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IFJ Report: Seeing is Believing

The Myanmar military regime has hammered the country’s independent media. Jailing journalists, forcing many underground, or into exile. Despite the threat of jail, frontline dangers, and loss of salary, many media workers have shown great resilience and determination to keep reporting and documenting the stories that matter – the ongoing civil war, the military’s war crimes, mass displacement, the collapse of the economy, and the effects on the daily lives of civilians. Phil Thornton reports from the Thai-Myanmar border.

A group of men and women, working under the banner, The Roots, galvanised by the violence of the military regime against civilians who opposed its rule continue to photograph and document the country’s ongoing civil war.

Founding member, Mar Naw, explains the Roots collective is about fighting for freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and continuing to photograph and preserve the nation’s history through their images.

The Roots consists of 14 members, all experienced professionals, having worked for international, regional, and local media. A trawl through their brief biographies reveals a number of prestigious award winners – World Press, Robert Capa and SOPA – despite the awards, the members insist they are a by-product of their reportage, not the main goal.

Mar Naw takes time to make sure The Roots’ objectives are clearly defined. This includes documenting anti-coup protests, environmental destruction, military war crimes, the ever-shifting nature of the civil war frontline, impacts of economic crash on civilians, city protesters now fighting with People’s Defence Force militia against the regime, the battlefield casualties of the civil war, the aerial and artillery bombardments, and mass displacement of civilian populations.

“We’ve been planning this for a year, and we went official with an exhibition in November 2023. We see ourselves as a collective – we share funding, we share ideas, we share resources, and we share what we have with each other. There’s no boss, we’re the founders and we’re all equal members.”

Mar Naw said now was the right time to launch The Roots.

“There is no group specialising in photojournalism in Myanmar, we’re all freelancers, it made sense for like-minded professionals to get together – to support each other as there is no organisation in Myanmar that supports photojournalists.”

If you use our work – pay us

The Roots members make the point that working together they will be in a stronger position to protect their copyright, get paid for their images, and protect their photographic archive – as their work is often used by local, regional, and international media without permission or credit. The Root members say social media has its benefits, but it also allows work they post on it to be ripped off.

“Local news outlets don’t pay us well. They ignore our years of professional work and want to treat us like citizen journalists – they want our images for free. This is despite knowing we’ve spent months on the frontline to get those images.”

Before the coup, YAT was an established and respected photojournalist, having worked for international news agencies, including AFP for 11 years.

“I don’t want to sit at a desk. I want to record what’s happening in my country, especially now.”

YAT is convinced Myanmar needs more photojournalists and has been willing to train and mentor.

“More and more young people are interested in what we do. We’ve started to run workshops for interested CJs and we try to help as much as we can our journalist colleagues still working inside. Many CJs have no experience, they were students or workers before protesting the coup, now they are in conflict zones with limited experience and no safety training. This war is a shifting frontline. It’s dangerous. We don’t have even the basic protective equipment – helmets or vests.”

YAT explains once Roots is established it plans to run safety workshops and raise funds to buy protective helmets and vests that can be shared.

Meanwhile, despite the danger, Root members continue to report the country’s intense, and brutal nationwide civil war. An interactive conflict map developed by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), gives an indication of how widespread the fighting is in Myanmar. Red dots cover most of the map, pinpointing the “29,377 violent events”, as of January 31, 2024.

If a map was drawn of The Root photographers’ locations while covering the civil war it would follow a similar pattern – Sagaing region, and most of Myanmar’s states – Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine and Karenni.

People’s revolution

Nwayy has spent two years in Karenni State, which has seen some of the most intense bombardments, both from on-the-ground artillery and from aerial attacks. It has been reported that as many as 80% of people in Karenni State are now displaced. Nwayy describes the conditions she has endured and witnessed while working there.

“I spent time with people forced out of their homes by air strikes. Even the displaced camps have been targeted by airstrikes. It’s stressful. I had limited resources, no protective gear. As a photographer working remote locations, I needed internet access and to charge batteries. Often in conflict zones, there isn’t any way to get technical support.”

Nwayy explains as a woman, weighing less than 48kg, ethnic soldiers often show their concern for her welfare at the frontline.

