Making a world debate local
Country Director for BBC Media Action, Burma
It might not have made the international headlines. It didn't even feature famous names such as Aung San Suu Kyi. But a national TV and radio debate in Burma last week broke new ground in a country that is experiencing dizzying changes on an almost daily basis.
At the World Economic Forum for East Asia, the BBC debate brought together members of the government, the leading opposition party (NLD) and Mizzima, a formerly exiled media group, to answer questions about whether the country’s economic growth would really trickle down and improve the lives of all, rather than just the elite.
The debate, moderated by Soe Win Than of the BBC Burmese Service, took place in a gleaming conference centre in Naypyidaw, the country's vast, empty capital built five hours north of the country's most populous city, Rangoon.
But the voice of ordinary Burmese men and women was heard loud and clear through vox-pops recorded by the production team of BBC Media Action’s youth radio programme, Lin Lat Kyair Sin (Bright Young Stars).
"If we work, then we eat"
The vox-pops featured people like a motor-cycle taxi driver in Rangoon who said that Burma's much celebrated economic transformation has had no positive effect yet on his own daily life. "For people like us, there is no change," he said. "No change because if we work today, then we eat today."
The government representative on the panel was challenged by questions on issues of corruption, lack of investment in rural communities and energy supply. A day labourer, for example, asked, "Myanmar doesn't get enough electricity so why do you sell [energy] to our neighbours? When will Myanmar get electricity?"
A woman who runs a flower stall in Htauk Kyat Market on the outskirts of Rangoon also took the chance to urge government ministers to find out what was really going on in the country.
"In order to help people who really suffer," she said. "The country minister should come down, check and analyse every quarter (of the township). They should share the feeling of what is happening in the quarter."
The debate – conducted and broadcast in Burmese on the national TV network SkyNet and on the BBC Burmese service – is a huge and encouraging leap forward for BBC Media Action’s work in the country.
Behind the scenes at the debate in Naypyidaw.
Since April last year, we've reached out directly to Burma's next generation with LLKS, our youth civic education programme broadcast on the BBC Burmese service.
This year, we've been working with MRTV, the state broadcaster, to improve the quality of information they provide to Burmese audiences. And we will continue to build the capacity of working journalists across the country to ensure that as the media opens up, they are prepared to report on issues accurately and ethically.
It was MRTV journalists, trained by BBC Media Action, who were responsible for yet another of last week's ground-breaking events.
After Thursday's WEF sessions, Aung San Suu Kyi held a press conference in English where she repeated her desire to run for president – a declaration that she had made that day on the BBC World Debate programme.
BBC Media Action's trainer in Burma, Bill Hayton, requested that she repeat her statement in Burmese. She did so and the clip made it into that evening's Lively News, a new news and current affairs show on Myanmar Radio, and was part of the next day's news bulletins on MRTV.
It was a watershed moment for the state broadcaster MRTV to broadcast not only a political statement from Aung San Suu Kyi but her declaration, in Burmese, of her desire to run for the presidency.
But then in today's Burma, it seems, watershed moments are a daily occurrence.