"I have to give 24 hours a day for my media career. I think it is my responsibility to improve my region."
Journalist Nan Paw Gay
In a country emerging from years of conflict, now in the midst of a tumultuous political transition, Nan Paw Gay has been on a mission to create space for independent media that represents the voices and concerns of ethnic minorities.
Hailing from the Karen community, Nan Paw Gay has worked tirelessly to make the voices of ethnic minorities heard in Burma. She continues to inspire and train young people to document the important issues affecting their communities in the new Burma.
Her own story is nothing short of inspirational. After earning her graduate degree in 1995, Nan Paw Gay chose to move to Bangkok and work as a nursery school teacher, and later as a live-in cleaner, because she wanted to experience first-hand what millions of her compatriots go through to earn a livelihood. She briefly returned home to look after her ailing father, and after his death she moved to the Thai-Burma border in order to understand the struggles of the thousands of Karen refugees living there. This is also where she began her journey as a journalist.
Nan Paw Gay began her journalistic career with the news agency Karen Information Centre (KIC). She lived and reported from the Thai-Burma border for several years. She also worked for the Karen Women Organisation (KWO) to deepen her understanding of gender issues, and she continues to be associated with KWO.
Her work has coincided with and contributed strongly to the growth of grassroots journalism in Burma, where ethnic minorities have struggled to have their stories heard in the face of the dominant community's influence.
The post-colonial history of Burma has been a long tale of struggle for democracy and stability. Ethnic groups have been fighting their own battles to safeguard their identity and ensure equality. These struggles have manifested in many ways, including forms of armed insurrection, political struggle and civil society action. It has been one of the darkest periods in modern Burma's history, with numerous allegations of serious crimes such as extrajudicial executions, sexual violence and torture.
Despite the dangers and intimidation, Nan Paw Gay has consistently written about human rights violations in Burma including the use of sexual violence against women as a tool of war.
Apart from honing her own journalistic skills, Nan Paw Gay has also worked to train young people from the Karen community as journalists. Though many of the youngsters she trained have since resettled in third countries, she continues her work in the hope that some will choose to stay on to report from Burma.
In 2011, Naw Paw Gay set up Karen News - the English-language service of the KIC – in order to reach out to the wider world. Karen News has been instrumental in raising the profile of issues affecting the Karen community inside and outside Burma. Karen News and KIC related to human rights abuses, political transition, armed conflict and the post-2012 ceasefire, as well as on complex socio-political issues such as land rights, development and the environment.
Nan Paw Gay, who believes "ethnic voices are lacking in the public discourse in Burma", is also associated with Burma News International (BNI) - a key ethnic media coalition that brings together independent media groups reporting on ethnic communities of Burma. The BNI brings a cross-section of views on how the socio-political changes in Burma are affecting various ethnic minorities.
As the executive director and spokesperson for BNI, Nan Paw Gay engages the international community including the media and civil society. Through the BNI platform, Nan Paw Gay has been covering the challenges faced by independent ethnic-owned media groups who were allowed to publish inside Burma for the first time after 1962. BNI has also been extensively reporting on the resource and land conflicts in post-transition Burma, which affect nearly all ethnic minority groups and have fuelled several conflicts in Burma.
Being an independent news organization in a country riven with political disputes and sporadic conflict is not easy. Karen News journalists often find themselves in situations where either the state or powerful armed rebel groups are unhappy about their reporting. Yet Naw Paw Gay and her team continue to report on important issues affecting not just the Karen community but the whole of Burma. Despite its historic links with the Karen National Union (KNU), Karen News and KIC have also been critical of individuals within the KNU or its armed wing who they have found to be abusing their position.
Amidst all of these serious challenges, one of the biggest is trying to ensure the financial sustainability of such platforms.
Individuals like Nan Paw Gay play a critical role in strengthening and expanding democratic spaces in Burma. Not only has she helped bring significant attention to issues faced by various ethnic minorities in Burma, her efforts have also helped bring out the women's perspective and role in the socio-political transition of Burma.