Reporting on a positive story (for once)

Last month, Taylor and I took a 30 hour train ride from Almaty to Aralsk. We had just spent about a week in Astana and Almaty, working on stories about the economy and Kazakhstan's growth as a tech/financial/fashion hub in Central Asia. 

Taylor is very pleased with our train accommodations. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Taylor is very pleased with our train accommodations. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

So to get to Aralsk, bleary-eyed at 6:30 AM, meant switching gears mentally to start reporting on a story about the return of the North Aral Sea and its impact on the surrounding fishing villages. It was kind of jarring to go from the hyper-modern cities of Astana, with its neo-futuristic buildings, and Almaty – to Kyzylorda region, where all we saw for *hours* was snow when driving from Aralsk (the main city) to Tastubek, a fishing village. So much snow for miles and miles. 

I felt like I was in a horror movie...

I felt like I was in a horror movie...

We didn't have a lot of time in Aralsk and Tastubek – a fishing village that is about an hour from the water – and we were worried about several different things. Taylor, being the visuals person, was most worried about not being able to actually go ice-fishing with the families since temperatures in Aralsk had been steadily rising that week. Luckily, when we arrived, it was a (balmy) -18 degrees Celsius, and it only went up slightly throughout the day. We were also able to find a family in Tastubek that was willing to go out fishing in the frozen Aral Sea, despite rumors of fish inspectors patrolling the area. 

Omirserik, 25, works to free the fish from the net. (Credit: Taylor Weidman) 

Omirserik, 25, works to free the fish from the net. (Credit: Taylor Weidman) 

For me, I was worried about how open the families would be to talking about the bleaker years, when the sea receded and the fish died due to the high salinity of the water. In my experience of reporting on environmental-connected-to-economic disaster, it can be very painful for families to open up about it. Part of it is shame over their past misfortune; people feel a lot of pain over uncontrollable nature-related events.

For example, when Taylor and I were in northern Mongolia last year speaking to families in Khovsghol province about the dzud, a winter phenomenon that leaves tens of thousands of livestock throughout the country dead from starvation, that was a real challenge as many families were still enduring a long winter. I remember one particular family where the husband, Batsuri Sharkhuu, was very open about the loss of sheep and goats, but his wife grew increasingly angered during the interview. Later, he said to us, "My wife has gotten more aggressive recently because all the animals keep dying. It’s like watching all our property gone in one day. How would you feel if that happened to you?" 

I've been doing this a couple years now, so when people accuse me – and other journalists – of sadness porn, I can often revert to the usual reasons of why our work is so necessary. And I absolutely believe in these reasons. But I also still feel a twinge in my chest whenever I know that someone's sadness or terrible life-altering situation translates to a more... effective story for publication. 

Luckily for us, we were actually in Aralsk and Tastubek to report on a happy story (seriously, how rare is that for a journalist??). Because the region has been experiencing an increase of water and fish catch in the North Aral Sea since a World Bank-financed dam was built in 2005, the residents were glad to talk about the leaner years – it made their turn in fortune so much more like a blessing. In the end, Taylor and I had a very productive time there, and we were even able to inject some nuance into the story. You can read it here

Pike-perch (Credit: Taylor Weidman) 

Pike-perch (Credit: Taylor Weidman) 

We were also lucky to try some fish from the Aral Sea! We ate the pike-perch, which is the fishermen's favorite catch as it is the most expensive, and the flounder, which the fishermen kind of hate because it's ugly and it reminds them of the years when it was the only species able to survive the high salinity of the North Aral Sea. 

'Who would want to admit that you are responsible if you know there were others involved?'

If my updates come roughly once a year, then the Reuters Special Report published yesterday on the systematic Rohingya massacre in a single village is a good one to start and close out 2018. If you haven't had the chance yet, I encourage you to please, please give it a read – even if you consume Southeast Asia news regularly and are experiencing fatigue with all devastating Rohingya news coverage. 

If anything, this could provide a clue into the sudden arrest and charges foisted upon Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The information and details they uncovered – testimony from both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya villagers about how the Myanmar military's 33rd Light Infantry Division led the "clearance operation" in Inn Din, interviews from Rakhine Buddhists and a retired soldier who openly admitted to razing the homes and murdering their Rohingya neighbors, photos of bones and remains of Rohingya victims who had been burned in a mass grave, photos of 10 Rohingya men who had been hacked to death and piled into a pit – are stunning and have been verified to the hilt, making it difficult for the military to deny knowledge or culpability. 

