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What remains of independent journalism in Myanmar

Originally published on IFJ

Independent journalists in Myanmar have been outlawed, hunted, tortured, jailed and killed by the country’s military regime, but despite the campaign of terror waged against them, they keep reporting. Now, more than ever, they need your support in their struggle against censorship, detentions, and violence, writes Phil Thornton.

Since the coup in 2021, the Junta has been responsible for a wave of killings and arrests targeted against thousands of Burmese citizens (Credit: Phil Thornton)

Myanmar Now photojournalist, Sai Zaw Thaike was sentenced to 20 years in jail with hard labour in early September. His ‘crime’ – reporting on the destruction caused by Cyclone Mocha, as it ripped its way through Rakhine State in May this year.

Myanmar Now’s editor-in-chief, Swe Win, explained to IFJ that Sai Zaw was only doing his job as a photojournalist covering the cyclone that destroyed entire villages, bridges and other vital infrastructure in Rakhine State.

“Sai Zaw wanted to cover the cyclone’s impact on the displaced villagers and in particular the Rohingya community. We, Myanmar Now, were outlawed by the military-appointed State Administration Council (SAC) at the beginning of the coup in 2021. This means anyone working for us is violating SAC’s so-called laws – working for us made Sai Zaw’s position precarious.”

On February 14, 2021, two weeks after its coup the SAC amended the country’s Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to give a pretence of legality to the violence it authorized against most of the country’s civilian population – members of the Civil Disobedience Movement, artists, poets, actors, politicians, health workers, journalists, student leaders, lawyers, civil servants, workers, truck drivers and railway staff. The military had ‘criminalised’ accepted international standards of freedoms – speech, expression, assembly and association – to suit its violent agenda.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) reports that as of September 27, 2023, the military had killed 4,124 people, arrested another 24,850, 7,382 are serving sentences, 19,278 are still in detention, 150 people have been sentenced to death and four executed since the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021. Of those arrested 170 were journalists and 47 are serving jail sentences. Adding to the AAPP documented death toll are another 450 people who have yet to be identified. 

Bo Kyi, Secretary of the AAPP Burma, in an interview with IFJ pointed out the numbers of the people arrested and murdered are those AAPP have been able to verify, but the total numbers are certain to be much higher.

“We now have the most political prisoners since we started documenting 23 years ago, it’s now close to 20,000 – all parts of our community have been arrested – health professionals, workers, lawyers, media workers, artists, musicians, public servants, students…this are our country’s human resources, they’re [military] destroying our country’s future.”

Bo Kyi trawled through the pain and hurt of the many to try to explain the barbaric systematic process the military uses to dehumanize the people it targets.

“People suspected of being critical or opposed to the military or its coup are arrested and detained at either police or military interrogation centres. They’re held without reason for weeks and months before charges are made.”

Mock trials, brutal sentences

Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner, like all of AAPP staff, was arrested as a student leader in the 1988 popular uprising against the military and spent over seven years in jail for his political activism.

Despite his time in detention and in jail, Bo Kyi is quick to stress the brutality shown by the current regime is much darker, designed to strip dignity and hope from its captives.

“When arrested she or he will be systematically beaten in front of people to humiliate them publicly. At the Interrogation Centre they will be physically beaten and psychologically tortured for days… weeks. If they do get to a ‘hearing’ it is held in secret. If a lawyer is allowed, they are also regularly threatened and harassed.”

Detention often doesn’t end with the beatings or the mental trauma, it often ends in a violent death.

An AAPP report released in 2022 – Political Prisoners Experience in Interrogation, Judiciary, and Incarceration Since Burma’s Illegitimate Military Coup – confirms how political prisoners are “systematically physically and mentally tortured by the junta, of whom at least 103pro-democracy supporters have been tortured to death in interrogation centres since the coup, most within 48 hours of arrest.”

Bo Kyi explained political prisoners are denied medical treatment despite the severity of their injuries sustained during detention.

“It’s brutal. Sexual assault of both women and men. Full body searches, anal probes. The intention is to dehumanise. Released political prisoners have difficulty talking about the hurts they endured. Stigma from sexual assaults, shame and even guilt. There are massive impacts on the family – it’s hard to return to ‘normal life’.”

Sai Zaw Thaike, framed and charged by the military with causing fear, spreading false news, defamation, treason and a whole raft of other crimes, was denied legal representation and family visits. His ‘trial’ was held in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, without legal representation, and where he is currently jailed.

