photography Committees, Sept. 11, 2013

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

There have been major changes in Myanmar (also known as Burma) since Thein Seing became president in March 2011, replacing the military regime with a democratic platform, veteran journalist Tom Cheatham said Sept. 11 at a National Press Club event presented by the NPC’s International Correspondents and Photography Committees and sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

“The fear of government is gone,” Cheatham said.

“People are much more relaxed about criticizing their government and local politicians,” Cheatham noted after pointing to an old billboard describing the previous regime, which stated, “The government will crush you.” Now, the face of government is drastically different and Cheatham cited street pictures that would have previously resulted in imprisonment.

“The press has also opened up,” Cheatham explained. “There is no censorship and it is a seller’s market for journalists in Myanmar.” He mentioned new technological developments in Myanmar, such as internet access and laptop computers that helped increase media growth.

Technology has increased communication and opened a world of “luxury” for the population. Internet access, cell phones, automatic teller machines and swipe cards are examples of recent growth.

“Electronics are selling like crazy,” Cheatham emphasized, “and Facebook is huge.”

Even the monasteries have cell phones, Cheatham said. “It is really an amazing transformation,” he said.

Transportation has escalated and people are buying cars with cash, Cheatham said, explaining that people saved their money during the “dark days,” making $20,000 Honda cars affordable.

There are shopping centers and new buildings going up, but he mentioned that they are preserving the old buildings, noting people’s hatred for the British has been replaced with fond memories of their British colonial system.

Buddhists represent approximately 90 percent of the population. Youth attend monastery celebrations and people donate food to the traveling monks on the day of the week in which they were born, Cheatham said. He also described how ancient archaeological sites, some thousands of years old, provide spectacular photo opportunities.

The rural communities do not experience the luxury of populated areas. The UNDP helps them in other ways that decrease their work burdens and addresses important health and safety issues.

Cheatham described UNDP pipelines flowing from mountain springs to rural roadside “filling stations.” People come to wash their clothes and themselves, and collect water to carry home, he said.

The UNDP provides schools, nurses, clinics, and training programs on sanitation, prenatal and postnatal care.

The UN supports “self-reliance groups,” providing loans up to $10,000 to start businesses, Cheatham said. Souvenir shops, crafts, roadside restaurants and tea businesses were a few of the successful businesses he cited, noting women are major participants.

Cheatham commented that the biggest problem in Myanmar is a conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, which account for 5 percent of the population, but he emphasized that the government was determined to stop it, since the conflict interferes with tourism, investment and economic development.

Despite the problems between the factions and the rural development challenges, Cheatham said “there is a huge amount of human potential in Myanmar, particularly from the kids.”