Arriving in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is like a homecoming. The air in this part of the world is hot, thick, tangible. I feel a familiar coating of dust on my toes. I’ve spent a third of my life within two hundred and fifty miles of this place—I moved to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in 2012, and lived there until two years ago, when the military staged a coup and I was four months pregnant.
At first it had been a bloodless coup, made possible by the fact that Myanmar’s elected officials had convened in Naypyidaw, the capital, for an opening session of parliament. Between several high-profile arrests and army personnel at the gates of ministerial compounds, the military was able to make its point. Protests brought a brief feeling of hope, but before long, a cloak of fear covered the city. The junta imposed a curfew; at night, they carried out arrests and raids. A brutal crackdown followed. Journalists were arrested, beaten, and tortured; soldiers turned their guns on people they saw filming from buildings and windows. I was doing live reports for Al Jazeera, appearing on TV every hour or so—that made me visible. At one point, I got a phone call warning me to leave my home. I grabbed a blanket and spent the night on the floor of an office turned safe house. As a foreign citizen, I was able to fly out of the country—an agonizing decision, but one I felt I had to make for my baby. Nearly all of my Burmese colleagues, including some of my closest friends, were forced into hiding.
During my years there, Myanmar was coming out of an extended period of military rule: journalists returned from exile on the Thai border, democracy was developing, Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto head of state. Returning to the region now, with my partner and our child—a living, toddling marker of how long I’d been away—I found that press freedom had shot back in time. The Burmese media was on the border once more, a new generation of journalists battling the challenges of covering a totalitarian government from afar. Most independent news organizations—TV stations, magazines, and online outlets; in ethnic languages, Burmese, and English—wound up in Chiang Mai or Mae Sot, out of harm’s way yet close enough to cover an unfolding resistance.
They had abandoned their families, homes, possessions. They were smuggled from place to place, too scared to pass through checkpoints. Many spent months navigating the war-torn jungles at Myanmar’s edges, often sleeping outdoors, drinking from rivers. Across the border, some found themselves negotiating life without immigration paperwork; others awaited news of asylum claims or lay low while they tried to process migrant-worker forms. The “lucky ones” were repatriated across the world, and plunged into new cultures in Australia, Europe, and the United States, where they were given residency, financial support, and—most coveted of all—legal status. All the while, most of these journalists continued to cover what was happening in their country.
The Burmese community I met up with on the Thailand-Myanmar border comprised civil society and NGO workers, as well as activists and journalists, yo-yoing between Chiang Mai and Mae Sot as they attempted to regroup, rebuild, and carry on. During the previous period of military rule, which lasted until 2011, displaced journalists had used radios, satellite phones, and tapes smuggled over the border in biscuit tins. Now it was VPNs and encrypted-messaging apps. “The military thinks they can silence us, but they’ve forgotten we know how to operate underground,” Toe Zaw Latt, a veteran of the exiled-press scene working for a multimedia news organization called Mizzima, said. Some were still adjusting. “Whenever things get tough, I just look at my house on Google Maps and remind myself it is just a twelve and a half hours’ drive away,” Sonny Swe, the founder and CEO of Frontier magazine, told me. “It’s nice to remember I’m only half a day away from home.”
The media scene was thriving, in a sense. Yet the work could be dangerous, involving illegal border crossings, on the part of either exiled reporters or the revolutionaries they needed to speak to. With secret sources came hidden agendas. “There is a lot of misinformation and disagreements about the details,” a journalist friend told me, “especially when reporting on the successes of the military and the revolutionaries.” Security concerns generated constant debate about whether certain reports were worth the risk. Revolutions always seem to be crippled by infighting; in exile, that factionalism felt especially toxic—the press was riven by desperation, guilt, and defensiveness. Speaking with former colleagues, I heard accusations of fabrication, harassment, corruption, and exploitation.
