Saturday, October 18, 2014

"We aren't peace activists" --- Interview with senior journalist Bertil Lintner

Once 'blacklisted' in Asia, Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner has been writing about conflict-prone Myanmar and north-east India for nearly four decades. With many sources in the military and militant camps, he was the first foreign journalist to learn about Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in 1995. His first book, 'Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China', had provoked angry reactions from Naga militants. 
(Interview  published in The Statesman) 
With Bertil and northeast friends
# To start with, as someone who has been keeping an eye on northeast and Myanmar region from 1980s, so far more than three decades, what really is your take on issues about conflict resolution and the role of the journalists in that?

Bertil Lintner: It’s not an easy task for a journalist to write about any war including these conflicts in the northeastern India and adjoining countries like Myanmar. It is obviously not possible to go back and forth between two warring parties, so possibly one has to stay on one side the conflict one way or the other. But as I wrote in ‘Land of Jade’, my book about trek through northern Myanmar from 1985-1987, my desire has been always to be objective and factual. That is our role actually rather than glorifying various armies or rebels involved.

# I would also like to know on what you feel about ‘peace journalism’; that perhaps tends to make journalist an activist?

Bertil Lintner: Some people do talk about 'peace journalism', but to me that is a dangerous approach to the kinds of conflicts I have covered and still covering. My worst fear is if you see promoting peace as a goal or an objective, it is very easy to become biased. Then you would filtered information and write only about what you think may serve the purpose of promoting peace. That, I am afraid, will lead to distorted views of reality ...... simply because truth is always not very pleasant.

# You have traveled across Nagaland and Manipur in 1980s and more recently as well and had also interviewed militant leaders like Isak Chishi Swu of NSCN. Over the years, the NSCN, especially the faction led by Swu and Muivah has emerged a potent group. How do you look back at this group’s growth ?

Bertil Lintner: I was accused of abusing the NSCN’s hospitality because I stayed with them for more than two months and then I did not write the kind of propaganda they had expected. I was often appalled by the way in which Indian Nagas treated the Myanmar Nagas. I had to write about that as well as religious fanaticism. The outcome was that the NSCN had banned my book ‘Land of Jade’. The truth was probably too unpleasant even for the NSCN’s leadership. The situation was very similar in the area then controlled by the Communist Party of Burma. They wanted to possibly write along the lines, ‘Red Star over Myanmar’. I did not. Instead I wrote how the ethnic the leaders of the CPB used the hill tribe population under their control.
# Then can you sum up for us, what should be ideally the duty of the journalists in such conflict situations?

Bertil Lintner: I and my family once survived the attack of Myanmar forces on the NSCN camp. But I have stuck to my job as a journalist. As I see it, the duty of the journalists is to be as objective as possible. To give the news impartially without fear or favour regardless of sects or interests involved. It’s only then that we journalists can be seen as doing our job as  professionals. My stand is same about conflict situation reporting also as only when the truth is properly reported or exposed and explained impartially can different parties in an ethnic or social conflict sit down and solve their differences.

# Can you share now something about your travels and stay in Bangladesh, another country that has witnessed lot of conflicts?

Bertil Lintner: In 1990, I was actually invited by the Bangladesh government to visit Chittagong Hill Tracts to see the progress in implementing a new autonomy scheme. I told my editors then at 'Far Eastern Economic Review' that I should also visit Chakma refugee camps in Tripura. I did go to Chittagong Hill Tracts and flew around with a Bangladesh army commander and met people in presence of him. But did not tell them about my plans to visit Chakma refugee camps in Agartala in India. When I actually did that later soon after their hospitality, the Bangladeshi authorities also thought that I had betrayed their hospitality. So to sum up, we journalists are not especially popular in certain quarters and we can’t be. But I am an old-fashioned enough to believe that we have an important role to fill in the conflict areas, and that is to report objectively.

# Now, coming to reality, what do you think is happening in Myanmar? Now that they have a sort of democracy?

Bertil Lintner: It is not going at the right direction. Largely, the democracy is also controlled democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi too has failed it seems. 

# What happens when a journalist is a popular or a well known face in the media and the outside world? Does presence of someone above or around impact a peace process in conflict areas?

Bertil Lintner: I have told you enough on how a reporter should stick to factual reporting without any bias – other than the deep consideration for all the innocent people either sides afflicted by the conflicts and violence. My job is present the readers the truth. In the long run, I have seen, the truth is always the strongest weapon for solving conflicts. As a reporter, I am at best an educator but not a peace activist. My reports and analyses should help people working in conflict areas and the governments to see the problems more clearly. But what should be done is up to them; not to me.

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