A 'smile from the land of hope'

Senior Research Manager

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Senior Research Manager Lizz Frost Yocum reflects on the changes in Burma/Myanmar and the findings of our new survey on youth and media in the country.

Among my many treasured travel mementoes is a small square of perspex hanging from a chain.  It is a keyring which depicts a lady, The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. It was given to me in January this year by a young Burmese man who I trained to be a researcher for a study of youth and media in Burma.  As he showed it to me and his fellow students during a workshop  in Chiang Mai, Thailand (a safer place to deliver the training and to discuss the research than across the nearby border in Burma). He spoke of changes, admiration, and hope. But he also emphasised the need to be cautious, and he explained that his gift was only a small object because, although such images of the national heroine could now be shown, seen and sold, he still felt nervous about authorities finding it among his belongings.  

The recent by-elections in the country saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party win a limited number of seats and people were out on the streets celebrating publicly in joyous scenes.

It was wonderful to see such festivities, as only a few weeks ago I had been in Burma for a second workshop. My colleague’s caution from January had stayed with me and despite obvious signs of positive change, I was wary too. When I left the country that second time, I had not acquired a collection of the now ubiquitous Aung Sung Suu Kyi T-shirts for my suitcase, just a red ribbon with the gold NLD fighting peacock embossed to mark the then-imminent elections.  

Last Sunday I followed the election news with bated breath and hoped that is was not all to be a colossal, cruel April Fool’s joke. I’ve exhaled now. This week, I received countless fantastic photos on Facebook – I also got an email confirming progress on our study’s analysis and a call to discuss it later this week. It was signed off, ‘Smile from the land of hope’.  

Across the years, access to our audiences in Burma has been a major challenge for our work here at BBC Media Action.

In 2005, when we did the Voices of Burma survey, the BBC’s first ever national study of the country’s audience (or almost national, we had to exclude some areas where there were conflicts and curfews, and were able to work in only three languages), I could not even meet or acknowledge the research agency that had bravely surveyed more than 3000 people. The researchers had collated data about peoples’ lives, aspirations, key concerns, priorities, society and government services. I travelled below the radar to Yangon to present the findings privately to a select group of trusted development representatives.

Several years later, it seemed that an already restrictive operating environment had become even worse, when we faced challenges delivering our Lifeline Radio programming in response to Cyclone Nargis. Our information needs assessments – essential to help plan content for broadcasts - were limited to telephone interviews with NGO contacts, and even some of them were cautious about what they shared with us.  

Though our recent work has focused on youth and media, we’ve been able to explore another essential access issue, that of access to information – and the lack thereof. And – in a sign of changes taking place - I was able to travel into Burma for that second workshop, where we started our analysis of the study findings.  

Some changes were obvious upon my arrival:  a glassy new airport and a few mobile phones. The Lonely Planet guidebook I’d used in 2005 showed Aung Sung Suu Kyi ‘s house as off limits in a closed militarised zone; now it, as well as the National League for Democracy (NLD) office, is on the tourist circuit.   

The study, like Voices of Burma, again strove to be inclusive, this time working with the Burmese, Shan and Karen youth researchers we trained, and going into urban youth groups and rural communities.  And again, we worked within careful agreements about not naming the organisations, researchers or communities involved the study.

As we looked at the data, we found some things have not changed: still the same is the intense pride and privation. Burmese people in 2005 and again in 2012 expressed a deep love for their country, its beauty, traditional way of life, their culture, religion and hospitality.  Unchanged were the incredibly low standards of living they described, with rural communities still contending with very poor roads, inaccessible education and no electricity. Alongside these were the same high aspirations for education and justice, albeit expressed differently and a bit more openly than in 2005, and very firm practical concerns about livelihoods and opportunities.  (This time, we know how our sample was shaped by the migration of many rural men away from their homes to work, and where the prospects were not always kind; in 2005, we could not gauge this.)

As for changes, young people noted that the political situation was changing to more democratic processes and there were starting to be more freedoms, but they were still to reach them at ‘bottom’ level and it is still quite new: ‘The snake changes its skin, but it’s the same snake’ and ‘A blind person has just regained his sight’. Unlike before, and a sign that some people are starting to feel able to speak out, others volunteered that they were not proud of how the country was governed, the lack of jobs, and vulnerabilities of social injustice and disadvantages they had experienced.

In terms of access to information, we found that there were marked geographical information divides. Urban youth in our study used multiple information sources, including Facebook, TV, print journals and some radio to get news. By contrast, in rural locations, sources of news were much more limited:  radio, TV and word of mouth.  When we asked about ten recent news stories, in some rural communities, most people had heard nothing about them at all!  

We are still analysing the results and the data is rich. The research has put us in touch with the young audience we want to communicate with. We hope it is the start of a long and open conversation.

The programme Lin Lat Kyair Sing (roughly translated ‘Young Stars with a Bright Shining Future’) is to be launched on the BBC’s Burmese Service on 28 April.

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