Morale was low. First, news organizations had been exiled by the coup; then many had lost funding, as advertising money came to an abrupt end. Relocation came with costs. Aye Chan Naing—the editor in chief of DVB, an exiled Burmese TV station that had been one of the country’s largest newsrooms—said his staff had to get paperwork to live and work in Thailand, which involved fees; they also needed to set up an office. In Yangon, young journalists often lived with their parents—Myanmar is a family-oriented society—but exile meant that they now had to pay for rent, groceries, and transportation; Naing’s employees needed raises and healthcare plans. A few newsrooms received initial support from international donors, but Naing told me that recently, DVB lost out on a significant amount of funding that had been redirected to Europe and the Ukraine crisis. He’d been compensating employees fairly, he insisted, though many reporters told me that several major Burmese media companies were overworking and underpaying their staff. “People in the jungle have given up everything, so compared to them we are lucky,” a journalist friend said. “But it’s hard here, too.”
The work seemed all-consuming. On a muggy Saturday evening, I met up with journalists for icy beers at a small, family-run bar at a garden in Hang Dong, on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Not long into the night, my friend Chan Chan, a news anchor at DVB, told me that she had to duck out early so she could wake up at 4:30am. Her shift ran from 8am until 8pm, she said, but she needed to prerecord some packages. I asked flippantly if she ever got time off. She gave me a stoic look. “I don’t want to take a rest,” she replied. “The people in the country don’t get any break.”
Within Myanmar, the situation is dire. The central part of the country has descended into war; villages are being destroyed by military air strikes. For the press, getting to these areas is all but impossible; roads are blocked. The military has used internet blackouts to stifle the spread of information; last year, officials ordered telecommunications companies to cut mobile and internet services indefinitely in almost all of the Sagaing region—an area seen as a stronghold of the resistance. (The officials cited “public security.”) Even where people can get online, many have disabled their social media accounts and abandoned their SIM cards, to avoid surveillance. Despite the best efforts of a few underground reporters left in Myanmar, and some brave citizen journalists who manage to send word to the border, fact-gathering has been tricky at best. “Verifying things is difficult,” a Burmese reporter told me. “I try to at least do a video call with people who reach out to me with information—then at least you can speak to them and check things and use some of your instinct to see if they are truthful.”
When the junta seized control of Myanmar’s media, they began to harness it, airing footage of pro-military events. Family members of political prisoners were left to rely on state reports for information about their cases; every sentence is a veiled threat against citizens who might consider dissent. Exiled reporters sometimes call their sources to verify military PR, or ignore the “news” altogether. But even as the press is wary of giving airtime to propaganda, they also wish to avoid being seen by audiences back home—and international donors—as biased in support of an armed struggle. “I am living in a bubble here,” Shoon Naing, a Burmese journalist, said. “It’s important to try and keep in touch with ordinary people in the country, and to try and keep on top of attitudes and opinions of the general public. But then, even those people I am in touch with are, by the very nature of them keeping in touch, dissenting. So they are not exactly ordinary people.” When only one side is speaking to journalists, and most journalists sympathize with—or openly support—the resistance, it’s hard to deny what the role of the Burmese media has become: “Journalists are the mouthpiece of the resistance, and we are comfortable with that,” a friend told me.
Foreign outlets aren’t burdened by that dilemma, but interest from the international press has petered out. The political upheaval and human atrocities of a relatively unknown, isolated country don’t generate the same degree of coverage as a more geopolitically significant crisis like the one in Ukraine. Myanmar’s journalists are left with a sense that they must define their story—and keep the world paying attention.
All the while, arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings continue. In July, for the first time since the eighties, Myanmar’s military carried out executions of four men—one of whom was someone I knew: the indefatigable Zayar Thaw, a hip-hop artist turned politician. Thaw, unlike many in Myanmar’s political scene, was a friend to reporters. His death was devastating to the press across the border, where there is a pervasive sense of survivor’s guilt. And yet everyone in the Burmese press has had to give something up. The friends and former colleagues I’ve returned to are covering their acquaintances, friends, family members. I can fly away again, but those who remain—including every member of the media—can find no separation between life and work.Ali Fowle is documentary filmmaker and investigative broadcast journalist whose work has been featured by the BBC and Al Jazeera.