It was me three months ago had to leave Myanmar, the place I was called home to for almost a decade.
The deadly crackdown on protests and widespread arrests following the February 1 military coup made it impossible to continue working as a journalist safely there.
Me: He was taken to the airport by car early in the morning. The streets were quiet, but the signs of chaos hours ago were everywhere. Brick dust painted the streets red. Wires, concrete blocks մեծ large orange bins were scattered across the roads. Remnants of improvised barricades used by security forces to try to defend themselves from bullets. The walls and overpasses were filled with graffiti. Three-finger salutes and curses condemned the coup հեղ military leaders.
It was an emotional journey. I left my friends and loved ones behind in a situation that seemed to get worse as I returned to the comfort and safety of the United Kingdom.
I was right. In the weeks following my departure, more and more friends and acquaintances were arrested. Myanmar’s state television has launched a daily list of arrest warrants. As numbers increased, more familiar names began to appear. Celebrities, activists, politicians, people I met, interviewed, but also journalists, friends and colleagues.
The majority were charged under the newly amended Article 505A of the Criminal Code, which mainly targets anyone who encourages civil disobedience.
“I’m just upset that they did not use an amazing photo of me,” a friend mocked in the message when I contacted him to see his name added to the list. Like everyone else, he made the decision to go into hiding sooner rather than later, so at least I knew he was safe. “I look very bad in that photo.” he complained jokingly.
Like many of my friends, he responds consistently to his otherwise difficult situation with sincere humor. His optimism makes it easy to forget everything he had to give up. His family, his dogs, his friends, his job. He was a well-known TV presenter, now hiding in the jungle, washing clothes in the river, fighting insect bites. “You know me, Ali, I love adventure,” he reassured. “In any case, I can safely walk and swim. “As long as I don’t think about what will happen next or how long I have to stay, I’m happy.”
The others did not take those shocks either. One of the friends cried as he recounted what he had left behind, describing how he and his colleagues had to sleep in the jungle and drink from the river during their journey. There are checkpoints all over the country now, and for well-known TV journalists with famous names and faces, crossing them is not an option. They are forced to take off-road routes through forests and collision zones to ensure safety.
I still talk to people almost every day in Myanmar, registering with my friends and connecting with people as part of my news coverage. After working in Myanmar for a decade, journalists and activists make up the majority of my closest friends there. Many have decided to leave their homes or go into hiding. We use encrypted messaging apps to talk about security, but people have also started changing their numbers regularly, and accounts will suddenly stop. Sometimes those I interact with regularly are silent for days or even weeks. It can be hard not to be afraid of the worst. As I mastered them, I learned to stop asking people where they were from some awkward exchanges. “I can not say where I am, but I can say that I am safe somewhere,” a friend recently reassured me, against the background of the unmistakable sound of cicadas showing that they are no longer in the city.
For those who did not find a safe place at the time, I know many are incarcerated, denied contact with friends, family or colleagues. The mother of one detainee tells me that every day brings more uncertainty. He is afraid to make strong statements against the army over the phone, but says he feels helpless. “If I could go back in time, I would prefer to be in January. “Because this is not what anyone wants.”
More than 6,000 people have been arrested since the coup, and journalists are one of many targeted groups. Both local and foreign journalists were arrested. Some were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night, others were detained at the airport or reporting on court proceedings, or taken away during raids on their offices. A friend of the journalist I know was arrested from his home with his son, a teenager whom I still consider a young man.
Myanmar is making headlines as the world’s interest wanes, but for many of my friends, their lives have changed forever.
After 14 days of unanswered questions in early May, a friend suddenly appeared on the phone and I was particularly worried.
“Hello!” It was a messenger from Facebook, a platform that most people shunned for lack of security. I was wondering if it was really him, but a video call was made soon. He tells me that he has been on the run for two weeks, he has lost touch with most people. He had reached a safe place, albeit temporarily, he says.
I have so many questions, but I know that giving is extremely dangerous. It is best to have as few people as possible know where he is. But he obviously wants to share the story of his ordeal. He tells me that he had to leave all his property. He has only two shirts and a small backpack with him. But he is pragmatic.
“We have to adapt,” he said. “It’s better than torture courses.”