The 2021 military coup in Myanmar has led to a bloody civil war. The conflict has had consequences on the population’s mental health. A podcast series aims to open up the conversation, raise awareness and reduce stigma.
It was on his first trip to Asia in 2017, that Joseph Andersson (name has been changed for security reasons – eds.) became fascinated with Myanmar. The British teenager had been traveling in Thailand and heard he should visit the country next door sooner rather than later. Myanmar was fast developing after a long period of isolation under strict authoritarian rule, and he was warned that mass tourism could be around the corner. He took the advice, flew to the country once known as Burma, and was immediately hooked.
Back in London at university, Joseph decided to focus on Southeast Asian cultural studies, specializing in Myanmar. There he began learning the language and meeting Myanmar people. His return to the country, however, was delayed by Covid, and then in Feb. 2021, the Myanmar military overthrew the democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi, ending the country's decade-long experiment with democratic rule and unleashing a brutal civil war that continues today. More than 4,400 people have been killed for having a perceived or known role in supporting the pro-democracy movement.
Joseph began raising awareness about Myanmar in the UK and in Aug. 2022 moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with the large Myanmar exile community there. Now 23, he's one of the coordinators of Resilient Voices, a podcast that gives Myanmar people living in exile, including journalists and human rights defenders, a platform to tell important stories in new, innovative ways. Joseph works alongside Ne Za, where the two coordinate the trainings and provide technical support to the podcasters.
DW Akademie has supported Resilient Voices and its most recent season featured four limited podcast series focusing on mental health. The shows looked at trauma faced by journalists, how people in displaced camps are coping, and the mental health of children affected by the conflict. The goal was to open up an honest conversation about mental health – it's a topic rarely discussed in Myanmar.
DW Akademie: Why did the people behind Resilient Voices choose podcasting as the medium for it?
Joseph Andersson: Podcasting gives people a chance to be more creative with how they share and disseminate information. It's a medium that's emerging within Myanmar culture, both inside the country and in exile communities, and I think that's largely due to the strong connection with Myanmar's rich radio culture tradition. Podcasts now are a way for Gen Z to get information in the ways that their parents or grandparents did with radio. That's one reason we decided on podcasting.
In terms of production, printing and distribution for print would be a nightmare. And we always have to think about security. Podcast production is relatively easy, and even though the people we work with have different backgrounds and experience levels, it doesn't take us long to train someone and help them get their content onto a platform. One of our big goals is capacity building, helping people learn new skills like production and storytelling that they can then use to make their own podcasts or apply for jobs. At the end of the day, Resilient Voices has become what it is because of the podcasters who participate in our workshops. There's a collective ownership.
Regarding audio in Myanmar, I've heard that during the dictatorship, many people couldn’t afford TVs and depended on the radio for news and entertainment. To get uncensored information, people had to find a way to tune into the BBC Burmese Service or VOA. Or they would buy cassettes on the black market to listen to content that wasn't available elsewhere.
There's a long tradition of smuggling audio material into the country. We can connect Resilient Voices with activities carried out by the '88 Generation (student-led pro-democracy uprising in 1988 – eds.) and the '88 uprising, when lots of young people crossed the border into Thailand and started producing media. They made radio programs and then smuggled the tapes back into Myanmar. Audio was a really great way of adapting to the current reality and getting information both into and out of the country at that time. It's similar today.
How popular a medium is podcasting among Myanmar people right now?
Myanmar people have been putting videos on Facebook and YouTube for a while, but podcasting as an audio format is still just emerging. But we're quite hopeful because, in the past three years, we've seen so many podcasts come up. Young people especially are turning to podcasts to share information. And they address every topic you can think of, ranging from culture, history, food, politics and human rights. We're getting them in different ethnic languages in Myanmar, not just Burmese or English. It's really cool to see that.
How has the development of podcasting been affected by the coup and the conflict? Has it put a break on podcasting or been a kind of accelerator?
