Myanmar: “I’m scared, but will not surrender…”

Journalists in Myanmar have put their lives at risk to tell the stories of protestors, doctors, nurses and citizens impacted by the military coup, writes Phil Thornton.

Protestors create a barricade of shields in Myanmar. Supplied.

As a freelance photojournalist, Ng Maung has worked the frontlines of the protests since Myanmar’s military coup began on 1st February. Keeping low, behind flimsy barricades of wood, corrugated tin, tyres and bamboo, he photographed the hurts police and army inflicted on pro-democracy activists.

Ng Maung told IFJ of the danger protestors and journalists are facing from heavily armed police and soldiers. “We were warned snipers were on roofs near where we were. I could hear and sense the bullets as they passed. These kids had no protection against bullets.”

Ng Maung explained his view was restricted when focusing through a camera lens at soldiers down the street. “You see what is directly in front, not to your immediate side. Bullets were getting closer. I saw a young guy on the ground with a head shot…a lot of blood. People took him on a motorbike to an ambulance, but it was too late, he was already dead.”

Ng Maung said soldiers and police are armed to kill and dressed for battle, unlike the unarmed protestors. “They’re targets are young men and women, mostly peaceful protestors, opposing the torture and jailing of elected politicians, workers, doctors, students and journalists. The only protection they have are hiding behind these barricades and running.”

In an earlier interview with IFJ in February, Ng Maung, voiced his fears about unseen army snipers when he said they made the streets dangerous to work. “If I can see them I’m not scared, but knowing they could be concealed on rooftops, water towers, behind windows…anywhere…is terrifying.”

Ng Maung’s fears became a reality on 23 March when a bullet tore through his hand as he focused his lens. “I could hear shooting. Near me three kids were using phones to take photos. I warned them to move away…take cover, as soldiers were firing.”

Ng Maung felt the force of the bullet as it tore into his left hand, pulping bones, tissue and tendon. “I was confused, my hand was burning, at first it was relief the boys were not hit. Then I was worried my hand was destroyed. It looked bad. It took about three hours to get to a clinic.”

Ng Maung is full of praise for volunteer doctors and nurses working the protests. “I’ve seen them put themselves at risk of being shot or wounded to care for the injured. I owe them a lot…they work for free…I am forever in their debt.”

Ng Maung’s smashed hand has to be rebuilt. He has had a number of operations to try to reconstruct his hand – wire implants, bone repair and skin grafts. Despite the pain and the graphic nature of the wound, Ng Maung managed to photograph the surgical procedures.

Ng Maung kept in regular contact with IFJ during the protests and after his wounding spoke of his determination to keep working as a photojournalist despite the dangers. “Everyone is in danger - the military shows no mercy - protestors, doctors, students, workers, children, citizens or journalists – we are all targets just to be shot...silenced. I feel they are no longer human and they don’t see us as human. I'm scared, really scared. As a journalist, I have no protection. I have to be very careful and secretive in getting information. It is so bad I dare not go home to sleep at night. It's very dangerous now. To report we risk our lives. I’m a photojournalist because I want people to know the truth from the pictures I take. I want to expose the brutality of the military and the brave resistance of our people to the world…I hope for international action to end the oppression.” 

The revolution will not be televised…

To silence journalists, like Ng Maung, the military coup leaders ordered telecommunication companies and internet services to block social media platforms and shut down their networks to stop access to information and news.

Journalists have been arrested and charged under 505a of the penal code, which carries a sentence of three years in prison.

The licenses of Myanmar Now, Mizzima Media, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), 7 Day News and Khit Thit Media were revoked on 8 March. The Ministry of Information shut-down the five independent media outlets and banned them “from publishing or broadcasting” or using any kind of media or technology platforms reporting “news that affects the rule of law and security of the people and supports those who commit high treason…in accordance with Article 419 and 420 of the Constitution.”

To make sure the five banned media organisations and their respective journalists got the message, soldiers and police broke into their offices, ransacked, thrashed and stole equipment. Ng Maung told IFJ “journalists are now being hunted – we’ve been put on wanted lists and they have arrested at least 42 journalists.”

The police and army have been given unfettered authority by the coup appointed State Administration Council to raid homes to search and arrest without warrants. So called ‘suspects’ can be detained for 24-hours without court permission. Other sections of the Penal Code list a range of fines and jail sentences - twenty years, ten years, seven years and three years for alleged breaches. 