Reporting on natural disasters is not a crime – it’s the news, stupid

Myanmar’s Now editor, Swe Win stressed Sai Zaw’s motivation for covering the cyclone was his concern about the welfare of the Rakhine people and the more than 140,000 Rohingya who lived in internally displaced camps in the state. The ramshackle IDP camps offered its Rohingya residents no protection against the cyclone’s estimated 280 kilometre an hour wind. The displaced Rohingya were vulnerable – living in flimsy one roomed bamboo huts, dependent on camp rations for food and water, severe restrictions on their freedom to move – and left without protection or help from the military appointed State Administration Council or international aid agencies.

The SAC controlled, Global New Light of Myanmar, did report in its 19th May edition: “…a total of 183,024 houses, 1,711 religious buildings, 59 monasteries, 1,397 schools, 227 hospitals and clinics, 11 telecom towers, 119 lamp posts, five transformers, one market, two airport buildings and 340 departmental buildings were destroyed in respective regions and states, and 54 locals were killed.”

Despite giving some detail to the tragedy inflicted by Cyclone Mocha, the GNLM failed to report its sponsor, the SAC, denied permission for United Nation agencies access to deliver aid to areas devastated by the cyclone. Without access to the affected regions, emergency humanitarian aid was unable to be delivered, leaving an estimated 1.6 million people, facing homelessness, severe food shortages, lack of clean water protection from the elements and no medical support.

The World Bank estimated the damage caused by the cyclone at USD 2,240,000,000. The SAC acknowledged in its state-controlled media that by May 22 the death toll stood at 145 – 24 locals and 117 “Bengalis” (a pejorative term used by the military and ultra-nationalists to deny Rohingya people their ethnicity). Humanitarian and local groups reported the death toll among the Rohingya alone was more than 400.

The differing and unreliable estimates of the damage and death toll caused by Cyclone Mocha validates demands by local and international media for independent journalists to be allowed to work without fear of arrest and to gather, verify and report news other than the censored information allowed by the military State Administration Council.

Mass displacement, military economic mis-management

While the SAC restricts internet access, uses surveillance, censorship, and shutdowns to control what people are reading, it’s not going to allow independent media sources to scrutinize its actions. In the two and half years since the coup the regime has driven the country to the brink of insolvency. The exchange rate for the local currency has gone from MMK 1,100 to the US dollar in 2021 to MMK 3,600 to the dollar in 2023. In 2021 the daily basic award wage was MMK 4,800, around USD 4 – now workers are earning around US$1.3 a day.

The cost of everyday foodstuffs, even if they are available, have almost doubled since the military coup. Medicine costs have escalated. Schools and hospitals have been run into the ground. Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, architects, artists, musicians, journalists, students and workers have left the country in their tens of thousands. The SAC sanctioned airstrikes and artillery bombardments of civilian settlements since its coup have displaced 1,600,000 people and have deliberately targeted schools and hospitals.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates the total number of displaced as 1,900,000. The country is in the midst of a brutal civil war, but you won’t read about these critical events important to citizens in any of the state-controlled media. A reliable and credible news vacuum was created when the SAC shut down the country’s 13 independent media houses following its 2021 coup, leaving its citizens without access to balanced and informed information. The credible news void is now being filled with state sponsored misinformation and hate speech.

The credentials of the SAC’s man in charge of its media, General Zaw Min Tun, offers an insight into the qualifications of what is required to control state media and the internet. General Zaw Min Tun’s list of titles includes Deputy Minister of Information, head of the armed forces True News Information Team. General Zaw Min Tun also fronts the Directorate of Public Relations and is head of the army’s Psychological Warfare department.

As an independent journalist, Sai Zaw is concerned that credible reporting on the welfare and safety of Rohingya and Rakhine villagers during the cyclone was missing, were well founded. Covering important news events was made impossible by the SAC when it outlawed the country’s independent media and journalists from verifying information.

Myanmar Now editor, Swe Win, said Sai Zaw was determined to keep reporting, despite the risk of arrest and torture.

“Sai Zaw is a professional photojournalist – he has worked for most of the country’s newsrooms. He risked his life to tell stories he thought were important. Sai Zaw insisted on going to where people were hurting – he wasn’t interested in ‘photo-ops’ for politicians or celebrities – events he considered non-stories.  He didn’t care for awards or accolades, credits or fame. He was driven by the story. Sai Zaw said as a journalist he was not prepared to abandon his country.”

Getting credible information on what is happening in Myanmar still depends on the bravery and resilience of journalists like Sai Zaw Thaike, their sources and the numerous underground organisations defying the brutality of the military regime. The military appointed State Administration Council will continue to use vague accusations to frame and punish those who oppose it with illegal detention, torture and murder.

Read the IFJ’s 2022 Myanmar report ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Broadcast – Myanmar: IFJ Situation Report 2022’ here.

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


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