Myanmar: Silencing Dissent

Despite closure of the country’s independent media, arrest warrants, torture, jail and being driven underground or into exile, Myanmar’s journalists continue to defy the military junta to find ways to report, writes Phil Thornton.

Journalist Zay Yar Myint hit with rubber bullets during a protest at Pyay University on February 28. Credit: Myaelatt Athan

Journalists Phyo and her husband Ko Soe Ya are determined to keep publishing, despite Myanmar’s military forcing the closure of their office, revoking their licence, issuing warrants for their arrest and an underground trek to what they thought was to be a safe border location.  

Monsoon rains ease as Phyo takes time to reflect on the life-changing events, she and her husband, Soe Ya, endured since the military coup leaders dismantled Myanmar’s fledgling parliamentary infrastructure and arrested its elected lawmakers on February 1, 2021.  

“We were married just one month before the coup. Our honeymoon has been the frontlines of the revolution.” 

Delta News Agency (DNA) were based in Pathein City, the capital of the Ayeyarwady Delta Region, until the military-appointed State Administration Council cancelled its licence to publish in November 2021 and issued arrest warrants for Phyo and Soe Ya under the amended Penal Code article 505A.  

Soe Ya lists the diverse spectrum of news events DNA reporters covered before the military forced them to shut down and flee. 

“The Delta is the country’s rice bowl – corn, sesame seeds, peanuts. Fishing and farming products are important exports for the region and people living in the Delta want and need information [on local issues].” 

Soe Ya used stories DNA reported on to show the IFJ how important it was for the community to have access to independent information. 

“Our region is where the rare, wild, white elephants are found. Poachers want the skin and tusks. Elephant numbers were decreasing. Farmers don’t like wild elephants - they destroy and eat crops. International gangs hire local poachers to kill the elephants. Poachers get information from farmers to help locate the elephants.”  

Soe Ya explains the significance of the mighty Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar’s largest at 2,107kms, runs north to south, neatly dividing the country in two and is the country’s most important commercial waterway.  

The river is estimated to have as many as 200 different fish species, saltwater crocodiles and the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Phyo said environmental, agricultural and commercial issues related to the Ayeyarwady River were important stories Delta News Agency covered. 

“The dredging of the river for sand was local and of great concern to local people. It was a big story. The riverbanks were being destroyed. Entire villages were being lost to erosion and crops were destroyed by flooding. Farming is changing in the Delta... machinery replacing buffalos, pesticides used instead of traditional non-chemical methods and mono-crop plantations instead of growing a diversity of food.” 

Soe Ya said the Delta region was a massive source of labour migrating to neighbouring countries like Thailand. 

“During covid restrictions many of these workers were forced to return, this was a big story for us, as many families in the region relied on migrant worker’s wages.” 

Phyo nods in agreement and adds. 

“We had built an extensive network of sources. The issues we reported were critical to our community. Since the military coup and crackdown on journalists, we can’t cover the stories that are now important to our country.” 

Silencing Dissent 

On day two of its coup d’etat, the commander-in-chief of the military, General Min Aung Hlaing, formed and installed a puppet governing body called the State Administration Council. With Min Aung Hlaing as its leader and eight of the initial 11 members high-ranking serving military officers, it began targeting independent media and opponents of the coup – health workers, railway and transport workers, students, civil servants, factory workers and journalists. 

In response to the military coup, nationwide protests intensified and increased as civilians took to the streets in their tens of thousands. Images of the military’s violent response to the peaceful demonstrations, captured by journalists and protesters, were tweeted, posted on social media, and shown on international television networks.  

By February 28, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), had documented at least 30 people had been killed by the military and another 1,132 arrested protesting the coup.  

Zay Yar Myint, a journalist reporting for the independent media outlet, Myaelatt Athan, explained to the IFJ how the protests began to turn sinister on February 9, when soldiers and police started to fire ‘live’ ammunition at civilians, including stun grenades and rubber bullets. Images taken of army snipers positioned on pylons, rooftops and other vantage points added a disturbing explanation why many of the dead protesters had head wounds.    

Zay Yar Myint said he attended a student-organised protest on February 28 at Pyay University to ‘live stream’ a report.  

“I was close to the speakers and the police. I was wearing my safety helmet and vest. The black helmet had, in large white letters, ‘PRESS’ clearly marked on it. Sound grenades were fired to scare everyone. I was live streaming on Facebook.”  

Now in exile and speaking to the IFJ at a location on the Myanmar border, Zay Yar Myint described how the protest turned deadly.  

“The police were about five metres from where I was reporting. I was close to the armed police, I stopped my ‘live’ broadcast to take photos... I then felt a smack in the side of my face and neck. I was hit with rubber bullets.” 

