CHIANG MAI, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)–Shah Paung, a reporter for a magazine that is the leading source of news about Burma, first remembers Burmese troops attacking her village when she was 5 years old.
"I remember my brothers were playing volleyball in front of the house," she said. "I felt the ground shake. My mom grabbed me from the floor," recalls the writer for the Irrawaddy, a magazine based in northern Thailand.
That was around 1989, the year when the junta established the Union of Myanmar, a name that pro-democracy activists still reject. For the next 10 years Shah Paung’s ethnic Karen village came under repeated attack as the military junta carried out a brutal offensive against the peoples of eastern Burma.
In 1999, with only their clothes and some rice, Shah Paung’s family fled to Thailand, walking three days through the jungle, hiding from Burmese soldiers and eventually landing in a refugee camp.
In the face of one of the world’s most brutal military regimes, Shah Paung says she is accustomed to feeling helpless.
"I had been angry, I had thought about joining the armed struggle," she said. "That was before I realized the best way to help my people was reporting their truth."
Nine years after her family’s escape, Shah Paung–who, like many Burmese, has only one name–has now committed herself to reporting the ongoing conflict in Burma, where the military government continues to attack and burn down ethnic villages and rape is used as a weapon of war against local women by Burmese soldiers.
"I have no village now; it’s all gone," she said. "Now all I can do is try to help those still suffering inside by writing."
At the Irrawaddy, which was started in 1992 by exiles living in Thailand, Shah Paung reports on the heavily isolated country via a network of secret informants communicating largely via mobile phone.
Frontline of Crisis
Sometimes her reporting also takes her across the border, where she meets with Karen people on the frontlines: resistance fighters, medics and human rights workers.
She says it’s difficult to leave them and return to Thailand. "But I know my skills are best used writing," she said. "I would be no help on the battlefield."
When she arrived at the Noe Poe refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand, at age 17, Shah Paung spoke no English. She recalls an overcrowded, daunting place.
"There was a huge fence around it, and inside there were so many people and so many huts," she said. "I had never seen anything like it. I wanted to run away."
When she learned the camp offered free English classes, she became eager to stay.
After two months, Shah Paung got a job as a secretary for the camp’s committee on women. She worked 10-hour days for a full year inside the squalid camp until she was hired by the Karen Women’s Organization, an advocacy group based in Mae Sariang, Thailand, that operates training and support programs for Karen women in all seven Karen refugee camps along the Thai border, as well as inside Burma.
With the Karen Women’s Organization, Shah Paung learned more English and basic computer skills. She became a trainer, teaching groups of women in the camps about basic women’s rights. She says the trainings were needed, as women inside the camps lack basic education, often marry young and endure high rates of domestic violence.
When Shah Paung published a magazine in the camp about the training program, she knew she had found a way to support the Karen people.
Her Way to Fight
"I used to think, ‘what can one girl do against the military?’" she said. "But after putting out the magazine, I knew I had found a better way to fight the regime."
Shah Paung then landed a special women’s internship at the Irrawaddy. Funded by Western donors such as the New York-based Open Society Institute, it reports in English and Burmese for the international community and those still inside.
Shah Paung says one of her biggest concerns is the safety of her sources.
Anyone caught giving information to the Irrawaddy, she says, can be sentenced to many years in prison. When Buddhist monks sparked massive protests in Burma in September, at least 30 demonstrators were killed and thousands were arrested in a government crackdown that cut communication lines to the outside world.
The safety of the survivors of military sexual violence is of particular concern. Those who dare speak up about rape are vulnerable to retaliation, reports the Chiang Mai, Thailand-based Shan Women’s Action Network.
The rape crisis is not limited to those inside Burma, says Shah Paung. She has reported on incidences of rape among Burmese migrant workers and refugees in Thailand, who because of their often undocumented or unofficial status, are vulnerable to attacks by police and camp officials.
When the September protests caught the world’s attention, Shah Paung and others at the Irrawaddy worked long nights providing up-to-the-minute reports for the international press on the situation inside.
"We had so much hope and so much concern at the same time," she said. "When I would go home at night and close my eyes I would see the faces of the protestors."
Shah Paung, who did not want her photo published, says her strength was tested during the intense coverage.
"When I reported on women dissidents who were imprisoned by the government, and had to leave their young children, I finally just started crying," she said.
Since then, information from inside is even more difficult to come by. Following the crackdown, many who try to communicate with the outside world continue to be arrested. Last month a poet and a blogger were detained inside Burma and journalists continue to flee the country.
Today the troop presence in eastern Burma is higher then ever before, as the military strengthens its campaign against ethnic people, according to human rights groups such as the Bangkok-based Alternative Asean Network on Burma.
Villages continue to be burned to the ground, landmines planted and women raped by government troops. The Karen continue to wage an armed rebellion against the military, a resistance that has now dragged since the end of British control 60 years ago.
Anna Sussman is a freelance print and radio reporter and co-founder of Backpackjournalist.org. She currently lives in Bangkok, and reported for the Irrawaddy in 2004. She traveled to Burma most recently in January 2008.
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Shah Paung, "Fear Comes With the Job":
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