Living in fear but refusing to give up: journalists under Myanmar’s coup regime

Source: The Kite Tales

Memories flooded me as I read the opening sentences of a diary entry from a journalist. She was reminiscing about Feb 1, 2016. 

“It was the opening day of Myanmar’s new Hluttaw (parliament) with a new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and I was really excited. Not only was I visiting the place for the first time, I was also reporting on events that day,” she wrote. 

I could have written this sentence. I was there on this day too and it was also my first visit to Naypyitaw, the country’s purpose-built capital with ridiculously spacious roads. 

My next thought was, “When will I ever see a day like this again?” 

You see, it has been nearly 18 months since the coup and the military dictators show no sign of loosening their brutal hold or relenting from their crackdown of independent media, which has left many journalists fearing for their lives as well as mourning the loss of their identity. 

Many reporters in Myanmar do their job because it’s their passion. When even in the heydays of the country’s opening and there was a proliferation of local newspapers, weekly journals, online news outlets and monthly magazines, journalism was a lowly-paid, thankless job that frequently invites more vitriol than thanks. 

Since the coup, many have lost their jobs after media outlets shut their operations, either after incurring the wrath of the vindictive junta or to proactively to protect themselves and their staff members. Many who wanted to continue reporting fled across the border. Those who could not, due to a variety of reasons, are struggling to survive by doing whatever job they can find. 

In 2016, at the height of optimism for Myanmar’s future, I co-founded a storytelling non-profit called The Kite Tales with a friend and fellow journalist Kelly Macnamara, dedicated to chronicling the lives, culture and memories of ordinary people from across the country. Those stories went largely untold for decades because the authoritarian military regime silenced local reporting and the voices of citizens. 

We also wanted to capture the extraordinary diversity of Myanmar while highlighting common experiences shared by all at a time when the country was so intent on moving forward. But after the coup, we shifted to featuring the voices of ordinary people who were taking part in the protests. Earlier this year, on the first anniversary of the coup, we launched a fund to support a handful of journalists and illustrators. 

Since then, the anonymous diaries they have submitted, including the one I mentioned in the opening paragraph, then provides a terrifying glimpse into what life is like to be a journalist caught up in the Myanmar military’s power grab.  

“I started living in a state of constant alarm. Even if you lost your job or quit the profession after the coup and are now trying to make a living some other way, this feeling of insecurity remains. If you choose to continue working as a journalist within the country (especially if you live in a city), there is no guarantee on your life,” wrote a broadcast journalist in the Yangon Region. 

She recently endured a frantic and fearful evening hiding her reporting equipment when the police turned up to check search her building. 

Source: The Kite Tales

“I was able to flee, but I lost my emotional security. I kept worrying that I would be arrested and trying to imagine what I should do if I was arrested,” wrote a Shan journalist in the country’s east who is now on the run. 

“When I’m in bed at night and I hear the sound of cars and motorcycles or dogs barking, I get up and check to see if anyone is there. It’s been a year since I’ve been living with this kind of dread,” he added. 

TheAnother journalist in central Myanmar who I referred to in the opening paragraph also recalled the excitement she felt covering the opening of parliament in 2016, when the civilian government took power, and the disbelief and terror atsince the military took over five years after she covered that historic opening of parliament in 2016later.   

We are currently supporting seven journalists and three illustrators. This is just a drop in the ocean, and while our help is not going to change the course of Myanmar’s history, we know it is helping the individual journalists by allowing them to continue expressing themselves. 

We also feel these diaries are even more relevant—and important—now that international attention has moved on from Myanmar. We feel duty-bound to tell what is still happening in Myanmar, to alert the world of the terrible abuse the military is meting out to its own people and the incredible bravery of journalists who continue to report despite the dangers. 

“Before the coup d’état and Covid-19, I had a life with family, children, with regular work and office life. My husband had a shop and my parents looked after our children. During holidays we would travel to famous landmarks as a family. This has been completely destroyed,” wrote a journalist from Kayah, currently on the run with her family. 

“Now I have no security at all. A year after the military coup I am homeless, my children have no future and we are forced to live wherever we can. Despite all this, I am trying to be positive and optimistic. Using the phone that is still in my hands, I am still working as a reporter, documenting the experiences and difficulties of the refugees as well as my own experiences, so that the world will know what’s happening in Myanmar.”

They also remain hopeful. 

“As difficult as it sounds, I hope my country, Myanmar, will become a democratic federal union. It might be so far away for now, but I do believe that it will happen one day. I have witnessed and experienced the endless sacrifices made by the people of Myanmar, especially young people,” said a journalist who had fled the country. 

“Having seen all of this, I am sure there will be a victory in the end. And if there is no victory, then that’s not the end.”