Killer snails, traditional culture and loneliness on the air in rural Myanmar

The benefits of breastfeeding and fighting loneliness amongst the elderly in rural areas are just some of the issues that young reporters on community radios in Myanmar cover to improve the livelihoods of their local communities

In a country such as Myanmar, marked by transition and deep wounds following five decades of military dictatorship, community radio – made by the community for the community, has a huge potential to bring together the communities and promote positive change. In Myanmar, much of the population lives in rural areas without access to media and is characterised by multiple ethnic backgrounds and languages. For this reason, establishing multi-ethnic radios can help contribute to community cohesion.

This potential prompted IMS–Fojo to begin piloting community radio in Myanmar in 2016 where the organisation delivered its first training in Ayeyarwady Region as part of its media development programme. The interest in more community radio stations and training grew quickly and especially young people in rural areas who lacked jobs and basic education have found inspiration and direction in the community radio training being offered.

Broadcasting on Facebook

As of 2019, three pilot community radio stations in Chin State (Tedim and Thuklai) and in Ayeyarwady (Tanyingone village) have been set up in close collaboration with the local communities and included community mobilization, constitution drafting, community radio training, ongoing mentoring, and production of community radio content. Five local coordinators are managing the pilots, and trainees have been selected in all locations. Thanks to engagement by devoted volunteers, the three stations have started broadcasting online on Facebook and/or SoundCloud -this, until the government passes the necessary by-laws and makes good of their promise to allocate at least 20 per cent of available frequencies to community radio stations to enable them to broadcast widely on FM.

Addressing ethnic complexities through radio

The three stations are all shaped in their own unique way and address the complexities of the ethnic population make-up in the country. While PhulVa FM in Tedim (Chin State) focuses on the surrounding villages with a potential audience of 200,000 Zomi-speaking people, Heisa FM serves 32 villages around Thuklai (also Chin State), and also reaches a diaspora audience. These two stations exemplify the complexity and diversity of Chin State – having 53 recognised ethnic languages.

Phul Va FM has developed significantly and has a cadre of around one hundred volunteers and a high level of self-development. Heisa FM in Thuklai, on the other hand, has a much smaller potential audience, as the area is suffering from depopulation. However, the Siyin ethnic community tied to Heisa FM has a strong diaspora that now has the chance to access “news from home” in their native language. Heisa FM has around 1300 followers on Facebook. The stories are mainly about history, ethnic heritage, places of interest, and interviews with elderly.

The third radio station based in Tanyingone broadcast its first story in 2018 on Facebook about a petrol and natural gas pipeline, which crossed the village tracks, and how the gas company finally started to compensate the village for using their land. Another piece told the story of how the villages take care of old villagers by building a house for them to remedy a social problem of abandoned elderly. There are also regular broadcasts on agriculture and how to grow bitter leaves, flowers for selling, the hard wood tree (as a substitute for teak), as well as stories about animal breeding.

This kind of community broadcasting in ethnic languages is unprecedented in the Myanmar context, and will be explored further, as the IMS-Fojo media development programme moves ahead. IMS-Fojo’s immediate plans for community radio development in Myanmar will also in future include multi-media training for youths in local communities to strengthen not only radio skills, but story-telling by video suited for mobile platforms.