Faced with the danger of lethal force, nighttime raids on their homes or arrest, many journalists and media workers have been either forced into deep hiding or have left cities for remote ethnic areas in the jungle along the China, India, Bangladesh or Thailand borders.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) confirmed as of Sunday 16 April, 737 people have been killed and 3,229 arrested; 42 of those are journalists.

Ko Bo Kyi is a founder and secretary of AAPP-Burma and was first jailed in 1989 for his political beliefs by the then military regime. He explained to IFJ how the military has deliberately created and are using divisions between soldiers and civilians to maintain its reign of terror. “This military is isolated from society. Soldiers are given a different history to what is really happening in the country or outside world. The internet cuts and mobile phone data blockages are not just to prevent protestors from organising, but to stop soldiers getting real information – their news intake is restricted to media controlled by the military - radio, websites, newspapers and television channels.”

Ko Bo Kyi said despite fear of arrest, torture and jail, journalists and citizen journalists are still managing to report. “Everyday, underground reporters and civilian journalists are going out and bravely documenting human rights abuses. They’re finding ways to get verifiable and credible reports out to people inside and outside the country.”

They’ve destroyed our industry…

Zaw Myint, a senior editor, told IFJ he has been forced by soldiers and police making night raids near his home to leave his family and go into hiding, constantly changing his location. “I’m not the only journalist, many of us are now in deep hiding. It’s dangerous on the ground now. We can’t use our name on our stories. It’s getting difficult to survive as we aren’t being paid. Most of us are struggling and our families are suffering...the pressure is massive.”

Zaw Myint said finding a means to communicate is getting more difficult. “Mobile data has been cut, it’s difficult to get ADSL connected, getting caught with a pocket Wi-Fi will get you arrested. I try to hook into established Wi-Fi at hotels owned by the military’s cronies.” 

With the forced closure of the independent media outlets most journalists fear their severance pay will soon be gone, Zaw Myint explains most journalist earn between US$300 and US$700 a month. “Most of us are struggling. The army has killed our industry. They’ve taken down our platforms to publish, they’ve robbed us of our salaries. They done this to silence us. It’s sad to see our industry ripped apart. There’s now no justice, only their law of the gun.”

Zaw Myint made the decision to stay in the city despite the constant fear of arrest. “There are still some of us prepared to take risks to tell what’s going on. I hope our colleagues who get to safety in other places will keep working. We’ll print on pamphlets, photocopy them and get them to the people. We’ll send our stories and footage to exiled colleagues for publishing, we’re hurting now, but we will find a way to keep reporting and broadcasting.”

Chaos spreads onto the streets in Myanmar. Supplied.

Dismissed, displaced, but still defiant…

IFJ spoke with, Kyaw Su, a senior journalist who, fearing for his and his family’s security, made the decision to make his way to the relative safety of a neighbouring country after his media organisation was forced to close and his employment terminated. “Even though we had letters of dismissals that said we were no longer employed we were still targets. It became too dangerous for me and my family to stay. The situation is now desperate…media licenses revoked, journalists placed on wanted lists, nighttime raids and arrests, internet shutdowns…their mind-set is obvious…no journalists, no media…they want to destroy us and silence the flow of free information.”

Kyaw Su has worked in the media for decades and explains the military appointed State Administration Council has made blocking news in and out of the country one of its priorities. “The Junta understands how important social media platforms are in the information flow, most people get news using mobile phone data, that’s why they cut access to it. People in remote areas are desperate to reach media outlets to show and highlight their protests and their opposition to the coup. People need credible information to make decisions, they can’t use propaganda.”

Kyaw Su is confident journalists and citizens will stay defiant and find ways to continue to communicate and is encouraged by peoples’ need for real information. “We’ll continue our work. We have not taken a collective decision yet, but by reporters actions you can see the determination to gather news. Old style photocopied paper newssheets are being circulated, people use SMS news sharing texts, requests for journalists to confirm if an item is ‘fake news’ or ‘real news’.”

Kyaw Su said journalists will need international support to keep working. “Without media outlets there’s no income. Jailed journalists and their families will need help for legal fees, basic food, medicine and even for them to travel to and from jails on visits. Those who make it out of the cities to ethnic areas will be relatively safe, but will face hardships. Many of these young journalists will have no experience of living rough, sleeping on dirt floors, or using outside pit toilets. They’ll need blankets and medicine. They will have to live with the frustration, but they know it’s better than arrest, torture and jail.”