“My colleagues aren’t concerned. I know how to take care of myself, but I often have to convince the EAOs (Ethnic Armed Organisations). I point to their own ranks and the many women serving and fighting. The Karenni have a respected women’s battalion.”

Nwayy, an active member of the country’s Student Union during the coup protests, attracted the attention of the military-appointed State Administration Council (SAC) who issued a warrant for her arrest. Nwayy decided, for her safety, to leave the city and go underground to the liberated areas under the control of the ethnic armed organisations. Nwayy remained active and committed to restoring democracy in Myanmar, producing radio, news, and online documentaries. Nwayy, was mentored by Roots senior members, and is now passionate about using the medium to tell stories. Nwayy has recently been reporting from Demoso, Karenni State’s second largest town, that has witnessed some of the country’s heaviest fighting, but stresses that without the local people’s support the revolution would falter.

“It’s gratifying to see how the people treat us on the frontline. The people are enthusiastic about the revolution. They hate the regime and how they’ve used jets and helicopters to attack their villages. The villagers support the People’s Defence Forces. They know without their support the PDFs won’t eat.”

Nwayy said frontline reporting is not easy.

“We have to dig our own bunkers…six foot deep… long…rocks and sandbags to reinforce. It becomes our home night and day. Food is what we can get – rice, [instant] noodles, beef, frogs, even snakes. We collect mushrooms and vegetables from the jungle.”

It was raining bombs 

Zarni joins the conversation to explain the intensity of the regime’s use of airstrikes against civilians. Zarni was there to document the launch of Operation 1027, when an alliance of ethnic armed Organisations and People’s Defence Forces, collectively named the Three Brotherhood Alliance, overran the regime’s forces.

The Alliance captured a number of towns, hundreds of the military regime’s bases, hundreds of its troops surrendered, leaving a vast number of weapons and munitions behind for the Alliance.

Zarni said despite Operation 1027 being a massive success, it came at a price.

“I was there. So many airstrikes. It was raining bombs. I saw young PDFs killed and injured. The regime’s jets and helicopters attacked hospitals with 500lb bombs. The noise was so loud I could still hear it a week later. When the jets strike there’s little protection. People just dig holes and put wood planks covered with sandbags over the top and hope to survive.”

Zarni explains he finds the wet season difficult to work. “The mud makes it difficult. Getting around is hard. Roads get washed out. Dengue fever, malaria and other illnesses make it difficult, especially in the displaced people’s camps. Shelter is basic, it’s wet and food and medicine have to be brought in. The humidity and damp play havoc with our photographic and electronic equipment.”

Mar Naw explains he came to photojournalism via student politics.

“I’ve been a photojournalist since 2012…I studied photography…became involved in politics in 2013. In 2015, I was a member of the Student Union when I was arrested at protests over the education legislation. I was arrested and spent 13 months in jail.”

Mar Naw speaks for the other members of Roots when he says, “Despite the risks, photography is our passion – this is what we want to do.”

International media not interested

Mar Naw explained most of the Roots members self-fund their reportage.

“I went to Sagaing after hearing about villages being attacked and torched. The military had locked down the area. The local People’s Defence Force at the time did not have many weapons – they relied on homemade guns and explosives. The military [regime’s forces] went in hard – burning homes with ground troops and then launching airstrikes.”

Mar Naw said the military regime’s soldiers took their revenge on villagers for helping the PDF’s. I was there when soldiers burnt 11 houses and then came back and burnt another 78 houses.”

Mar Naw said documenting the war crimes of the military regime is essential.

“Every living thing in our country is in danger from this military regime, even the villager’s animals are not safe as they kill everything.”

The Roots are well aware that having frontline access is dangerous for all journalists, regardless of their ethnicity.

“Our cameras, our work – reporting the regime’s crimes against humanity – even carrying our equipment makes us targets.”

Mar Naw questions why international news agencies and media outlets are reluctant to use and pay local photographers to cover Myanmar’s civil war.

“They don’t send their own photographers – we know access is hard for them to get, and insurance costs are high. It’s physically hard to get to the frontline and it’s hard while you’re there. It’s maybe why we see little or no coverage or interest about Myanmar in the international media. We have the proven on-the-ground experience of negotiating the dangers and hardships of the frontlines and returning with the stories… and we’re available.”

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


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