Since the military coup on Feb 1st, hundreds of thousands of people have taken the streets of Myanmar to express their anger and their wish of a federal democracy governed by civilians. The brutal repression of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) by soldiers and policemen has led to the death of hundreds of people and thousands have been injured or arrested. No one has been spared by the chaos, as heavy artillery has been brought out in the cities and airstrikes launched on ethnic minority areas. Communication services and the flow of information from independent media have been virtually halted.
A collective of photo-reporters called The Myanmar Project have documented the unfolding events since Day 1 at the risk of their own lives and assess the situation on the ground on an ongoing basis with freelance journalist and media teacher Laure Siegel. Memory! Cinema Association, which runs filmmaking and media workshops in Myanmar through the annual International Film Festival in Yangon, has committed to publish their unique fieldwork from Yangon, Pyay, Salin, Monywa, Shwedaung, Lashio, Muse and Thandwe.
One evening, about a week after the military coup in Myanmar which overthrew the elected government led by the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi, ending the country’s process of democratisation after ten years of relative liberalization, “M” sent a message on a social media discussion group from his journalism graduation year. “Teachers, I want to ask something. I am sitting here, I am thinking and I cannot sleep. I am involved in the overthrow of the dictatorship. Does that break the ethic of not taking sides as a journalist?”
The next morning, one of his teachers replied: “Under the military dictatorship, we cannot hope to fulfil our role as the fourth pillar of democracy, as journalists are not even allowed to present the truth. This movement is against the military dictatorship so we must be neutral in journalism, but we must defend the truth.” She then advised her former students to communicate via the encrypted messaging service Signal and sent a list of precautions to take while covering the protests, based on a translation of notes originally prepared by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Around ten reporters have been publishing their images of the civil resistance as correspondents for local media, from the plains of the Irrawaddy river, to Shan and Rakhine states, and to the economic centre and former capital Yangon. They created shortly after the coup The Myanmar Project collective, which regularly publish a selection of images and features on French investigative outlet Mediapart.
One of them, “K”, lives in a hamlet in Upper Myanmar : “People go to the fields before dawn and come back before dusk. Except for their fields, they don’t care about anything, not even Covid-19, because there are very few cases registered here. But on the morning of the coup, everyone was so shocked!” ‘K’ travelled by moped to Salin, a small town with a population of around 13.000: “I had never seen such a crowd, people came from everywhere, there were more than 20,000 of them.” The first month, the members of the collective have reported on a large and very diverse turnout for the protests, which have brought together farmers, textile workers, miners, medical staff, teachers, engineers, lawyers, students unions and LGBT+ activists. “Every day, the signs became better made and there were trends, such as dressing up as a ghost, a clown or a cosplayer to attract attention and to hide protestors’ faces,” reported “H” from Thandwe, a large port city in the western state of Rakhine.
For many of the group of budding reporters, it was their first experience of covering such risky political events. On February 9th, the police fired live rounds, rubber bullets and water cannons at protestors in Yangon, Mandalay and in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, where supermarket worker Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, 19, was hit in the head by a bullet through her helmet. Huge crowds turned out for her funeral cortege, as she is considered the first martyr of what has been dubbed the ‘Spring Revolution’. Since then, around 750 people have been murdered in the streets of the country and the images that the netizens manage to transmit to the world have exposed the Burmese military machine terrifying brutality. Holed up in a studio in Yangon, J. laments that he does “not have the necessary equipment to protect himself effectively”. All are aware that plastic construction helmets, wet towels to extinguish tear gas canisters, or torn tires as body armor are not adequate shields against the heavily armed and trained military. The Tatmadaw – Burmese Army – is known for not bothering with warning shots, as well as its decades-long scorched-earth and mass rapes campaigns in ethnic minorities areas.
“Z”, based in the south-central Bago Region, experienced violence firsthand. “There are only five reporters in our town, so the township police chief knows us very well. But now he has to answer to military rule. I was scared of being arrested, but I couldn’t help but shoot when I was in front of the barricades. I was taking pictures of the troops when I saw a gun pointed at me. The police, who were not from around here, rushed in, beat me and then shot me. ” Z. was hit in the face and neck by two rubber bullets on February 28th. A dozen people were seriously injured that morning. As soon as he was discharged from hospital, Z. took cover: “During the assault, the person next to me was shot in the eye. The police came to get him in the afternoon, but he had already run away. I decided not to go home and to disappear. Today marks the beginning of the demolition of the Civil disobedience movement”. Citizens recording events live have been particularly targeted and dozens of journalists have been injured or arrested. “It is dangerous to use our names and most of the media in Myanmar have decided early on to stop putting credits on images. But the international press must continue to know. I will send pictures every time I can until the end of this movement.”
On March 3rd, K. was taken aback by the terror that spread through the streets of his small village, previously spared by repression. In the afternoon, protesters gathered in front of the police station where a father and son, arrested during the daily morning demonstration, were being held. “The police started firing tear gas, then live ammunition. Two people were killed, including one of my friends, an engineer student, and at least ten were injured,” said K. “When one is inexperienced, one doesn’t know when to be afraid and run away. But we will have to go back to the streets, again and again. We owe our friend a blood debt. I’m unable to take pictures right now, so I helped as much as I could with his burial ceremony. The fear is there, but we have to be strong.”
