Three months ago I was forced to leave Myanmar, the place I had called home for almost a decade.
After a military coup on February 1, a deadly crackdown on protests and widespread arrests made it impossible to continue working safely as a journalist there.
I drove to airport early in the morning. The streets were quiet, but signs of the chaos that had taken place hours earlier were everywhere. Brick dust has stained the streets red. Wire, concrete blocks and large orange trash cans were strewn across the roads – remnants of makeshift barricades that protesters used in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from security force assaults and bullets. The walls and viaducts were littered with graffiti – three-fingered salutes and name-calling condemned the coup and the military leaders.
It was an emotional journey. I was leaving my friends and relatives to face a situation that seemed to only get worse as I returned to the comfort and safety of the UK.
I was right to worry. In the weeks following my departure, more and more friends and contacts were cut off. Myanmar State Television has started reporting a daily list of people on arrest warrants. As the number grew, more familiar names began to appear. Celebrities, activists and politicians, people I have met and interviewed, but also journalists – friends and colleagues.
Most have been charged under section 505A of the recently amended Penal Code, which broadly targets anyone who encourages civil disobedience.
“I’m just annoyed that they didn’t use a cool photo of me,” a friend joked in a message when I contacted him after seeing his name added to the list. Like others, he had made the decision to go into hiding early, long before the warrant was announced – so at least I knew he was safe. “I look so bad in this photo!” he complained jokingly.
Like many of my friends, he always responds with light humor to his otherwise dire situation. His optimistic attitude allows him to easily forget everything he must have left behind. His family, his dogs, his friends, his job. He was a well-known TV presenter and now hides in the jungle, washes his clothes in the river and fights biting insects. “You know me Ali, I love adventure,” he reassured me. “At least I can safely walk around and go swimming. As long as I don’t think about what’s going to happen next or how long I’ll have to stay, I’m happy.
Others did not endure the upheaval quite as well. A friend cried as she shared all she left behind, describing how she and her colleagues had to sleep in the jungle and drink in the rivers on their journey. There are now checkpoints all over the country, and for high profile TV reporters with famous names and faces, crossing them is not an option. They are forced to use off-road roads through forests and conflict zones to find safety.
I still talk to people in Myanmar almost every day – I connect with friends and contact people as part of my media coverage. After a decade of working in Myanmar, journalists and activists make up the majority of my closest friends there. Most have made the decision to flee their homes and go into hiding. For security reasons, we use encrypted messaging apps to talk, but people have also started to change their numbers regularly, and accounts will suddenly become inactive. Sometimes those with whom I have been in regular contact are silent for a few days or even a few weeks. It can be hard not to fear the worst. When I get them I have learned from a few awkward exchanges to stop asking people where they are. “I can’t say where I am, but I can say I’m in a safe place,” a friend reassured me recently, the unmistakable sound of cicadas in the background indicating that they were no longer in the room. city.
For those who did not find a safe place in time, most of whom I know are held at Insein Prison, deprived of any contact with their friends, family or colleagues. The mother of an inmate tells me that every day brings more uncertainty. She is afraid to make strong statements against the military over the phone, but tells me that she feels helpless. “If I could turn back time, I would rather be still in January. Because that’s not what everyone wants.
More than 6,000 people have been arrested since the coup and journalists are one of the many groups targeted. Local and foreign journalists were arrested. Some were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night, others apprehended at the airport or while reporting on legal proceedings, or taken to their offices during searches. A journalist friend I know was arrested at her home with her son, a teenager whom I still consider to be a young boy.
Myanmar is dropping the news headlines as world interest wanes, but for many of my friends their lives have been changed forever.
After 14 days of no response in early May, a friend who was particularly worried about me suddenly appeared on my phone.
“Hi.” It was from Facebook Messenger, a platform that most people shied away from due to lack of security. I was wondering if it was really him, but soon a video call arrived. He tells me he’s been on the run for two weeks and has lost communication with most people. He had reached a safe place, albeit a temporary one, he said.
I have so many questions but I know it’s too dangerous to ask. It is best if as few people as possible know where it is. But he’s obviously eager to share the story of his ordeal – he tells me he had to give up all of his stuff. He only has two shirts and a small backpack with him. But he is pragmatic.
“You have to adapt,” he said. “It’s better than torture sessions.”