The next morning I ordered more mohinga and thick, sweet tea at a corner shop. All around were the sinuous sounds of the local language and the deep-throated hacking of chronic coughs, symptomatic of a constant city haze. Patrons sat and chatted, a few with newspapers in hand, two with eyes on their phones. A newspaper cart did a lively trade next door. Despite the rise of mobile media, print remains a popular source of information. Reading is habit, both in teashops and private homes. Tenement residents dangle ropes from their balconies with little clips to which newspapers or plastic bags of street food can be attached. That’s delivery, Yangon style.
That night we met several of our former students for dinner in the city. Our embassy colleague entered the restaurant with a wide grin and firm grip. “It is very good to see you,” he said with sincere eyes—no longer the drawn, pale face we had seen leaving Mandalay.
I learned much that night over rice and curry. Journalists wanted in-house mentors who would come to teach, not take an exotic vacation (which is how some characterized a recent influx of foreign media trainers unfamiliar with local needs). They wanted training in conflict reporting as papers sent teams to cover the spreading violence. They wanted to know how to gain access to both sides during riots. Several said the authorities still hassled reporters covering conflicts outside of Yangon—but it was nothing like the censorship of years past. For the first time, journalists had spot news to chase and the chance to actually print it. Sudden, thrilling advancements tempered by the headache of figuring out how to actually do it all.
And I learned that editors keep faith in a readership base that still favors ink on paper. Everyone is building a website, most every publication has a Facebook page. But much of that online presence is aimed at overseas readers and pockets of new-media enthusiasts. In general, respect for newsprint endures. Editors are banking on that.
There was talk about the government and its future. Many said the old generals are simply “changing clothes.” The appearance of democratic reform looks good internationally. It’s profitable for the country and those generals in new suits. Military power, we were told, remains paramount, no matter the clothes.
Later that night, a former student, the son of a wealthy businessman, drove us and a few others home in his SUV. There was breaking news: Riots between Buddhists and Muslims were spreading across a region north of Yangon known as Bago, one friend read from his phone as we passed through Yangon’s darkened streets. Another journalist opened her tablet and read a statement by US Ambassador Derek Mitchell pledging aid to Meiktila, where dozens have been killed and thousands displaced in widespread violence. Then she spent several minutes on the phone relaying Bago updates to her newsroom.
None of that would have—could have—happened four years ago.
Jerry and I left early the next morning, the city’s streets nearly empty as our taxi retraced our path to the airport. On the far horizon, I saw it again: that bright red ball of a sun. But this time, it was rising.