Remarkable Women: An Afternoon with Tin Htar Swe OBE

(For the Series “Remarkable Women”)

When I first met Tin Htar Swe (I call her Aunty Swe since it’s a Burmese thing to use honorifics for someone your senior), it was through a press conference on media freedom in Myanmar (Burma) earlier in the summer this year.

Naïve as I was, despite having raised in a generation that relied so much on foreign media such as the BBC, as a window to the rest of the world and to the country herself during the totalitarian era, I was still unaware of the people behind the radio waves, whose voices me and my compatriots have been reliant staying engaged with current affairs whilst being enclosed in a country designed to be an echo chamber locked away from the rest of the world.

I was fascinated by the conversations we had as we kept in touch, about the hot topics of ASEAN politics and especially on Burmese politics. Swe was recruited by the BBC World Service in the 1980s through the Department of Labour during the Burmese Socialist government under Ne Win. In those days  the Department of Labour was responsible for the written assessment tests for BBC, VOA and other foreign media.  The Department shortlisted the candidates for interview with the foreign broadcasting stations.  She joined the BBC just before the 1988 popular uprisings. The BBC and to some degree, the VOA, were the only source for information about what was happening inside the country. The journalists were later condemned by the military regime for “instigating the unrest”. For that reason I have an immense fascination of this particular generation and the barriers, the threats and the dilemmas they had to face to report the truth, and to leave behind the family they have known forever to a foreign land without the technology that we have in this day and age to stay connected. It must have taken an unimaginable amount of courage, perseverance and strength.

You can read all about Swe online about the career and the legacy she’s left behind after almost 26 years with the BBC World Service and BBC Burmese. She is the only Burmese I know so far to date awarded with an OBE since the 1960s (apart from Nita May who was awarded an OBE for her former services to the British Embassy). With this article I wanted to discover a different side to Swe – the motivation behind this ‘unconventional’ interview, i.e. my questions are generally apolitical in relation to her career. I agree that she is quite an atypical Burmese woman for sure and I couldn’t pin-point why exactly, which made me quite eager to explore the personality that lies behind the remarkable legacy and accomplishments.

Swe holding her OBE medal at the Buckingham Palace in 2014. Source: The Irrawaddy
On Life and Career:

Me: How did you carry yourself in grace and maintained your integrity especially in times of such a precarious political atmosphere?

Swe: I think I always had to keep in mind that as a journalist, what I wrote was always based on facts and that my work is not partisan and never supposed to be. I knew from the get go that if I was telling the truth, I am bound to have people disliking me. And I was ready for that.

Me: Did you ever face institutional colonialism?

Swe: In the BBC I don’t think I ever did, but at the start of my career, I thought that there was but at some point down the road I realised that it was only my perception in the beginning. I was quite young at the time and I wasn’t really experienced with the corporate dynamics here.

Me: How did you deal with jealousy and personal attacks as you progressed through your career?

Swe: I think I am pretty thick-skinned, I think I always have been… (laughs) It’s also a matter of me having to make a life on my own here in England. I started out as a student and I was so busy and focused on my career I just didn’t have the time to dwell so much on the negatives. I just had to keep moving forward, because I knew I haven’t got much of a future at home.

Me: Yeah that’s what I feel sometimes. I relate to that so much.

At work, what was your style of management like?

Swe: When I first joined the BBC, as a junior I saw many managers come and go, and you know they were all human and we’re bound to make mistakes, but I definitely saw that there was some room for improvement, to put it the most diplomatically… (laughs) So when I became a manager, I was careful not to make the same mistakes I saw in my previous supervisors.

My style is pretty regimental – which certainly puts pressure on the team at times. But I always aimed to be fair-minded to staff of all levels. I was probably too blunt at times.

Swe sips some wine and we chatter on as we eat good ol’ classic fish and chips as we touch on certain political issues however are off the record due to the immense political sensitivity at the time of the publishing of this article. She seems very relaxed nevertheless while the fire crackled in the fireplace and the room got busier as the noon progressed.

