Editor’s note: Smirk New Media has had the privilege of hosting Aung Soe Win the past few week at our offices downtown. Aung Soe Win is a journalist from Burma, who is here in the USA as part of the Professional Fellows Program. We asked him to write up a blog post talking about his background, what it’s like to be in a country which just recently got press and social media freedom, as well as his thoughts on the Sooner State. Enjoy!

By Aung Soe Win

I was born in Lamaing, a small town in southern Mon State, and left my hometown to Thai-Burma Border in late 2006, and spent about 8 years for the searches of further education and job opportunity on the border and in Thailand.

In 2010, I worked at Human Rights Foundation of Mon-land (HUFROM) gathering data of human rights abuses and writing reports. In 2012, with a scholarship from Child’s Dream Association, I started my college at the Ramkhamhaeng University, studying for multimedia journalism and marketing. After finishing my study, I returned to Mon News Agency (MNA), which is under umbrella of HURFOM, working as marketing manager and news editor.

Apart from working for MNA, I recently started a new venture, which is running a restaurant, called Rasar Non, or the Royal Taste; the menu includes Thai and local Mon foods.

And, now, I am in Oklahoma and my placement is at Smirk New Media (http://smirknewmedia.com/ ) in the Oklahoma City. With the help from my placement, I have met several different people with different backgrounds, including web developers, journalists, NGO workers, and entrepreneurs. And, my colleague Lennon Patton from the Smirk New Media, who is taking me around the city and introducing me with different people, also has marketing and sale experiences and shared with me his experiences every day.

The Sooner State and its people

It is my first time in Oklahoma and the first time in the United States. What reminded me most on my first day in the state is about the article that talks about the tribe of people called “Asu” use an animal “rac” for their needs. Yes, cars are everywhere! And, people here do not seem to have or use public transportation. But, recently I learnt that the land is so massive in the state that it makes more convenient for the locals to travel with their own cars.

It has been two weeks already in the States, and so far, I love it! The people here are generous, friendly and helpful. They like to share about their work and ideas, invite you over dinners.

Although I did not really like “American Football”, now I start liking it. And, oh, keep in mind that people here do not like to see you being late.

What is Professional Fellows Program?

It is a five-week program and hosted by the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, partnered with the U.S. Department of State, the Center for Entrepreneurship Development at BRAC University in Bangladesh, BRAC Myanmar in Burma and Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India.

The objective of the program is to inject the Bangladeshi, Burmese and Indian participants, who are mid-level emerging leaders in different working fields, including small business ventures, government, NGOs and social entrepreneurship, into working small businesses in Oklahoma and associate them with one of the America’s leading universities. It also aims to provide the participants with professional experience and training that will foster their talents and prepare them for more responsible leadership positions in their businesses, communities and society, enabling them to apply back in their countries.

What do I want to get?

During my Professional Fellows Program, my first priority is to acquire the skills and knowledge of writing a business plan, along with marketing and sale strategies. Second priority is to meet different people with different backgrounds but mainly in media sector, startups and social entrepreneurship.

Independent Mon News Agency or Mon News Agency

The company I work for, the Mon News Agency (MNA) (www.monnews.org) , founded as Independent Mon News Agency (IMNA) in 2000, is a multimedia agency. With its coverage on largely southern Burma, its media products include online news, weekly newspaper, radio [broadcasting] and video clips for TV news.

Since its inception, I had operated on Thai-Burma Border, but after the country has been reformed, the agency decided to move in the country in 2015. And, now registered as Mon News Agency, it is based in Mon State’s Capital Mawlamyine.

MNA, which has been running over the past 15 years as a non-profit, is now in transition to full profit agency. To be able to stand on its own feet and to generate regular revenues for the long term sustainability, it is now working hard and hopes for the best for this new adventure.

Media reforms and social media spotlights

Following a new government in 2010, the country unblocked international news websites, exiled news websites and YouTube.

In 2012, it lifted pre-publication censorship for the press and gave green lights to privately-owned daily newspapers and ethnic group-run newspapers to publish.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Burma was ranked at 174 out of 178 for press freedom in 2010. But, the results of political change have moved the country up to 144th place.

The number of internet users grew to 625,000 in 2014 but reached up to 11,000,000 in 2016 (according to InternetLiveStats.com and internetworldstats). At first there was only a state-run telecom, the Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), but two additional telecom companies, Telenor and Ooredoo, started in 2013, have been around the country ever since.

3G networks arrived in the country as early as 2008, under MPT operation, and there came 4G networks first by Ooredoo in May, 2016, followed by Telenor in July.

When it comes to social media platforms, Facebook reigns. In 2015, the Facebook had 4 million users in the country. But, mid-May 2016, Facebook had 9.7 million monthly active users (Amara Digital Marketing Agency), while the number of Facebook subscribers hit 11,000,000 in June 2016.

The number of mobile penetration and internet users is on the rise and in fact, the mobile penetration is expected to hit 100 percent within the next five years (according to lamplight.me).

About the Mon people and Mon State

One of the earliest peoples to reside in Southeast Asia, responsible for the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Indochina, and a major source of influence on the culture of Burma, the Mon people now mostly live in Mon State, Bago Region, Irrawaddy Delta, and along the southern border of Thailand and Burma.

The Mon language is part of the Monic group of the Mon-Khmer family, and believed to be source script of writing systems of Burmese. The national symbol is the Hongsa, Sheldrake or mythological water bird or Swan and known as Hintha in Burmese.

The culture and traditional heritages includes spiritual dances and Hongsa dance, and the musical instruments include crocodile xylophone, flute, harp, drums and gongs.

Mon State is located in southern Burma and is one of the seven states, along with the seven regions across the country. The state lies between Andaman Sea to west and Karen State to east, having a short border with Thailand to southeast.

The capital of the state is Mawlamyine, formerly known as Moulmein, and it is the sister city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the United States.

The State’s major products include rice, rubbers, betel nuts, and fishes, while there are also industries of paper, sugar and mining.

There are several tourist spots, while the beaches are yet exploited. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, better known as the Golden Rock, is one of the most attractions in the state, and the visitors will be soon able to use cable cars going up to the pagoda’s compound from the bottom of the Kyaiktiyo Mount. Another popular destination is the Win Sein Tawya, which has the world’s largest reclining Buddha.  

Since Mon State lies on the coast of Andaman Sea, there are beaches – yet to be exploited. One of the “fresh beaches” in the state is Kabyar Wa Beach, and located in Ye Township, in the south.

After decades of isolation, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has now introduced significant political and economic reforms since the quasi-civilian government took the office in 2010.

Many foreign investments projects are flowing into my country, with over 50 million people and located in Southeast Asia, while construction can be seen at every corner in major cities, especially the country’s former capital Yangon, or Rangoon.