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Myanmar’s government continues to crackdown on freedoms after it removed Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s democratically elected leader after a coup. Special Correspondent Kira Kay meets one of the journalists risking their life to report on the civil conflict in their home country. The story was produced in collaboration with the Bureau for International Reporting.
In Myanmar yesterday, there was a show of military force with hundreds of troops participating in a parade celebrating the country's "Union Day," marking independence from British colonial rule.
The celebration comes as the government continues to crack down on free expression after last year's coup which removed democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In Myanmar and in other countries, news organizations and journalists have been facing severe crack downs including threats on their lives or imprisonment.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay traveled to Thailand to tell the story of a journalist from Myanmar risking their life to keep covering the civil conflict in Myanmar.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Bureau for International Reporting.
As he shelters in a foreign country in a new home with almost no furniture, Ko Aung Kyaw shares one of his few remaining personal items from his former life in Myanmar. X-rays of the injuries he sustained during eight months of imprisonment and torture.
Ko Aung Kyaw:
They said the damage is quite bad and the eye socket areas and the skull itself.
Ko Aung Kyaw is a journalist, which in Myanmar is an especially risky profession these days as the country is in the grips of a military coup, followed by a counter-revolution that ignited one year ago and shows no signs of ending. Even before the coup, Ko Aung Kyaw was despised by the Myanmar military. As a reporter for an independent outlet, he tirelessly chronicled the army's corruption and their support of Buddhist nationalist monks who incited violence against the country's Muslim minorities. On February 1, 2021, Ko Aung Kyaw's day started like any other, but then he realized something was wrong.
I couldn't reach my office. I was worried about what to do next. I called some local journalists. How do we proceed with the news? We discussed what to do for the security of others and us. They were scared. They had experience under military rule and know what the military can do. I decided to continue working.
On March 1, Ko Aung Kyaw livestreamed on Facebook a report about soldiers ransacking homes and arresting and beating people in his home village. He knew that put a target on his back. And later that night, military police swarmed his family's grocery store and grabbed him from the apartment upstairs. It was all documented on closed circuit TV cameras.
Around 40 soldiers.
Forty soldiers for one man.
Yeah. They kicked me with their boots. They put my head in a plastic bag and stepped on my back to suffocate me. Two officers tied my hands behind my back so that I couldn't move. I almost lost consciousness. They put out cigarettes on my face. They kept saying that reporters are money grubbers who are destroying the country.
Before he was seized, he was quick enough to wipe his cell phone clean to protect his journalistic sources.
They said, where is the woman who was in the live video? We are going to arrest her. But I stayed silent. That's why I was tortured more during interrogation.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had been a dictatorship for decades, when in 2012 it changed course and started to open to the world. Thousands of political prisoners were released, including democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was allowed to run for parliament. Activists and lawyers were also set free, as were journalists. Whatever that means, it was a hopeful time as young writers huddled with their editors. Local cameramen were allowed access to the long, cloistered Aung San Suu Kyi and even walk the halls of parliament with her. News outlets returned from exile, like Mizzima, whose editors had been in India. The Irrawaddy Newspaper, which had long published from Thailand, opened a bureau atop a downtown office tower. I visited in 2015 and spoke with its editor, Aung Zaw.
And we'd be seen as a dissident media and an enemy of the state, and we were blacklisted here in this country. But things started changing in this country, and we've been back here instead of in an office. Yeah, I'm sitting here with my colleagues.
Another media group that returned was called Democratic Voice of Burma, made famous by the documentary film, "Burma VJ." Ko Aung Kyaw joined them in 2015. Like those of thousands of other Burmese, his family's land had been appropriated by the military when he was a child.
There were many people around us who were suffering because of this evil system, but they didn't dare say anything. I need to be bold. That's why I chose the media. I chose to be a journalist to let people know the truth about what is happening in our region and to have the courage to speak out on injustice.
Even under Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy party, there were still no go topics for reporters. Two journalists working for Reuters spent 17 months in jail for covering the military's operations against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Aung San Suu Kyi herself refused requests to release them.
Not only the international community, but all of our people had high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi. I personally campaigned for the release of political prisoners, including her. I was imprisoned for that. After 2012, I have disagreed with some of her political activities. The main one is a relationship that is very close with the military. Another is that Aung San Suu Kyi produced good followers instead of good leaders. She raised up only those who agreed with her.
Irrawaddy Newspaper editor Aung Zaw was worried enough even six years ago to keep a backup plan in next door Thailand.
We keep one foot in and one foot out strategy, which means we keep our office in a neighboring country knowing the challenges and security risk. This reform, I have a very strong reservation about this reform, political reform, in this country.
In June last year, Ko Aunt Kyaw was sentenced to two years for defaming the military. So he was surprised to find himself released in an amnesty in October. Danny Fenster, an American who edited an English language magazine in Myanmar, spent six months in the notorious Insein Prison before he was also released. But activists say 9,000 Burmese are still political prisoners, with 46 journalists among them, including Han Thar Nyein, who worked with NewsHour during Myanmar's 2015 elections. There had been hope he would be released in another amnesty a few weeks ago, but the gates of the prison did not open even as families waited outside. So far, Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to six years, with more charges being heard that could keep her imprisoned for the rest of her life. Ko Aung Kyaw made the decision to flee his country with his wife and young daughter and his sister-in-law, who is also a journalist. But today they wait in exile in Thailand, hoping for residency in Australia. He has continued his reporting from afar. Meanwhile, Myanmar descends into civil war as its people dig in against the military junta.
I think it will take at least two or three years, and at the very least there will be a lot of bloodshed, and once we win, it will not be over. We will overcome military rule, but it will take a long time to restore democracy.
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