The original version of this article by Lawi Weng was published on The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Myanmar's Mon-language weekly newspaper Guiding Star has just celebrated 20 years in operation. We spoke to Nai Kasauh Mon, the chief editor and founder of the paper, about the challenges of operating a Mon-language publication in an often hostile environment.
Myanmar has about 2 million ethnic Mon, and around 10 percent of them read Guiding Star, which is based in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State.
More people now consume news on their phones and few today still buy newspapers, according to Nai Kasauh Mon.
The print media has faced major problems as people move towards digital.
Circulation has fallen to around 1,200 from approximately 5,000 in 2014.
We are no longer covering costs. In the past we were able to pay our journalists from our marketing journals and sometimes able to save some money.
He said that the publication has also been the victim of state crackdowns and the arrest of its journalists as it challenged the military regime.
Nai Kasauh Mon said many ethnic Mon cannot read the language and the readership is now dominated by Mon Buddhist monks. The Mon language has not been recognized for official use, so for the young, learning it began to feel useless, he added. He blames the lack of a federal system and the dominance of the Burmese language. He regards Guiding Star as a key preserver of the Mon language.
Our readers love the language and it increases their ability to read more Mon literature.
Guiding Star is soliciting donations to pay wages and Nai Kasauh Mon said it will stop production if sales fall below 500.
If we could find 50 million kyats (US$33,200), we would use it to keep printing. If we could get 20 million kyats per year, we could deliver our journal for free to ethnic Mon.
Guiding Star covers mainly Mon issues but also translates some international news. It publishes opinion pieces, business coverage, interviews and an entertainment section.
The paper has 15 office staff and 25 distributors. It also has staff in Sangkhlaburi, a Thai border town with a large Mon community.
Some readers have suggested ways for Guiding Star to ensure its long-term survival.
Nai Banyar Hongsar from Australia, a former Guiding Star staffer who has trained Mon journalists, said journalism should be based around people’s lives, not ethnicity. Any publication would fail if it did not interest the readers, he said—media groups were closing around the world because they were failing to write about issues that affected people’s lives.
Journalists just wrote about easy subjects and ignored the big issues, which were important for the people. They did not write about news which has a big impact and the people lose interest in the newspaper.
He said drug problems, falling rubber prices, unemployed migrant workers and how flooding has destroyed paddy fields were important issues.
We did not write about their difficulties, but we did write about the seasonal festival. They knew already about the festival so we did not have to report it. Young reporters sometimes do not know what they should write about.
The front page of Guiding Star shows how the quality of the newspaper had declined, he added.
Mon Ashin Popphahongsa, a senior Mon Buddhist monk, said:
We read and support Guiding Star so we can find out about Mon issues. We believe it is more reliable than other media groups on Mon issues.
The monk said he liked the news and opinion pieces and the political coverage. To ensure its survival he suggested Guiding Star invest in distribution and extend its network, and not prioritize profit-making.
Min Jotamoi Anin from Ye Township said the paper’s marketing strategy must improve.
Social media is to blame. There are ethnic Mon who want to read Guiding Star, but they cannot buy it because of the poor distribution. I donated money this year to buy Guiding Star for our Mon national school.
Others feel the same, but are unaware they can buy Guiding Star for Mon national schools, Min Jotamoi Anin said.
The origins of Guiding Star
Nai Kasauh Mon initially worked for human rights groups in Sangkhlaburi, across the Thai border. He decided that citizens should not just know about human rights but also Mon politics, economics, education and about migrant workers in Thailand.
In September 1999, aged 31, he set up Guiding Start with three colleagues.
The Mon alphabet didn't exist in Microsoft Word, however, and Nai Ork Paing, a friend of Nai Kasauh Mon, worked to create it.
Nai Kasauh Mon contacted Mon monks in Yangon with media experience.
Some Mon monks worked for a Mon magazine in Yangon. They knew how to write articles and were well-educated in the Mon language. I invited a monk [Nai Bee Htaw] to secretly work for us on the border. We told him how we wanted to run our publication and he served as editor.
At the time, if the military discovered that someone was working in the news media across the border, the punishment could be severe.
Guiding Star lacked the resources to print many copies, and a Thai-based Mon helped to type and print the newspaper in Bangkok.
He worked for us for free at first. After printing, he sent it back to the border and even distributed it to Mon migrants.
Guiding Star initially printed 500 copies of each issue, which were mainly distributed at the border. Nai Kasauh Mon, meanwhile, was working at the Mon Relief and Development Committee and Distance Education Program.
I saved some money from my work and helped fund the newspaper. We almost gave up at that time as there were many difficulties.
Nai Kasauh Mon lacked the documents to enter Thailand, so he had to receive the copies at the border.
Guiding Star started with eight pages in black-and-white. In 2001, with funding from the Burma Relief Center NGO it was able to expand to 12 pages.
In 2008, the paper was secretly printed inside Mon State for the first time with the help of monks, and awareness grew.
“There were many risks for the monks that helped us,” Nai Kasauh Mon said.
In 2010, some monks tried to boycott the general election, which they said was not free and fair. Those monks called on ethnic Mon to join the boycott.
One monk who led the boycott was arrested was involved in distributing the newspaper. The authorities searched his monastery and found computers and printers. The monk was sentenced to over 10 years in prison on several charges.
Another distributor who was a member of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) was arrested in 2003. He was detained for a month but was released after the NMSP negotiated with the regime.
The administration of former president U Thein Sein, who came to power in 2013, allowed more press freedom, especially for ethnic publications.
The reforms allowed Guiding Star staff to return from exile. Meetings were held with Mon community leaders to discuss how Guiding Star could settle inside Mon State.
“The road to Mon State was bad at the time. We took a boat for the trip,” Nai Kasauh Mon remembers.
Guiding Star set about regrouping its former network of about 100 volunteers who had distributed the newspaper under the military regime.
The organization sold 5,000 copies per issue for 500 kyats ($0.33) each. Guiding Star has been based in Mon State for six years, following 14 years on the other side of the Thai border.
They welcomed us back. We feel strong support from the Mon. Among ethnic-minority news publications, we were the first to publish inside the country.