Tim Patterson on the Kachin struggle for freedom in Myanmar

My travel writing buddy Tim Patterson has been traveling around Southeast Asia for six months now doing a bunch of things, but when I learned of his latest project in Myanmar, my eyes and ears perked up and I hope yours will too. He and his friend Ryan Libre have been working with the Pulitzer Center to provide crisis reporting in the Kachin state of northern Myanmar. Their first report came in December 13, and certainly brought to my attention a frightening situation that many are not aware of.

Tim and Ryan had been invited to Kachin by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) to lead journalism workshops to young writers. Upon arrival, however, the two were quickly ushered into their hotel room, where they were kept protected from the watchful eyes of the country’s reigning military junta, which has long opposed foreign journalism coverage of any activities taking place in Myanmar.

Instead of telling you, second hand, what transpired during their precarious stay in Myanmar, I thought it would be more worthwhile to hear some of the story straight from Tim. I prepared these questions for him by email, and he graciously and promptly responded.
BY: How did you and Ryan decide on this particular project, through this particular non-profit (the Pulitzer Center)?

TP: Ryan and I had been talking about a trip to Myanmar for several years. He lives in Thailand, where many Kachins go for various training workshops, and met a KIO operative at an ashram near Bangkok. When Ryan asked if I wanted to make the trip it took me about .8 seconds to say YES!

It’s been an immense privilege to work with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and I’m incredibly grateful to Jon Sawyer, Janeen Heath and the rest of the Pulitzer staff who decided to take a chance on this project.

There are a lot of terrific young journalists supported by the Pulitzer Center, like the folks at the Common Language Project, and it’s intimidating to see my name alongside those of more accomplished journalists. Ryan and I have a big responsibility to turn in quality work.

BY: Had you traveled to Myanmar before, and what were your impressions of the country upon arrival this time?

TP: Nope, I had never been to Myanmar before, and now that news of this project is plastered across the web I doubt the junta will ever give me a visa. It’s hard to talk about impressions of the country in general terms, because we were limited to small strips of territory controlled by the KIO.

My overall impression is of a rich and fertile land populated by deeply sincere, ambitious, learned people who – tragically – have almost no opportunity to pursue their dreams. The perpetual rule of the Myanmar military government is a travesty and countries who continue to deal with the junta, notably China and the ASEAN member nations, should be ashamed.

I should also mention that although what Ryan and I did sounds like hardcore journalism, our time in Kachin was quite relaxed. The Kachins were gracious hosts and we spent a lot of time drinking tea in front of a space heater and watching the BBC.

BY: What do you and Ryan hope to accomplish by telling about your experience in Myanmar?

TP: It’s shocking to see how little information on Kachin is available. Our main goal is to get the word out however we can, to make people aware that such a place exists. We’ll do this by hitting up as many forms of media as possible – online, newspaper, magazine, radio and even a short documentary film that we hope will air on the PBS program “Foreign Exchange.”

Our biggest challenge is to make our work accessible and entertaining to a general audience while doing justice to the complexities of the situation on the ground. There’s nothing black and white about politics in Myanmar, and that’s especially true when talking about the ethnic minority areas like Kachin, where the central government doesn’t have total control.

We’ll try to let the Kachins speak for themselves when possible through interviews and personal portraits, but it’s also important for journalists to be skeptical and try to capture the many facets of a given issue.

I’m more comfortable with the sort of personal travel writing where exaggeration isn’t a big deal. With serious journalism, there’s a much greater imperative to stick to the facts.

BY: How many more “Untold Stories” can we hope to read from you, and can you give us a little hint as to what to expect in future dispatches?

TP: A lot! Ryan and I are holed up in a teeny-tiny room in Hong Kong now, living on instant ramen and cheap beer and sorting through stacks of notes, thousands of photos and hours of video. We hope to publish dozens of stories across a range of media.

I’m working on a feature article that gives an overview of the political situation in Kachin, along with a more personal piece for BraveNewTraveler.com about the power of the Kachin’s Christian faith. We’re also putting together a piece for the Kyoto Journal’s special issue on War and Peace.

Going to Kachin was the easy part. Now the real work begins.

BY: Back in September, you had hinted about growing roots in Vermont. Is this still the plan, or have your plans changed after what you’ve experienced on your extended trip in Southeast Asia?

TP: I still want to settle down in Craftsbury, Vermont, and plan to break ground on my cabin this summer. There are lots of opportunities opening up in Asia, however, and I’ll be shuttling back and forth across the Pacific for a few years to come.

Next week I fly home to the States, where I’ll be recruiting students for Where There Be Dragons educational travel programs. In March I go back to Laos to finish scouting the new Dragon’s Mekong River semester program, then home again for cabin building, then back to Asia to lead a Dragon’s trip, and then maybe back to Kachin….

As much as I want to live a simple, low-impact life, the travel opportunities are difficult to turn down.

Tim continues to be an inspiration for me as a travel writer. He seeks the truth in every experience, no matter how heartbreaking or difficult the story is to tell. He and Ryan’s journey to Myanmar is living proof that stories are worth telling, no matter how dangerous or dire the consequences.

To read recent stories from Pulitzer Center writers, visit their Untold Stories blog site. You can also read up on Tim and Ryan’s project (as well as other Pulitzer Center projects) here.

All photos are courtesy of Ryan Libre. More images taken during the Myanmar project are viewable through his Idioimagers site.