Chasing stories in
Thailand and Myanmar

Fairfax visual journalist Iain McGregor and feature writer Charles Anderson travelled to Thailand, supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant, and produced two interactive web features. The pair also planned to accompany a Nelson family returning to their home state of Chin in Myanmar (also known as Burma) for the first time since fleeing. Myanmar has been the biggest source country of refugees to New Zealand over the past decade. Anderson tells us that things didn’t work out quite as they had planned.

Charles Anderson takes some time out in Myanmar

We were ambitious, at least. Iain McGregor and I wanted to do three stories in three weeks traversing two countries. It seemed doable. The only issue was is that to make it work we needed things to line up perfectly. 

It didn’t happen, not for one of our stories. But in the end the work we produced ended up being better than we hoped for.

For our first story we planned to head to Bangkok for a week where we would meet up with a former New Zealand police officer who now worked as an anti-sex trafficking investigator.

We hoped to coincide our visit with an active case being concluded so we could see what it was like when investigators finally raided a brothel that trafficked women who were either underage or held against their will. That didn’t happen. So we had to improvise.

Instead, we went undercover with the investigator, posing as sex tourists, and got an insights into how these places operate and who the victims of the industry are. It was a risky enterprise that required covert cameras, cover stories and escape plans if things went awry.

Our second story was meant to follow the trials of a Kiwi kickboxer as he returned to his beloved Thailand for the last time. We hoped that our visit to Kamphaeng Phet would coincide with his training and eventual fight. That didn’t happen. Fight scheduling mean that we would not be there to see him compete.

Watch a video slideshow of McGregor's images of kickboxing in Thailand

So, instead our story honed in on the gym that he trained at - the young boys who lived there and the trainer who helped feed and clothe them. We thought the story was stronger for it and looked more deeply at Muay Thai as a cultural way of life and economic springboard for those who live in poverty.

Both stories were published as, in my unbiased opinion, some of the best visual multimedia features seen in New Zealand. The sex trafficking story also drew huge online audiences.

However, we thought our final story would be the most powerful. We met a Chin family from Myanmar whose father came to Nelson as a refugee. All six of them were heading back to their homeland to visit their family. It would be the first time they had done so since they fled more than a decade earlier. We were to meet them in the capital Yangon and travel with them back to their home by van.

We met the family as planned - the kids crammed in the back of a van - shuttled in from a smaller village on the outskirts of the city. They were Kiwi kids but with a heritage they knew little of. 

Only the eldest child remembered Myanmar. She remembered her parents leaving after running into trouble with the local police. She and her sister lived with her grandparents in a remote part of the Chin region. Her sister died of pneumonia before the family was invited to settle in New Zealand. She did not know how she would feel seeing those grandparents for the first time since she was a young girl.

We had a very small window of travel time. As it unfolded, we were in that van on our way out of the city when it became more and more apparent that we would not have enough time to get back for our flights. The time frame kept changing. And changing. It was likely a combination of wishful thinking on both ours and the family’s part and also a fear of disappointing. Whatever the reason there was a big misunderstanding.

I told Iain that he should carry on, I would re-book his flight back to Bangkok, where we were flying out of, but it was more important that we had visuals of the trip.

I left him with the family and headed back to Yangon. Once there I got a call. They had told Iain that even delaying his flight by a couple of days would not work. So he was left on the side of the road, several hours out of Yangon, somehow having to figure his way back into the capital. It was a pretty crushing time. The family was disappointed too.

When we got back home we hoped to still be able to salvage the story based on what we had and fill in the gaps with photos from the family and their recollections of the trip. It wouldn’t be ideal but it would be something. But the family seemed to change their minds about their involvement with the story. So it is left in limbo and we are unsure if it will ever eventuate.

That’s part of planning these sorts of stories. Be ambitious, be up for disappointment but also be open to adapt. The results can sometimes exceed your expectations.