A former garment workers’ dormitory on a quiet Chiang Mai backstreet is an unlikely place to witness South-east Asia’s media rebirth. Last November, I was there to meet Sonny Swe, the co-founder of Frontier Myanmar, a news and business magazine whose strident independence since 2015 has won it the adoration of fans and the ire of the junta. Since the February 2021 coup, half of Frontier’s 50-odd person team has decamped to Chiang Mai, part of a larger Burmese exile community in the mountainous northern Thai town, just over 100km from the border.

Swe, in a blue top and glasses so orange they matched his sun-kissed pate, was standing in front of a white grilled gate with little t-shirt motifs, the only vestige of the garment factory hollowed out by the Covid-19 pandemic. In mid 2022, when the Frontier team took over the disused premises, they found inside only bunk beds and a heart-shaped bookshelf. They turned it into a co-working space, Greenhouse, that’s known for its distinctive green-painted walls, an abundance of natural light, and an almost eerie quietude. 

Its little capsules and podcast rooms are insulated from the bustle of the adjoining cafe, Gatone’s Teashop. It serves an all-day Burmese breakfast, reminiscent of roadside fare, soothing the heartache and nostomania of many an exile. I slurped on nangyi thoke, a yummy chicken noodle dish, as Swe and I indulged in the chatter of South-east Asian hacks.

“The internet giants can make you broke, they can make you rich too,” he told me, referencing the capricious algorithms on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. “It’s like fire. It’s just about how you use it.” Burmese media wonks are acutely aware of the potential horrors of social media, following Facebook’s failure to curb disinformation and hate speech during the Rohingya crisis, arguably its worst-ever sin. 

One of Swe’s colleagues dragged over a wooden stool and flipped open his laptop as the pungency of fermented fish wafted by. He showed me a media monitoring and sentiment analysis tool that Frontier had built. Originally designed to monitor misinformation and disinformation in Myanmar, the tool has been repurposed and commercialised for new clients, including embassies. There’s a lot of money to be made at the intersection of technology and journalism, Swe said. Frontier’s goal is to emulate the likes of Malaysiakini and (Filipino) Rappler, two of South-east Asia’s new media darlings.

When a group of Western tourists walked into Gatone’s, he momentarily put on his maître d’ hat to welcome them. This fluidity of roles has evolved in tandem with the space’s transformation. A former workers’ dormitory is now Greenhouse and Gatone’s: part newsroom lab, part co-working space, part Burmese tea shop.

Frontier and Swe, with their irrepressible adaptability, hunger for growth, focus on profitability, sense of community, resistance to oppression, and diverse product offerings—centuries-old nangyi thoke to spiffy web tools—are in many ways the poster childs of Splice Media, a Singaporean media advisory and consulting firm run by Alan Soon and Rishad Patel. From helping Frontier build a membership programme in 2019—part of their transition away from advertising and magazine sales—to encouraging their brick-and-mortar expansion in Chiang Mai, Splice has been a partner to Frontier’s incredible eight-year journey thus far.

That Monday meeting with Swe was the beginning of my week-long exposure to the Splice community, who’d gathered in Chiang Mai for “Splice Beta”, a three-day indie media festival now in its fourth edition. Among the 280 people from 57 countries were some familiar regional names, such as Nabilah Said from Singapore-founded Kontinentalist, Tom Grundy from Hong Kong Free Press, and Premesh Chandran, co-founder and former CEO of Malaysiakini, and now executive director of Open Society–Asia Pacific, also known as (the financier) George Soros’s foundation. 

There were also attendees from much further away, including Russian journalists who’d fled Moscow for Spain, from where they can safely beam back accurate reporting on Ukraine via Telegram and YouTube. To be sure, safety is a relative concept, a point heartbreakingly reinforced by the recent news of Alexei Navalny’s death. Unlike the Burmese and the Hong Kongers, the Russians, replete with stories of bugged phones, burner phones, and near escapes, did not want to be named in this piece.

Those three communities were part of a panel on “How we can help exile media together”, one of 27 presentations at the Chiang Mai University. Others ranged from business strategy and funding to building a mental health journalism start-up. Ancillary sessions included speed networking and free profile photographs taken by Singaporean Zakaria Zainal. It collectively felt like a modern journalism crash course. 

Arguably the most fascinating aspect of it all is that Splice is a Singaporean firm. How could our illiberal city-state—one scarcely known for its media freedoms, vibrancy, and competency—have produced such a cog in the machinery of modern, independent media?

Your Tita Baby and Jen Aquino conducted a session called, "How journalists and a drag content creator are working together to fight disinfo in the Philippines".

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