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On the challenges of reporting on a war-torn Burmese state

(RSF/IFEX) - December 20, 2012 - On December 7th, 2012, the United-Nations expressed "grave concerns" for the displaced people in Kachin state in areas where the UN has no access. Located between Burma, China and India, the Kachin state is one where jade, diamonds, rubies, gold and precious hard woods are abundant. Today, it is also precious for its hydropower potential. Fierce fighting has raged in Kachin state since a 17-year ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shattered in June 2011.

Since then, some 75,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan states have been forced to flee from their homes to find refuge near the Chinese border. Ryan Libre has been photographing the situation there for the past five years. He has about 50,000 images of a state that he says has a lot of "grey areas". Based in Thailand, he first learnt about it in 2007 when one of his neighbours' guests told him "I am not Burmese. I am a Kachin". At that time, he barely found information about Kachin state. "BBC had no mention of it and I could only find very old articles about it in the New York Times" he recalls. As no one was really interested by his work after Libre came back from his first trip, he wanted to go further and take better pictures to address the issue and make it known. In 2008, he launched a project to train young photographers to document their world and learn about photography.

RSF's correspondent in Cambodia met him to discuss the situation for journalists and access to information there.

Reporters without borders: How can you access the Kachin state?


Ryan Libre: I am always going through China because the access from Burma is forbidden. You would find more than twenty checkpoints on the way and now the bridges to access it are destroyed. Entering legally and illegally from Burma is much more complicated than going through China. The access is still difficult. For example, the UN had access for the first time to the refugee camps almost a year after the refugee crisis started. No international UN staff was allowed. Only Burmese officers could do that job. The first time I crossed in 2007 was the most difficult as I did not know what to expect.

And what did you discover?

It was a quite a free place. I was most surprised by finding a nice city with better infrastructure and access to information than elsewhere in Burma. You could feel there was less censorship too. A few journals were printed in the native language and they have their own satellite system. There were two news stations, and access to BBC and Al Jazeera! You could even find Human Rights Watch reports in the library etc.

Nowadays, it is still free although Kachin news services are more limited. There were also more services available before. Because of the conflict, a lot of the programs have been stopped because the KIO government has to deal with the refugee crisis now. I also agree with the perception that Burmese reports were not faithful about the situation in the state and that this misinformation played a role in the conflict escalating and still not being resolved.

What is the situation for journalists there?

When I first arrived, people and authorities were really excited to have me there and were making sure I could have access to what I needed. That lasted for years but when the fighting started a lot of reporters came to cover the fighting and refugees. The authorities are generally quite open to show their state and what is going on. But there is not enough human resources (translators etc.) for instance, and everything takes a long time. The state struggles to deal with this when already dealing with a refugee crisis without international help. This is, in part, why some journalists feel they are not as open or helpful to reporters.

What is your opinion about freedom of information there?

The internet access is very poor and people use cards coming from the other side of the Chinese border. But it is still pretty free. However, the problem of access also comes from the fact that international media does not write enough about it. For example, the majority of the editors still do not know about it. It's much better than it was a year ago, when it was really hard to find a publication to talk about it. And when there is, the reports are generally quite superficial. There needs to be more consistent in-depth reporting, for example a good story about the education system. Somebody could compare the Kachin education system in the 60s to what it is now with the "burmanization". The lack of information even applies to the Burmese and Thai who do not know what is going on in this state.

Has China any impact on information there?

Of course, there is a lot of pressure from China when it comes to allowing journalists to go to Kachin state. But it has an open relationship with China. Therefore, there is a very fine line for them to walk between helping the journalists and ensuring that China is pleased about the published information. The good relation comes from the fact that Chinese are primarily concerned about economics, which makes it easier. There is an interesting parallel to be made: if you take India, the world's biggest democracy, there is no relation with the Kachin state as they are not the state government. The Chinese grant people more freedom: you can travel to China with a Kachin I.D for example. But do not make a mistake: there are also two Chinas. While the Yunnan government is more flexible with the state, Beijing is less lenient.

Are the Kachins waiting for a move from Aung Sang Suu Kyi?


The Kachins would like something from her but they are not waiting for her to solve their problems. It would help if she talked. Her father is in part responsible for the place they are in today as they were promised a union based on equality. They would like her to keep her father's promise. Unfortunately, until more rights are respected, I don't think there will be any stability. To that extent, the issue of the Union of Myanmar and the Panglong agreement needs to be addressed.

Ryan Libre was interviewed by Reporters Without Borders Cambodia correspondent Clothilde Le Coz.

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