One thing that struck me while reading this was the openness the Buddhist villagers had when talking about it. For example: 

A medical assistant at the Inn Din village clinic, Aung Myat Tun, 20, said he took part in several raids. “Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” he said. “The village elders put monks’ robes on the end of sticks to make the torches and soaked them with kerosene. We couldn’t bring phones. The police said they will shoot and kill us if they see any of us taking photos.”

or this account from a retired soldier who nonchalantly talks about discovering a Rohingya men with a smartphone trying to take incriminating photos of the massacre. 

The soldiers told Soe Chay to “do whatever you want to them,” he said. They pointed out the man with the phone and told him to stand up. “I started hacking him with a sword, and a soldier shot him when he fell down.”

Perhaps the only person who felt deeply unsettled by it was the Rakhine Buddhist elder who provided the Reuters team with the photo of the 10 men in a mass grave, brutally hacked and bleeding. "I want to be transparent on this case. I don’t want it to happen like that in future.”

All this reminded me of my conversation with Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, when I was reporting on former Khmer Rouge cadres who had converted to Christianity and suddenly employed some selective memory lapses when it came to their roles during the regime. Youk scoffed when I told him about how everyone we interviewed were simply soldiers at the border, fighting off their Vietnamese or Thai counterparts in daily skirmishes. He said that out of the 10,000 former cadres that he and his staff interviewed, only one has ever admitted to killing five people. "Who would want to admit that you are responsible if you know there were others involved?" he said.

Reading the Reuters report made me wonder what enables these Buddhist Rakhine villagers to be so open and... boastful about their participation. (Obviously, it's difficult to tell tone from text, so perhaps boastful isn't the most accurate way to describe how they were speaking.) Was it because the Rohingya were a different ethnicity, therefore making it easier for the Buddhists to dehumanize them and talk about their horrific actions against them? Was it because of time – that this is something that is still enfolding and is too current for anyone to take a step back and reflect? Was it because they are surrounded by people who agree with the killings (a large number of Burmans speak about the Rohingya in a derogatory way and have accused any media outlet reporting on it as liars), and they feel empowered by it?

Do they feel comfortable, and comforted, by what they – and their family and friends and neighbors – did? Much like the former Khmer Rouge cadres who still praise Pol Pot, would these deeds always sit easy in the hearts of the Rakhine Buddhists , even if they aren't as vocal about it after time has passed?

I turn these questions over endlessly in my head every time a story like this is published. This stunning Reuters report surely won't be the last. 


Sunday marked the 50th birthday for an independent Singapore, a significant milestone for a young nation that has accelerated into the 21st century. As a Singaporean, this was a proud moment for me, and I am sad that I wasn't able to make it back there for the celebrations. 

But this particular birthday has been bittersweet, and is marred by certain events, most notably by the government's treatment and jailing of a Singaporean teenager who dared to give his honest, unfiltered opinions of its recently deceased founding father and of the government.

Lee Kuan Yew paraphernalia sold near City Hall during the mourning of the former prime minister. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Lee Kuan Yew paraphernalia sold near City Hall during the mourning of the former prime minister. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

If you haven't been following this, here's the cliff notes version: The week of PM Lee Kuan Yew's death, when Singaporeans were still mourning (some, in a very public and ostentatious manner), 16-year-old Amos Yee posted a Youtube video celebrating LKY's passing, because of certain policies that the former PM had instated and encouraged, such as the censorship of the press and the stamping down of dissent to the government. He insulted LKY's "followers," saying that they lacked "sound logic" to see that his policies were detrimental to a true democracy, and has actually widened the inequality gap. Not long after the video was posted, numerous complaints were lodged against him, and he was promptly arrested. He was later sentenced to four weeks in prison, though this sentence was remanded for the time already spent in jail. This, of course, drew international attention, and brought criticism down upon the Singaporean government. 

