Wrapping up: Webinar footage and reflections on our Myanmar trip

We embarked on a controversial military-organised PR tour to Myanmar two weeks ago. In the interest of transparency, we opened ourselves up to questions from the public in a webinar hosted on April 9, a wrap up of which is provided here by editor Andrew Haffner

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April 13, 2021
Wrapping up: Webinar footage and reflections on our Myanmar trip
Security forces patrol at 10 mile market. Photo: Allegra Mendelson

The offer seemed ludicrous at first. It still does, in hindsight, and maybe even more so now that it’s all over.

After an unrelated interview, Ari Ben-Menashe, the PR man for the brutal new Myanmar junta, had just offered one of our new reporters, Allegra Mendelson, a chance to enter the country and report firsthand on conditions on-the-ground. She would be a guest of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, interview its officials and see their attempts to form a new state after sweeping aside civilian rule in their February 1 coup.

As her editors, we had no idea what to make of this. At first, we all half-believed the offer was an elaborate prank, imagining some extremely specific scenario in which a fake caller had posed as the infamous lobbyist to scam a reporter for a joke we couldn’t quite figure out.

Last Friday, on April 9, we discussed that odd beginning in a webinar featuring Allegra and Alastair McCready, our Editor in Chief, a recording of which we are posting in this article. If you follow the Globe at all, you probably know the basics of what happened in Myanmar, as well as the ethical context in which that trip has been discussed. 

Since returning to Cambodia a little more than a week ago, Allegra has published two articles on her experiences for the Globe in partnership with Al Jazeera and the Washington Post, funded with a grant from the Pulitzer Center. You can read those pieces on our website, as well as an editor’s note from Alastair explaining some of the thoughts that went into this.

But questions from readers remained, both about our motivations and the logistics of the trip itself. That’s why we decided as a team to host the webinar, to open ourselves up for examination and, hopefully, answer whatever they wanted to ask. Unfortunately, we found ourselves hitting the registration limit on our streaming platform sooner than we expected, and not everyone who was interested was able to attend. 

For any of you reading this now, we hope the recording, and the recap further below, answers whatever questions you might have – and if not, please feel free to get in touch. 

If you haven’t been following us lately, I can add here some basic details. Within a month of that first contact with Ben-Menashe, Allegra was on her way to Myanmar along with a team from broadcaster CNN, which sent their top international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, to report from the ground. From the moment Ward posted a picture on Twitter of her flight ticket to Yangon, the trip became a centerpiece for ethical debate on how journalists should interact with the brutal junta. 

That reached a new level on April 2, when 11 people who had spoken with the press group at two Yangon markets were detained almost immediately after by security agents. Though eight were released soon after, the status of the remaining three is unknown. 

The dramatic events at the markets sharply underlined the ethical debate, which had by then expanded to question the role of international correspondents at all, particularly those who practiced a so-called “parachute journalism” by dropping heedlessly into foreign locales. 

The biggest question that emerged was also one of the most basic: Why go to Myanmar?

The journalists were approached by people eager to pass a message along to what they saw as a clear link to the outside world. Looking back at the consequences of this, it is perhaps easy to say the visiting press should have turned these people away

Allegra answers this in more detail in the webinar, but I can say a few things here to quickly recap. For starters, the offer from Ben-Menashe, a man who’s made his career dealing with war criminals and authoritarians, immediately held our interest through its sheer weirdness. 

It made little sense to us, and we were filled with questions the lobbyist refused to answer. There was no clue why he had offered this, seemingly at random, and neither he nor his assistant would entertain the notion of providing an itinerary for the trip in advance. 

They’d originally told Allegra her entire visit would take place in Naypyidaw, the bunkered capital. Within the editorial team, we sketched an idea for coverage that followed the threads Allegra had been tracing since the start of the coup, writing a top-down piece that focused on the major institutions solidifying in the blast furnace of a military takeover. 

Allegra had previously interviewed top officials of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a body made up largely of former officials from the elected civilian government overthrown by the Tatmadaw. In Ben-Menashe’s offer, we figured, was an opportunity at least to gauge the military’s assessment of their main rival for legitimacy.

Pro-democracy graffiti in Yangon. Photo: Allegra Mendelson

Speaking in the webinar, Allegra explains it was only a day before she’d arrived in Myanmar that she was informed half the trip would take place in Yangon, raising the unexpected prospect of encountering actual members of the public. Even then, we thought it impossible that military handlers would allow the journalists anywhere near everyday people, assuming they’d keep the team in a firm grip.

That was fine with us. Burmese and foreign journalists within the country, some of whom had worked with Globe in the earliest days of the coup regime, have done a thorough and courageous job covering events on the ground, including the gathering of those personal viewpoints. Though Allegra has worked in Myanmar before, she explained last Friday she knew we weren’t going to scoop the reporters who had been covering the coup in-person from the start.

Rather, our curiosity lay in the fact that nobody had yet written from the vantage point Ben-Menashe was offering. As Allegra puts it in the video, the trip essentially became as close a look as we could get to the inner workings of the military coup machine. That Allegra would only be in the country for just about a week before returning to Cambodia also presented an opportunity to write frankly about the state of the junta press campaign in a way that might have endangered a reporter publishing in-country.

Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun prepares to speak to the press in Naypyidaw. Photo: Allegra Mendelson

The journalism that came from the trip demonstrates this freedom. In the articles Allegra published last week, she described the brash and clumsy attempts of the Tatmadaw to win foreign favour, as well as the hollowness of military promises to restore a semblance of democratic governance. She also confirmed that the Tatmadaw’s timeline to release its total grip on power is, at best, a moving target of two years with no clear end.

One could argue these details are taken as a given in a military coup, especially by one committed by as ruthless a group as the Tatmadaw. But the contents of Allegra’s articles came as dire news to many who read them, including both those in Myanmar living through the updates, as well as those intently observing from outside.

Finally, we come to the hardest point of the trip – the fate of the 11 people arrested at two markets in Yangon. Allegra speaks of that encounter in greater detail in the video, but to summarise here, the press tour was being led through the markets by military handlers eager to show normal, everyday scenes in Yangon. That plan quickly went awry thanks in part to the attention the visit had generated online, a buzz that sparked an impromptu protest at 10 mile market in particular when locals became aware the news team was in the area.

The journalists were also approached then by people eager to pass a message along to what they saw as a clear link to the outside world. Looking back at the consequences of this, it is perhaps easy to say the visiting press should have turned these people away. 

But in the moment, as the people insisted to be heard, to cut off their interaction seems an equally fraught choice. As Allegra wrote in her second piece from the trip, at least one young woman insisted that speaking to the reporters was worth the risk.

“Please help us, we really need it,” the young woman said. “They are covering up the truth. The military wants to show fake news to the world.”

Click the link above for the full details of the Globe’s trip to Myanmar, and be sure to read Allegra’s in-depth coverage for the Globe

The Globe did not accept payment of any kind to go on this trip. Though the trip was organised through the junta’s lobbyist and PR agent, the military didn’t cover our costs. Total fees for this trip amounted to about $5,000, most of which was in travel and a mandatory, two-week Covid-19 quarantine to reenter Cambodia that requires an up-front deposit of $2,000.

To fund this, Allegra, Alastair and I scrambled to pull together funding from the Pulitzer Center, which quickly and generously provided Allegra with a $3,000 grant. Allegra and Alastair also pitched the trip ahead of time to the Washington Post and Al Jazeera, which paid approximately $750 each for the two articles we cross-published last week. The rest was paid out-of-pocket.

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