Swe talks.jpg
Interviewing Swe in London, 2019.

On Friendships:

Me: Was there ever a time where you lost friends because of your career?

Swe: I feel like I failed quite terribly with that in particular, in friendships. Some people say journalism is not a proper career and I’m not gonna argue with that.

Me: Gee, for real?!

Swe: Well yeah but whatever they say, there is no denying that as journalists, we are so engrossed in our work and at times I felt like I was substituting my friends with my career. I moved around a lot because my parents moved around a lot growing up. At age eight, I had already been in and out of five different schools. So for me there were no “kindergarten friends”– that was quite a fragmented phase.  So I miss not having childhood friends.

And like Jeremy [Swe’s husband] said the other day about friends and identity, it’s quite true that as you age, you begin to form more friendships with people of similar careers as you have – because you want to talk about it. It’s your life. But it’s interesting to meet young people like you and several others I’ve met, because I find some women my age, I find they have quite a lot of self-pity. (laughs)

Me: (laughs) I don’t disagree with that sometimes. I find it true with certain parents, they have it projected on to their kids, so I’m very lucky that my dad is quite progressive and easy-going. (laughs)

Swe then asked me a few questions about my personal life and family, which I prefer to keep off the record here to respect my family’s privacy.  

Me: This might be a bit personal but you can choose not to answer. Have you ever felt lonely?

Swe: You know when I look back, that drive for my career that I had, was mostly because I didn’t want to feel lonely. My work became therapeutic but yes certainly there were times where I felt like I found it difficult to find people to confide in and I felt quite alone.

Me: We also have that culture right, the Asian culture, where we’re supposed to not talk about our feelings or our struggles, this whole culture of not ‘burdening’ people.

Swe: Well I was raised in a convent, it’s the same some cultures too I suppose because I went to a missionary school and that was a very British system you know. So at school we had the same ‘stiff up your upper lip’ thing and at home, it was not different either – my father was from the navy. My mother grew up in a convent as well so they were both pragmatic and reserved.

And this goes back to your questions on career – that upbringing definitely had an impact on my career in the beginning, because I felt like there were times where I wasn’t very open when I should have been and I think it sort of held me back a bit.

Me: Was there ever a time you felt betrayed by a friend, someone you trusted?

Swe: Certainly. Not just once but several. You know you tend to think of people the way you think of yourself..

Me: That’s so true..

Swe: And for me I didn’t detect the lack of sincerity until it was too late. I trusted people too easily but later you realise that not everyone abides by the same principles as you do. And it hurt a lot, it really did, but I blamed myself as well because there was a part of me that wanted to be liked, and maybe that was why I overlooked certain things. There was one colleague whom I helped quite significantly to progress further along their career, and once he got where he wanted..

Me: He cut you off..?

Swe: He cut me off.

Me: Did that change the way you interacted with people from then on, for good?

Swe: Oh yes it did, it changed forever. It makes you analyse you know, like (a), where did I go wrong? And (b) how do I respond to this? It generally made me quite skeptical about every interaction and I learnt to remember to always keep a safe distance [from people].

PUB ths
We met for lunch at the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese pub in London. 2019

On Youth:

Me: What is the one thing about the younger generation that you find very enigmatic?

Swe: I generally don’t find it hard to understand youth but if there is one thing that perplexes me is that I find young people can be quite dogmatic and idealistic. And you know when you are young, I was idealistic as well so that’s not too much of a surprise, but dogmatism… (sighs)

It comes back to the issue of nationalism and Islamophobia in Myanmar (Burma). Especially kids that have had so much [international] exposure – I can’t understand why they can’t think generously about diversity? I am a practicing Buddhist, but I also empathise with other religions but I don’t understand why some young people with a lot of experience and exposure of traveling around the world, foreign education, why they still maintain that attitude of this Buddhist nationalism. I don’t get it because Buddhism teaches all about loving kindness.. why can’t you have loving kindness on others who are different from you, why they can’t step into someone else’s shoes, I can’t understand.

