Asia Undercovered Q&A #5: Wanpen Pajai, Thailand
This month’s Asia Undercovered Journalist Q&A is with Boonyanin Pakvisal, who also goes by Wanpen Pajai, a Thai reporter at Southeast Asia Globe. Wanpen’s reporting caught our eye as she covers broad topics on her home country, ranging from the social impacts of development, how communities are dealing with environment challenges, and the lesser-known complexities of Thai domestic politics.
Some of her stories we’ve highlighted in Asia Undercovered include a feature on the Milk Tea Alliance in neighboring Myanmar, how local communities in Southern Thailand are opposing a Special Economic Zone that would destroy a Muslim fishing village, and a thoroughly enjoyable read on Charoenkrung Road, Bangkok’s first paved road.
In this interview, Wanpen, who is 22 years old, shares with us what it’s been like starting her career as a journalist during the pandemic, and why we need more young journalists covering important issues across Asia.
Daniela: What has led you to become a journalist, and how would you describe your goals as a reporter?
Wanpen: I started journalism when I graduated during COVID. There was so much happening and I wanted to report on the action. I studied global challenges, Governance, Economics, and Development, so I wanted to report how things were happening on the ground and the interconnected nature of problems between the environment, culture, and the economy. It was also during this time last year when a Thai activist disappeared in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and being quite young myself, I was keen to report on what younger people in Thailand are thinking on the pro-democracy movement. I had previously done a lot of photo and video journalism at my University. And I thought, if I went back to Thailand, I could report on the stories there that I want more people to know about. I went online and I came across Southeast Asia Globe, who let me start as an intern and supported me in publishing my stories.
My goal as a reporter is to tell stories on what’s happening in Asia with more nuance and engaging for the audience. There's so much going on, but often stories are narrowed down to fit with popular themes. For Thailand, it's either human rights issues or our tourism industry and the beautiful beaches. That’s when I felt, as a journalist, it would be so cool to be able to widen the framing, to broaden up perspectives and inform to hopefully make an impact. As a Thai, with English language skills, I could write for an international audience about what was going on and offer a more in-depth perspective.
What are the stories that you most enjoy working on? Which ones were the most difficult/challenging?
Wanpen: I most enjoy working on environmental and economic development stories, with a focus on the human side. Every story is it’s own adventure and I’ve enjoyed each one differently. For example, I covered a local community that might be impacted by a new special economic zone. It showed how economic development is prioritized over environmental and social concerns and is faced with resistance from locals. Traveling to Chana and spending time at the fishing village, I enjoyed interviewing different people on the same topic and piecing them together.
The most difficult thing is that sometimes, finding information can be hard because in Thailand, not everyone sees reporting or media press freedom as something important with quite strict freedom of speech laws as well. There are also some topics that people don't see value in writing about, because the size of the audience which they predict would be interested in it, is so small. So trying to work around that and to still deliver a well rounded story is challenging. Lastly, you also often get discouraged along the way, even by people close to you – because Thailand has a history of so many journalists being punished by the government.
Tell us about journalism during COVID-19 – what were the challenges, how was it working on stories during travel restrictions in Thailand?
Wanpen: It’s been quite smooth in Thailand for the past year. There were minimal cases for most of last year and I was able to travel throughout Thailand to do first-hand reporting. But now with rising Covid cases, it's been mainly desktop research, which takes a lot away from reporting. When you report in-person, you can try to get a view of the atmosphere, not only during the interview, but before and after, to help you decide how reliable and relevant what the source tells you is.
But one advantage is that you're able to work remotely. Southeast Asia Globe is based in Phnom Penh, but I've been working remotely from Thailand, and that has allowed me to stay immersed in the context I am reporting on. It shows that a newsroom doesn't have to be in one place, but that you could spread out reporters and then still work together on a story.
You collaborated with two other colleagues from Southeast Asia Globe on a story about how COVID has affected the Mekong region. Can you tell us about what it’s like reporting on a story as a team? What are the advantages, what are the challenges?
Wanpen: In Southeast Asia, a lot of issues are interconnected. For example, migration in the region. Thailand has long, porous borders with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia. So for any story, you could have many perspectives. And with COVID, the most recent outbreak happened because of all the traveling between the countries. So in the editorial team, we look at the many different things going on in the various countries, and get each reporter to report on what is happening locally. And then we come together to write the story on a shared document, so it’s all quite collaborative.
The process of sharing a byline is just like a group project where everyone pitches in what they have, we all contribute pictures, do interviews, and then we edit it together and put the story out. This kind of story wouldn't be possible if one reporter just worked on it from one country. We need different reporters who are living in the situation, and who know what's going on locally. Working as a team helps you find new angles and do more in-depth reporting.
Would you encourage young people to become journalists? If so, why and do you have any advice?
Wanpen: I think young people should become journalists because there are so many things happening now that are going to affect us in the future. Whether it’s climate change, politics or other issues, we need to do our part and report these things from our own perspectives, and talk about why it matters to our generation. We've seen so many movements recently where young people have come together, who are keen to hear stories that are more informative which enables them to help make a change in their own capacity. In that sense, journalism is a tool for change. And just that being a journalist is exciting and fulfilling.
My advice would be just to start reporting. Everyone can be a reporter now, because with just a smartphone, you have a camera and mediums to share your story. And as you report, you learn along the way. I would also say it’s not about having to go to journalism school, but instead study something that you're interested in, and then being a journalist in that field.
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Asia Undercovered: Weekly round-ups and in-depth analysis of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.