Myanmar internship life-changing
experience for journalist

Press reporter Emily Spink describes the month she spent working at the Myanmar Times in Yangon on an Asia New Zealand Foundation media internship.

"Every scene on every busy street corner told a story"

I stood atop a temple at sunset and teared up at the prospect of leaving the country I had just fallen in love with. My filthy feet were a tell-tale sign of three days spent barefoot temple climbing.

Six weeks earlier, I had sat at Christchurch airport and been sick with nerves as I waited to board my flight to Myanmar.

My Dad and I had put forward our ideas on what to do if I came up against a tiger, snake or ravenous stray dog. To look it in the eye or run?

“Myanmar. Isn’t that run by the Military?” commented a friend, as I announced my internship.

Myanmar is a country emerging from years of strict military rule, but how that looked in a newsroom or in the streets, rice paddies and villages, I had no idea. Outdated travel guides would have any traveller thinking ATMS, bottled drinking water or air conditioning were rarities.

While I was more than 10,000 km from home, during my time in Myanmar I felt so genuinely welcomed, which apparently meant I had lived in Myanmar in a previous life, according to a Buddhist colleague.

Every scene on every busy street corner told a story. I taxied to work in the morning, and then navigated the throngs of pedestrians of street stalls on my walk home each night.

Yangon was this bustling, dirty, diverse and exciting city. And yes, safe bottled drinking water was bountiful, as were ATMs and hipster western bars and restaurants.

Admittedly it was a lonely existence living in a hotel for six weeks, but I arrived 'home' from work, to be greeted by a gorgeous toddler. He spent each day playing on my street, while his family ran the corner snack stall until late each day. We danced and he blew me kisses goodnight.

For weeks, I only ever saw him awake and I wondered when and where he slept.

Eventually I found him late one night, snuggled up with his two sisters on a dirty piece of cardboard outside my hotel. A stray dog rifled through the rubbish nearby. A second piece of cardboard lay over the sleeping trio.

Days earlier, I had played with the child and his sisters on the street. They showed me how to have fun with nothing but some rubber bands and a clear strip of concrete. For me that was Myanmar.

In a country where the average annual income was less than US $200 and life is a daily struggle for so many, locals seemed inclined to want to put the needs of others before their own.

To put that into perspective, one US $4 coffee I purchased for an interviewee, amounted to what he could spend in one day to support his family.

Myanmar certainly gave me a fresh perspective on human rights issues.

I loved the dual-language newsroom of the Myanmar Times, which was home to a team of very passionate Burmese and foreign reporters. I was encouraged to pitch and write about anything.

Admittedly, I didn’t write as many articles as I had hoped to. Communication was not always possible or efficient. Getting a story off the ground could take a week or two, and many interviews were done over Skype, or via email. There were language, Wifi and time zone barriers to navigate. Left to my own devices, I filled the gaps with food reviews or the odd travel piece.

There were endless opportunities to give a voice to those who didn’t get heard all that often. So I left Myanmar grateful to have met 17 year-old Myo Min Htet, who allowed me to raise awareness of accessibility issues.

For three hours, in searing heat, Myo Min Htet, who used a wheelchair, his Mum, a translator, photographer and I, toured the busy streets of Yangon.

In those three hours, kindness, ignorance, poverty, discrimination, and graciousness emerged on the streets. 

I have returned to New Zealand with a burning passion to venture back to Southeast Asia. It is a place that taught me so much about what it means to live a good life, despite the barriers.

This is Burma and it is unlike any land - Rudyard Kipling.

Spink's articles published in the Myanmar Times: