HIGHLIGHTS

  • Such a journalist is 41-year-old Ko Swe Win.  Born to a poor family in Yangon, he grew up in politically turbulent times and fell victim to state repression early on.
  • In 2017, he criticized a powerful, ultranationalist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, for purveying “hate speech” and publicly commending the killer of a Muslim human rights activist.  Wirathu, Swe Win wrote, had desecrated Buddhism and should be punished for endorsing assassination and fomenting hate.
  • Swe Win and Myanmar Now draw strength from the fact that they are making a difference.  With a current readership of 350,000, the news service is highly regarded for the quality, balance, and depth of its reporting on high-impact issues, including land grabbing, child labor, and abuse of domestic workers.
  • In electing Ko Swe Win to receive the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his undaunted commitment to practice independent, ethical, and socially engaged journalism in Myanmar; his incorruptible sense of justice and unflinching pursuit of the truth in crucial but under-reported issues; and his resolute insistence that it is in the quality and force of media’s truth-telling that we can convincingly protect human rights in the world.

 CITATION

Myanmar has one of the most challenging environments for the practice of journalism in Asia.  With its history of military rule and weak civic institutions, the effort to build a strong, independent, and socially responsible press has to contend with draconian laws, rabid intolerance, repression and persecution.  It is an environment that calls for journalists of uncommon will, professional independence, and a strong sense of justice.

Such a journalist is 41-year-old Ko Swe Win.  Born to a poor family in Yangon, he grew up in politically turbulent times and fell victim to state repression early on.  In 1998, he was a university student when he was arrested with sixty-seven others for participating in a student demonstration and distributing propaganda materials against the ruling military junta.  Sentenced to twenty-one years in jail, he was tortured and starved but would turn prison into a learning experience.  He studied English, deepened his Buddhist faith, and did a lot of meditation.  Released after seven years in prison, he studied journalism, doing an online undergraduate program and with a scholarship, finished a master’s degree in journalism at Hong Kong University in 2009.   He worked for a magazine in Thailand, and then, intent on being “where the action was,” returned to Yangon in 2012.

In Yangon, he started as a stringer for Al Jazeera and New York Times and even set up a short-lived, self-financed internet news service. The first important opportunity came when Myanmar Now was launched in 2015, with seed financing from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Myanmar Now is an independent online news service focused on long-form investigative reports in both Burmese and English, available for syndication.  With Swe Win as editor-in-chief since 2016, the news service has built a strong reputation for well-researched, in-depth articles on critically selected, underreported human rights and social justice issues.

Swe Win has continued to face daunting challenges. In 2017, he criticized a powerful, ultranationalist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, for purveying “hate speech” and publicly commending the killer of a Muslim human rights activist.  Wirathu, Swe Win wrote, had desecrated Buddhism and should be punished for endorsing assassination and fomenting hate.  Swe Win was sued for defamation, physically assaulted by Wirathu’s supporters, and briefly jailed on the trumped-up charge that he tried to leave the country while on bail.  Illustrating how the law can be bent by the powerful, the trial was held in a location that required Swe Win to take a 780-mile road trip to and from the trial, which was purposely dragged out such that Swe Win had to do a total of seventy-one trips at great personal inconvenience and cost.  A case of blatant harassment, the judge finally dropped the case on July 2, 2019 for the plaintiff’s protracted non-appearance at court hearings.

Swe Win and Myanmar Now draw strength from the fact that they are making a difference.  With a current readership of 350,000, the news service is highly regarded for the quality, balance, and depth of its reporting on high-impact issues, including land grabbing, child labor, and abuse of domestic workers.  It exposed anomalies in the Myanmar Human Rights Commission; in a political indoctrination program ran by the army for civil servants; in the secret operation of some fifty prison labor camps where prisoners are made to work in quarries and mines; and in the activities of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, a movement of xenophobic, anti-Muslim extremists.  Swe Win is encouraged that public awareness has been raised and government has responded positively in a number of cases, punishing officials or changing policies.

A growing problem in Myanmar and the world, Swe Win says, is “intolerance and hostility towards different races and nationalities being exploited as a political weapon.”  “Only the promotion of human rights,” he says, “can help us contain this deplorable trend.”

In electing Ko Swe Win to receive the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his undaunted commitment to practice independent, ethical, and socially engaged journalism in Myanmar; his incorruptible sense of justice and unflinching pursuit of the truth in crucial but underreported issues; and his resolute insistence that it is in the quality and force of media’s truth-telling that we can convincingly protect human rights in the world.