And especially on Facebook you know, sometimes I try very hard to refrain myself from commenting, but I see a lot of people sharing wonderful quotes and essays.. I want to ask them if they can practice what they preach? And how many of these essays they’ve shared on Facebook, how much of that do they really practice in reality?

It’s similar to this thing in the workplace, when staff receive training, some only go through the training just to get to that certain position they aspire. And once they get where they want, they enjoy the position. They don’t exercise it. The same analogy applies to certain Burmese youth receiving liberal, foreign education – you have seen the diversity, you have benefited from it.. why haven’t you changed?

Me: That hits a raw nerve because I know someone very close to me who does exactly that. And she’s even more backwards than ones that have never left the country. I really can’t tell now what really is a causal factor…

The room feels a lot colder and we realise how much time has passed. It is less busier now so we move into the next room where it is a lot warmer.


On Love:

Me: Ok so I’m gonna be cheeky. Tell me your love story. How did you and Jeremy fall in love? (giggles)

Swe: It was in the earlier days of my career, I was only a young producer at the time and Jeremy was a sound engineer. So this one day I was working in my office and I noticed someone staring at me. I looked up and it was Jeremy and I was like.. hmm, okay, that’s very strange… (laughs)

It took a while for him to ask me out but eventually he did, and took me out for dinner. We went out for quite some time and then the rest is history. But you know, marriage is hard work. And we don’t have any children so we never had that extra stress, because I also didn’t want any, but we also have quite different personalities. I took a lot of risks and I thrived in it, while Jeremy had generally quite a cautious approach. But we both had busy careers so it was definitely hard work. Do you want any children in the future?

Me: You know I’m so glad I’ve finally met someone of the older generation that doesn’t want any kids and don’t have any, because I’ve had people tell me, like, ‘oh you’ll change your mind.’ But I just don’t feel like it’s in me naturally you know. I’ve been quite put off by so many different experiences. I watched some of my relatives raise their kids, the first one then the second, oh my goodness, it’s just too much I can’t take it. And I don’t feel confident I can be a good mother because I never really had a mother-daughter relationship, and with kids like, once it’s out you can’t put it back, like putting toothpaste back into the tube… (laughs)

Swe throws her head back and laughs. I’m glad she appreciates my bluntness.

Swe: It’s true, I’m the third kid in my family and I had two younger brothers that I took care of when I was little and realised how hard it must be to be a parent. I remember this one time you know, one of those alumni dinners after I graduated, one of my former professors was like, quite strangely I find, he said to me, “you know the greatest thing in life is motherhood.”

And I just turned around and was like, “well how would you know?”

We both roared in laughter.

Me: LOLs, dude’s not got the experience, how would he know?

Swe: Exactly, he’s a guy, how would he know?! That was sufficient to end the conversation then and there and nobody really approached me on this after that.

Me: Wow. That served him right though. I would have loved to see the look on his face… (giggles)

On Style:

Me: Is there a style icon or a decade that you most admire, fashion-wise?

Swe: I think it would probably be the 50s, you know it was the end of the war and people were relieved, they had this sense of liberation and just let their hair down, that post-war era fashion, I really love it. How about you?

Me: Gosh, I’d say quite the same too but I lean more towards the late 50s and the 60s…

Swe: The swinging 60’s.

Me: The swinging 60’s, oh my, so glamorous. I’m obsessed. The transatlantic accent and that late Golden Hollywood Era, I have this healthy obsession with Audrey Hepburn era and everything about her. Her posters, her movies, her style…

To end with, what would you describe your style as in three words?

Swe: Trendy, quirky and unconventional. In a sense that I don’t follow traditions, I like to break rules sometimes.

Me: And I suppose with that, you definitely broke the glass ceiling didn’t you?

Swe: Yes, I think I did. I broke the glass ceiling.

Tin Htar Swe is a retired journalist who worked at the BBC from 1988-2017. In 2014 she was awarded the Order of British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, as a recognition to her services to British broadcast journalism.

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