I think it's two-fold. The coup has meant that a lot of individuals are turning to podcasts as a way of sharing their frustrations and any information which they think can contribute to people's understanding of what's happening inside the country. Myanmar is a black hole in terms of information. The military regime has done a good job preventing information flows. But podcasts make it easy for people to share the information they do have with people like me, on the outside, who want to understand what's going on. And it's a way of informing the exile communities all around the world – Myanmar people living in the US or Australia, for example. That being said, I also think the conflict has hindered development in that it's very difficult to distribute podcasts inside Myanmar because of all the internet shutdowns and frequent electricity cuts. Internet access is possible using a VPN, but that is not something that older generations can necessarily manage. And having a VPN on your phone is very risky.
Based on your own experience, do you think podcasting can play an important role in conflict situations?
Absolutely. Being in London when the coup happened, podcasts were my primary information source about what was happening inside the country. Now, it's as important as ever that these podcasts continue. Beyond keeping people updated on what's happening, podcasts are a way to advocate to a wider audience and try to mobilize action. One of the reasons I started advocating about Myanmar to the Foreign Office in London was because I listened to podcasts discussing what you can do to support the people's opposition to the dictatorship. And with podcasts, we’ve noticed that people are introducing narratives which aren't necessarily being discussed in the mainstream. For example, information about mental health. There’s still a huge stigma around it in Myanmar, but it's a big problem, especially due to the conflict. Podcasts give us the opportunity and platform to keep the conversation alive despite the situation.
Why is the topic of mental health so important right now in Myanmar?
The baseline understanding of any form of mental health in Myanmar is dismal. For example, friends studying psychology or counseling tell me they're still using a curriculum from 1949. The information is extremely outdated. There are still a lot of misconceptions and stigma and not much research. Remember, Myanmar is currently involved in a conflict, but it's been in these kinds of situations before. The country is dealing with generational trauma, passed down from parent to child. To think about a future Myanmar, one that is prosperous and has a functioning democracy, we need to address this trauma now and not wait. Mental health podcasts are a way to break the stigma and inform society about the issues and treatments. It may be something as simple as speaking to a friend or counselor about your problems, but these things which may seem very basic for other societies are still quite new for Myanmar.
Talking about mental health was even new for the producers at Resilient Voices. What was their experience like?
It's been really interesting for a lot of them because they incorporated their personal experiences into the episodes. That gave them the opportunity to heal and understand themselves better. We have an in-house emotional support worker who was available at any time to consult with them. It was a healing journey for them, too.
Is there any podcasting production going on inside of Myanmar, as far as you know? Or is most everything done by people or media outlets in exile?
There are individuals who are recording and disseminating inside the country. But those tend to be people in what we call “liberated areas” under the control of ethnic armed groups, not the military. There are immense challenges inside the country. Hyperinflation has made many things unaffordable. And regarding internet access, while you could use a VPN, it's illegal. If you're caught with one on your phone, you're likely to face a prison sentence, beatings and even torture. There are really severe punishments for just trying to access information.
Now it's crystal ball time. What's your outlook for the Myanmar podcasting space?
Well, the media outlet-affiliated podcasts will always be there. And there are some other independents which are going strong. But right now, it's very difficult to monetize podcasts in the current climate. So while there's strong potential for growth, it depends on earning revenue. Resilient Voices is lucky enough to work with individuals and organizations who provide financial support. But for an individual, even one with amazing production skills, the challenges involved in having an independent podcast channel are enormous.
That said, there are so many interesting, hidden stories out there. Of course, right now we're talking about human rights and democracy and the ongoing conflict. But Myanmar is more than that. It's a country that was off the grid and mysterious to outsiders for so long. There are many, many stories still to be told. Podcasts would be a great way to do that.
Joseph has some recommendations for podcasts in English for those interested in what's happening in Myanmar. They're all available on Spotify.
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