Zay Yar Myint is above average height and, with his press helmet, stood out from the crowd. If his ‘live’ streaming was monitored by the military, it adds motive to why he was targeted.  

Zay Yar Myint opens his phone to show the IFJ photos of photographs of his bloodied face and another of the grape-size rubber bullets that put him in hospital. Rubber bullets, or kinetic impact projectiles, regarded as less lethal than other bullets, can cause serious permanent damage if people are hit in the neck (airways) or eyes. The civilian protester standing next to Zay Yar Myint was hit in the eye but avoided arrest as police closed in. 

Zay Yar Myint said his girlfriend, who worked at the hospital where he went for treatment, was shocked by his injuries.  

“When she saw me, she cried. She was worried. We knew the military were searching for me. I dare not go home. I left and hid in the jungle.” 

Zay Yar Myint, like many journalists, was now on the run. A pro-army site, Real News operating from the Telegram app, published his and his girlfriend’s photographs.  

“They took our photos from Facebook. They also published my family and my inlaws' addresses. They called me a liar, said I made ‘fake news’ and said I was not a real journalist.”  

Zay Yar Myint said as many as 30 soldiers and police went to his family's home to arrest them.  

“My father-in-law was arrested and charged under 505(A) for sharing news articles. The military actively hunted my family. I worry about my friends and relatives, but reporting is what I do...people need to know what’s happening in our country... we need to continue to report the ongoing injustices.” 

Breaking Laws 

Just two weeks into the coup on 14 February 2021, the military-appointed State Administration Council, in a deliberate deceit, amended the country’s Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to give legality to its killing, arresting, jailing and torturing people opposed to its rule.  

With the amended laws in place the military waged a campaign of terror against most of the country’s civilian population – members of the Civil Disobedience Movement, artists, poets, actors, politicians, health workers, journalists, student leaders, civil servants, workers, truck drivers and railway staff.  

The military ‘criminalised’ what are accepted international standards of freedoms - speech, expression, assembly and association - to suit its warped agenda.  

The Centre for Law and Democracy posted on its website that the “military is now using section 505(A) [amended Penal Code] essentially as its default for bringing criminal charges against a wide range of persons deemed to pose a challenge to their authority.” 

Anyone with a phone could be detained and held indefinitely at an interrogation centre if they had shared a photo, article, cartoon, poem, song or had visited an internet site deemed as critical of the military. 

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reports that as of August 8, 2022, the military killed 2,167 people, arrested another 15,064, 1,355 are serving sentences, s119 people have been sentenced to death and four executed since the military’s coup on February 1, 2021.  

The IFJ’s affiliate, the Myanmar Journalists Network, documented in the 18 months since the coup, 159 journalists were arrested, three killed - 59 are still in jail, 47 men and 12 women. Among those killed was Sai Win Aung, better known as A Sai K, the poet and editor of Federal News Journal and close friend of Delta News Agency, editors, Phyo and Soe Ya. 

Poet and editior Sai Win Aung, also known as A Sai K, was killed by Myanmar's military junta.

Journalists on the run 

Like many people escaping military persecution and threats of arrest, the three friends had made the move to areas under the protection of an ethnic armed organisation – the Karen National Union (KNU).  

A Sai K, Phyo and Soe Ya were three of the many thousands who took refuge at Lay Kay Kaw, a new town set up in 2014 and heralded as a symbol of peace, after a ceasefire agreement was reached in January 2012 between the KNU and the Myanmar military. 

Angered by the KNU’s acceptance, protection and defence of displaced Karen villagers, city based anti-coup protesters, politicians, journalists and students the Junta retaliated by turning the region into a battle ground.  

In an interview with IFJ, the KNU’s head of foreign affairs, Padoh Saw Taw Nee, explained the difficulties of looking after the growing number of people fleeing military violence in Myanmar. 

“There are now many new arrivals to our area – representing all walks of life – doctors, strike leaders, students, activists, police and army and journalists. They left because they fear for their lives. It was difficult for them getting to the border. There are many Burma Army checkpoints to get through.” 

The UN agency responsible for refugees, UNHCR, reported that since the February 1 2021 coup, 897,000 people have been displaced bringing the total to 1,244,000 now internally displaced within Myanmar. 

Padoh Taw Nee said attacks on Karen villagers has been a long-term strategy of the Myanmar Army to displace civilians, but the use of drones, helicopters and fighter jets has added a new level of brutality. 

“It’s terrifying for villagers...there’s no bunkers...there’s no protection. The Junta is killing their own people.” 

Despite the air strikes and artillery bombardments, Padoh Taw Nee said the Karen National Union will continue to offer assistance, despite being low on resources. 