Perhaps Yee's downfall was that he talked about these issues the way a teenager would: 1) in an arrogant way, with questionable comparisons peppered with profanity, and 2) in the immediate wake of LKY's death when the masses were still prostrating themselves to his memory. Either way, for a country that made leaps and bounds in just 50 years, it was certainly deflating to see it revert to prosecuting a surly teenager for simply being a surly teenager. Critics of the Singaporean government are unsurprised by this, as it has always been self-described as a democracy with limits, an epithet worn proudly and unironically by the government and its defenders – and sometimes even by citizens themselves. 

Hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans turned up to mourn Lee Kuan Yew, as his body was moved from the Parliament House to the funeral ceremony. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans turned up to mourn Lee Kuan Yew, as his body was moved from the Parliament House to the funeral ceremony. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Yee's critics would think themselves justified. Well, three days before National Day, Yee has released another video responding to the numerous reasons for his persecution and imprisonment. Most importantly, he points out what any thinking Singaporean should have realized: "The main things people were pissed off about was that I insulted Lee Kuan Yew. But I wasn't punished for that. Instead I got the highest punishment for the few seconds I insulted Jesus," which means that criticizing the government is "still technically legal."

I don't know if Yee is brave or stupid. But as we move towards the next half of a century as an independent nation, my only wish is for my fellow Singaporeans to be able to speak openly and intelligently about its society's problems without having others, embalmed by a mob mentality, clamor for their arrests. Having a different opinion from the masses – or, most crucially, the government – does not equate to being a dissident. After all, the government cannot half-ass its transformation into a first-world nation, emphasizing only on material wealth and prosperity while ignoring inherent human rights. As Yee said in his latest video in reference to freedom of speech, "you either have it or you don't." 

Lee Hsien Loong, current Singapore prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew's son, greet mourners waiting outside the Parliament House to pay their respects to the former PM. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen) 

Lee Hsien Loong, current Singapore prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew's son, greet mourners waiting outside the Parliament House to pay their respects to the former PM. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen) 

An addendum to my interview with Rob Carmichael in Fah Thai...

My Q&A with journalist and author Rob Carmichael was published in the July/August issue of Fah Thai. We spoke about the book he just published, When Clouds Fell From The Sky, and I also managed to interview Neary Ouk, the woman whose family is at the center of the book.

Unfortunately, Fah Thai wasn't able to publish the my interview with Neary, an experience I found to be incredibly affecting. Mostly, we talked about what it was like for her to read the book and what her relationship with Rob was like given that he was delving into a very personal and painful part of her family history. 

So I've decided to leave Neary's words here; think of it as an important addition to my conversation with Rob. I had envisioned the Fah Thai piece to feature her thoughts right next to Rob's Q&A, which is why this is just a recount of what she said. 

“There are a lot of things [my mother and I are] discovering while reading it, like how my family members have disappeared, because it’s not only my dad, actually. We are learning the fate of everyone, like my grandfather.”
“Rob’s been interviewing people – something I can’t do from where I am, and I wish I could have. Or some things I wouldn’t have found the strength to do, like interviewing Prak Khan. But I wish I could have done that myself. And Rob has been watching the world a lot, with some sense of psychology to the people involved in general.”
“Rob went back to S-21 with me, and he never imposed anything on me. I decided to introduce him to the carving I made to my dad, and we managed to speak at a time when I wasn’t so talkative; I guess that must have been a challenge for him. But we probably learned things from one another. He taught me how to probably let go and be less focused on one thing and see things more globally.”
“I wish my dad could have been there physically but that’s not the case. It’s certainly painful. But the trial is much more than that; it’s showing to the rest of the world that one has to be patient and it’s a matter of time that when people do harm, it always comes back to them.”

You can get Carmichael's book in Monument bookstores in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar; and in AsiaBooks in Thailand. It's also sold in Kindle form on Amazon

My first professional site!

It's been more than a year since I started freelancing full-time, so I figured it was about time I put together a space to display some of my articles. I'm only going to be posting a fraction of it here though. 

Blogging is not going to come easy for me, especially if it concerns work, but I'll try to update this space as much as possible. And I promise, I'll try to make sure it's interesting.

For now, I'm really excited to be finally doing this. Better late than never, I suppose. Next thing on the list: Get some name cards! (This will most probably take another three months.)