In the nearby city of Monywa, M.M. narrowly escaped the worst. “On March 4th, the demonstrations took place in the middle of the river because the police had blocked the city, but my mother forbade me to go. At 4 p.m., the first bodies arrived at their homes. One of them lived in my street, a 35-year-old teacher. People will continue to fight, because we need democracy. But the ‘mad dogs’ [nickname for soldiers] will also continue to shoot”. In this town, which has been on general strike since early February without interruption, around thirty people have lost their lives and kidnappings by the authorities are reported daily. On April 15th, Wai Moe Naing, the 26 year old prominent leader of the protest movement in Monywa was taken to a military base and tortured after being hit with a car and arrested at gunpoint by plainclothes regime officials.
On March 27, Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the beginning of the resistance of Burmese troops to the Japanese occupation in 1945, the junta marched through the capital Nay Pyi Taw, while its soldiers embarked on renewed massacres. More than 150 people died that day – since renamed “Day of Shame”. “Today they didn’t try to stop us, they just wanted to kill us,” reports M. at 10pm from Yangon. “Since March 9, the violence has intensified significantly. I had gotten used to taking pictures with one hand and throwing back tear gas canisters with the other. And to stay hidden for hours in apartments waiting for the soldiers to leave the streets after suppressing the demonstrations. But today was terrible. One of the boys who lives on my street was shot four times in the thigh, he thought he was gonna die.”
In all provinces, the days are punctuated by the crying in funeral ceremonies; the nights by the sound of stun grenades. Military personnel have set up bases in hospitals, schools and municipal buildings, shot at ambulances, looted stores, burned houses and practiced shooting at motorcycle drivers. All the makeshift barricades erected by the demonstrators were burnt down. On Insein Road, a major protest site in Yangon, troops announced over the loudspeaker: “This is our last warning to all residents who live here. Do not block the roads. If we come back and find these roadblocks again, we will not remove them but we will shoot everyone in every house on this street, whether you participated or not, and destroy everything.” In Kyauk Myaung district, they threatened to “rape your daughters in front of you, and if you don’t have any, then your wife.”
On April 16th, the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners of Burma (AAPP) has confirmed 728 deaths, half of them under the age of 25, and estimates that more than 3100 people are detained. The real toll could be much higher, considering unrest in remote areas with no media presence. Bodies of protesters arrested a few days earlier were cremated in the street or dumped in the gutter, so badly marked by torture that they could not be identified. Old men are dragged to the ground, children shot with slingshots, pregnant women beaten and men killed at close range. Dozens of dogs were slaughtered and lined up on roads to prevent them from barking as troops combed neighborhoods. Police urinated on the spot covered with flowers and candles where Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, 23, who was protesting alone on a sidewalk in Yangon, was shot. Soldiers dug up the body of Kyal Sin “Angel”, 19, who died while holding the front line in Mandalay, “to conduct their own investigation”. The message from the State Administration Council (SAC), the new name for the junta, is clear: any pro-democracy move will be punished with utmost ruthlessness.
On March 24th, on San Pya Market Road, M. was returning home from a demonstration when five men appeared behind him. They got off their motorcycles, punched him in the chest, grabbed all his possessions – phone, money and bank card – and sped off. “I think it was a random attack because I look like a student protester. If they had known I was a reporter, they would have finished me off. I had fortunately locked my phone, but now I have no resources.”
L., a seasoned reporter said, “I am very afraid for the young people, because they are not trained for this. I myself had no training twenty years ago and it was a foreign journalist who taught me how to stay safe, what clothes to wear, what precautions to take, what reactions to have.” In the discussion group of the journalism class from which the collective emerged, a professor now advises avoiding field reporting: “There is nothing more important than yourself.”
The boundaries between professional responsibilities and personal feelings are long blurred. In Lashio, the largest city in Shan State, M.Y’s last photos are portraits of relatives collapsed over the body of a young man who died from a gunshot in the back. “He was a friend of mine. I was there when he was carried away in a car after being shot. I took pictures of his wounds but chose not to publish them to preserve his dignity and out of respect for his family. ” On March 27th, five people died there when the army opened fire, including Mine Min Naung, a law student and activist from the Ta’ang ethnic group at the forefront of protests for federal democracy. “Since then, there are very few people coming out on the streets because they are too afraid of bullets.” says M.Y.
Except for a few hotspots of uprising, submission by terror is emptying the streets. A freelance journalist, N. watches the exodus from Yangon with concern: “People say that war is coming in the city and many leave to hide in the countryside. But it is not good that there is no mass movement in Yangon. The military is ready to win and will kill another generation. It’s been sixty years, we need international help because we have nothing to defend ourselves against this massacre. This is the last fight for our rights.”
Most members of the collective find themselves unable to work, either because their city stopped protesting after a particularly deadly assault, because they are wanted by the authorities or because they can no longer access an internet connection, as mobile data and wifi networks have been cut. For ‘M’, the current uncertainty of where events will lead may demand tough decisions. “I think this revolution will not end easily. If the public loses the coup, all the media in this country will become like [the state-controlled] MRTV and Myawaddy News fake news channels, and our country will be fifty percent like North Korea. If that happens, I will leave the country.”