“This is an international humanitarian crisis caused by the Junta’s coup. We’ll continue to feed, shelter and look after these people targeted by the Junta, as best we can.” 

Padoh Taw Nee, explained the Junta’s strategy against civilians in ethnic areas is to first use ground troops to bomb villages to displace the people. Then, when KNU defends its villagers, drones and or spy planes are used to locate the displaced villagers hiding sites and then come the airstrikes. 

“From our experience in our [KNU] Brigade 5, when there’s fighting between our soldiers and the Burma Army, the military junta retaliates with airstrikes targeting civilians. These people are not military targets. It forces tens of thousands of our people to be displaced in jungles and at risk when crossing the border to safety.” 

The aerial onslaught against the Karen villagers in the Lay Kay Kaw and surrounding areas began again on 23 December. While jets bombed the area, the Myanmar Army attacked, firing more than 50 heavy artillery shells. 

On December 23, Delta News Agency journalists, Phyo and Soe Ya made the decision, for safety reasons, to split up. Phyo went to a Thai border town with other women worried for their security. Soe Ya stayed behind in the Lay Kay Kaw area with his friend, A Sai K, to work on stories of the fighting and displacement.  

Christmas Day 2021, arrived with heavy artillery barrages fired by the Myanmar Army into Lay Kay Kaw and surrounding villages. Soe Ya, along with his good friend A Sai K, were sheltering at Htee Mae Wah Khee village school. The Burma Army attacked Mae Taw Talay, Hpalu Gyi, Htee Mae Wah Khee and Yathit Gu villages with its artillery – using 60-mm, 81-mm, and 120-mm with deadly results. 

Soe Ya told the IFJ when “the big, heavy weapons began to shell the village, we decided to run to the nearest village, Hpalu.” On the way, A Sai K was killed by shrapnel and Soe Ya received injuries to his face.  

The killing of A Sai K was condemned in a statement released at the time by UNESCO director-general, Audrey Azoulay. “Media workers like Sai Win Aung (aka A Sai K) risk their lives to keep the public informed. Their work deserves to be recognized and their safety protected in line with international humanitarian law, which forbids attacks on civilians.” 

Despite leaving the Lay Kay Kaw conflict zone, after surviving air and ground bombardments to try to find a safer refuge on the Thai Burma border, Phyo and Soe Ya were to experience further heartbreak. 

In June 2022, Phyo had a miscarriage, she believes was caused by the stress of living on the frontline of a war zone, the death of their friend, A Sai K, avoiding arrest under section 505(A), being displaced, and living underground and undocumented in Thailand. 

“Every day we had to worry about our security. There was no ‘normal’ in our lives. We couldn’t even go to the shops. The pressure was huge.” 

Phyo realised she was in trouble when she experienced excruciating abdominal pain and bleeding.  

“I knew I needed treatment but was afraid to go hospital without papers and it was during covid restrictions. They hospital refused to treat me without a [covid] test, they told me to get tested and come back tomorrow with the results if negative.” 

Desperate and in pain Phyo tried another clinic. 

“I’m agony...bleeding and they thought I’d self-aborted. I tried to explain, but the pain and not being able to speak the language made it difficult.” 

Phyo said it was at this point that she thought she would die and realised making decisions about the future was impossible. 

“I knew I had to just concentrate and taking care of my health was now my priority.” 

Eventually Phyo received the treatment she needed to get her back to health and to work and looking for funding to keep Delta News Agency functioning. Phyo explains DNA have 11 staff – reporters, video makers, editors, and administrators – who need to keep working. 

“It’s hard to make decisions about the future...we’ve applied for legal documents. But we have to keep working...keep’s what we do.” 

Zay Yar Myint, Phyo and Soe Ya, like most of the Myanmar journalists interviewed by the IFJ, acknowledged many important stories are now not getting the extensive scrutiny and coverage citizens expect from an independent and free press.  

Journalists spoken to for this article listed the dire state of the economy, the crash of the local currency, cost of living, disruption to the education system, the failing healthcare sector, the covid situation, the selling of the country’s infrastructure to military cronies, lack of access to telecommunications, jailing of political prisoners and the destruction and future division caused by an ongoing nationwide civil war. 

Zay Yar Myint, like Phyo and Soe Ya, decided to stay in the region, rather than apply for resettlement to a third country. Zay Yar Myint explains why. 

“At my age we never experienced this...we never expected this violent response... what the military has done is unthinkable. The whole country now hates them – they have been exposed by their brutality towards the people. The fight for democracy is important. I’ve rejected an opportunity to go to another country. My qualifications are my writing...I’ll keep using it to keep the revolution in our country strong... we can’t stop now... we have to keep struggling to win back our stolen freedoms.” 

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