Three months ago, I was Forced to leave Myanmar, the place I have called home for nearly ten years.
After the military coup on February 1, the deadly suppression of protests and widespread arrests made it impossible to continue working as a journalist there safely.
I Drive to the airport early in the morning. The streets are quiet, but signs of chaos that happened a few hours ago can be seen everywhere. Brick dust dyed the streets red. Electric wires, concrete blocks, and large orange trash cans were scattered on the road-the protesters used the remnants of temporary roadblocks, desperately trying to protect themselves from security forces and bullets. There are graffiti everywhere on the walls and flyovers—three-finger salutes and swear words condemning the coup and military leaders.
This is an emotional journey. When I fly back to a comfortable and safe Britain, I will leave friends and relatives to face what seems to only get worse.
My worry is right. In the weeks after I left, more and more friends and contacts were arrested. Myanmar’s national television channel began to publish a daily list of persons subject to arrest warrants. As the number of people increased, more familiar names began to appear. Celebrities, activists and politicians, people I have met and interviewed, and journalists—friends and colleagues.
Most people face charges under section 505A of the newly revised Criminal Code, which broadly targets anyone who encourages civil disobedience.
“I’m just annoyed, they didn’t use my cool photos,” a friend joked in a message when I contacted me after seeing his name added to the list. Like everyone else, he decided to go into hiding long before the arrest warrant was announced-so at least I knew he was safe. “I look terrible in that picture!” he complained jokingly.
Like many of my friends, he always responds to his originally severe situation in a relaxed and humorous way. His optimistic attitude makes it easy to forget everything he had to leave behind. His family, his dog, his friends, his work. He used to be a famous TV host, now hiding in the jungle, washing clothes in the river, and fighting against biting insects. “You know me Ali, I like adventure,” he assured me. “At least I can walk around safely and go swimming. As long as I don’t think about what will happen next or how long I will stay, I’m happy.”
Others have not fully accepted this drastic change. A friend cried as she told about all the things she left behind, describing how she and her colleagues had to sleep in the jungle and drink from the river during the trip. Now that there are checkpoints all over the country, it is not an option for well-known and well-known TV reporters to go over them. They were forced to choose cross-country routes through forests and conflict areas to reach safety.
I still talk to Burmese almost every day—connecting with friends and contacting people as part of my news report. After working in Myanmar for ten years, journalists and activists constitute the majority of my closest friends there. Most people decided to flee their homes and go into hiding. To be safe, we use encrypted messaging apps to speak, but people also start to change their numbers regularly, and accounts will suddenly go to sleep. Sometimes, people I often contact will be silent for days or even weeks. It’s hard not to be afraid of the worst. When I found them, I learned from a few awkward exchanges to stop asking people where they were. “I can’t say where I am, but I can say that I am in a safe place,” a friend recently assured me, as the clear cicadas in the background indicated that they were no longer in the city.
For those who did not find a safe place in time, most of the people I know are detained in Yongsheng Prison and denied contact with friends, family or colleagues. The mother of a detainee told me that every day brings more uncertainty. She was worried about making tough remarks against the military on the phone, but told me she felt helpless. “If time can turn back, I would rather stay in January. Because this is not what anyone wants.”
Since the coup, more than 6,000 people have been arrested, and journalists are one of many target groups. Both local and foreign journalists were arrested. Some people were dragged away from their homes in the middle of the night, others were arrested at the airport or while reporting court proceedings, or taken away during raids on their offices. A journalist friend I know was arrested at home with her son, and I still think she is a little boy.
As the world’s interest wanes, Myanmar is withdrawing from the headlines, but for many of my friends, their lives have changed forever.
After 14 days of no response in early May, a friend I have been particularly worried about suddenly appeared on my phone.
“Hello.” It comes from Facebook Messenger, which has been avoided by most people due to lack of security. I was worried whether it was really him, but I received a video call soon. He told me that he had run away for two weeks and had lost contact with most people. He said that he has reached a safe place, albeit only temporarily.
I have a lot of questions, but I know it is too dangerous to ask this. It is best to let as few people as possible know where he is. But he obviously wanted to share his ordeal story-he told me he had to give up everything. He only has two shirts and a small backpack. But he is very pragmatic.
“We have to adapt,” he said. “This is better than a torture conference.”