Kyaw Su paid tribute to the ethnic leaders in the border area he now calls home for their welcome and willingness to help. “These people have been under attack for decades from the Burma Army, they know the mindset of the military, but they have taken us in and helped us.”

The Myanmar Army has waged a campaign to militarize ethnic controlled areas – Karen in the east Burma, Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang in the north and Arakan in the west. 

A senior ethnic journalist who has worked on conflict, refugees, ceasefires and displacement for more than 20-years spoke to IFJ. “Working here we have experience of how the military operates. They’ve been attacking ethnic villages for 70-years or more. As soon as the coup happened we closed our office and moved our equipment. We now operate as a mobile news office. We moved our family members to safety…despite their complaining.”

The senior journalist explained, when working in ethnic areas, it was an everyday event to be followed, harassed and photographed by security officials. “They come into our neighbourhoods asking people where we live. Security for journalists is a real concern…there’s no protection. Those working the cities had no choice, but to leave or go into hiding. We will help our city colleagues navigate the difficulties of living in the jungle and to help them find ways to keep working.”

The senior journalist stressed to IFJ the importance to keep reporting. “We need to keep working on a daily basis to inform national, regional and international audiences what is happening in our country. We have to fight and maintain our right to gather, write and give access to information.”

The senior journalist said it was important journalists were aware of the risks their sources were exposed to by talking to the media. “This current situation forces us into self-censorship, we can’t identify sources in film or use their names. We need to carefully weigh the risk of each story we publish to make sure no one gets arrested, hurt or killed.”

The senior journalist said despite the exhaustion of finding ways to help her colleagues she is satisfied she can still work. “They’ve cut our communications, arrested us, brought lawsuits, jailed us and threatened us, but as independent media workers, they won’t stop us providing critical and timely information to our people.”

Displaced Karen villagers. Supplied.

We desperately need shelter, food, blankets, medicine…

The IFJ spoke by telephone with Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the Karen National Union’s (KNU) head of foreign affairs, who explained the difficulties of looking after the growing number of people fleeing military violence in Myanmar. “The situation in the cities is bad and it will only get worse. We are looking after more than 2,000. There’s doctors, politicians, activists, students, workers and journalists. These people are not here by choice. They’ve been persecuted and forced to leave their homes.”

Padoh Taw Nee said despite getting some help from international aid agencies, it’s not enough. “We’ve been offered help for two months, but the military crackdown will last much longer. We expect more arrivals and we have our own displaced people. We need help with emergency shelter, medicine and food…these are essential if we are to avoid a crisis.”

Padoh Taw Nee explained the wet season is about to arrive and, with it, deadly diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and dysentery. “The young and the old are vulnerable to these infections. If we’re not prepared it will be a disaster.”

Padoh Taw Nee told IFJ, the KNU is also looking after 30,000 displaced villagers, the result of recent bombing raids on villages in its controlled area. “The airstrikes killed and injured our villagers. They’re terrified to go back to their homes. The Burma Army sends jets over every day.”

Villagers are scared for good reason. They have no protection from rockets fired by fighter jets or artillery shells - since 27 March, 21 villagers have been killed and 27 wounded.

Schools, health clinics and homes have been destroyed by airstrikes and indiscriminating bombings, forcing at least 30,000 people into makeshift jungle hideouts.

Padoh Taw Nee explains to IFJ that villagers have no experience of protecting themselves from deadly air raids. “Our villagers just want to farm, send their children to school and live their lives in peace. The wet season is coming. There’s not enough mosquito nets, mats, medicine or warm clothing. Old and young will die. Emergency food is of the utmost importance now.”

Padoh Taw Nee said getting aid into the displaced people depended on the compassion of Thai authorities. “We rely on and respect the support of Thailand, their cooperation to get food to people is critical.”

Padoh Taw Nee said the ongoing risk of the spread of Covid-19 is a huge concern. “We know what precautions we need to take, but we need masks, sanitizer and our health workers need protective equipment.”

The KNU agreed a ceasefire with the Myanmar military in January 2012 and signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015 after more than 70-years of fighting Myanmar military dictatorships. Padoh Taw Nee pointed out both ceasefire agreements are now worthless. “The Burma Army violated the conditions of the agreements – sending jets to bomb villagers doesn’t build trust in any peace process on offer.”

Names have been changed to protect people.

Phil Thornton is a journalist and senior adviser to the International Federation of Journalists in South East Asia.