A few months after I profiled the Burmese journalist Swe Win, in August 2019, he was shot in the leg. He had been driving through Rakhine State, on vacation with his wife and young daughter, when a bullet tore through his car. A source later told him that an army chief had “personally directed” the attempted hit.
Myanmar Now, the bilingual news outlet that Swe Win leads in Yangon, had recently published exposés of the vast business interests of Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the country’s armed forces. “I got word from some soldiers to be very careful,” Swe Win recalled. “I had infuriated the top.”
It wasn’t Swe Win’s first encounter with the military: during the time of the junta, he had been thrown in prison for joining the democracy movement; then, after generals began to share power with Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, in 2010, he defended himself against physical attacks and frivolous litigation intended to derail the reporting of Myanmar Now. But the shooting made him fear for his family’s safety. So they decided to flee the country, with plans to return ahead of the national elections, on November 8, 2020.
The pandemic made coming home impossible. As did signs that the military would not respect the outcome of the vote. Sure enough, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept the election, the military alleged that more than eight million ballots had been fraudulently cast. Then, on February 1 Myanmar time, just before the newly elected parliament was set to certify the results, the military detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and dozens of human rights activists and pro-democracy monks; Min Hlaing was installed as the country’s sole leader. He declared a one-year state of emergency, then blocked internet and telephone lines.
Thousands of Burmese responded in protest, holding images of Aung San Suu Kyi, singing the freedom song of the 1988 democracy movement, “Kabar Ma Kyay Bu” (“We Shall Not Surrender Until the End of the World,” set to Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind”), and raising the three-finger Hunger Games salute recently popularized in Thailand. On February 8, the junta imposed a curfew and a ban on public gatherings. By February 9, there were reports of police shooting water cannons, rubber bullets, and live rounds at crowds in Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw.
Swe Win has followed these events in exile, from outside Myanmar. I spoke with him by phone, on February 2 and 6, about the logic of the coup, how to report on regime change, and the future of his nation’s democracy.
Thank you for making time, Swe Win. Have you been able to contact any of your coworkers?
I did, but it’s very, very difficult. I managed to have a few minutes of a phone call with a colleague. Apart from that, I could not contact them at all.
You and I talked a lot in 2019. The defamation case against you was finally dismissed. But I recently learned that, at the end of that year, you were shot, seemingly by the military, while you were on vacation. What happened?
Around 2019, August and September, our newsroom stepped up reporting about the family businesses of the top generals, particularly Min Hlaing. So we wrote a couple of stories looking into the businesses of his son and his daughter. That generated an enormous amount of attention, for the very first time, about the extent of his wealth. So much so that there was a lot of agitation, particularly within the military families. And then I got word of an attempt by the military leadership to file lawsuits against me for those stories.
I did my best to make the story legally watertight. Everything was fact-based—all primary information, etc.—so there was no opportunity for the military leadership to file a lawsuit against me. So I think that was the stage for the attack on me. I released a statement [about the shooting] in September of 2020 because of my analysis that a military coup was on its way. I thought it was time to tell the people.
My understanding is that, by August of 2020, there were worries about a coup, because the military had held a conference at which it raised suspicions about the election. Were many people concerned?
In August 2020, the commander in chief of the armed forces, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, called a meeting of the leaders of forty-three political parties, including the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. The rest were proxies for the USDP, so we should never forget that this was all orchestrated by the military. They knew ahead of time that the NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, would be the dominant force, so they created a motley of smaller political parties.
All these smaller parties are just skeletons: just one party leader and ten people, mostly. The fact that the meeting was convened itself was a signal of a coup to me. It’s never happened before. And then the more worrying thing was that some of those leaders of the proxy parties reportedly pleaded with the commander in chief to intervene if the election results turned out fraudulent.
So they were already planting that idea?
Yeah, and then the military general responded—that made the whole scenario more suspicious—“There is nothing I dare not do.” There was threatening talk.
How did the NLD react to that conference in August?
They did not respond very much, actually. Nothing significant. They said, “It’s their right to have a meeting and public discussions.” Nobody thought, based on the conference, that there were undertones about a coup. I told my newsroom, “There’s a 70 percent chance of a coup.” I told the same to a leader of one of the key advocacy groups that is now calling for the boycott of military businesses. I thought about how I would restructure my newsroom if the coup took place. But, at the same time, I felt like I was deranged.
I thought about how I would restructure my newsroom if the coup took place. But, at the same time, I felt like I was deranged.
When the election came, did you think that the military was going to take control at that point?
I got so worried in the two days before the election, because the military aired a propaganda film on November 7, before Election Day. That was a brazen act. This movie has never been broadcast since 2005, since the transition [to democracy]. That led to my conclusion that the coup was imminent.
There have been coups before in Burmese history. Did you think that this one would be the kind of coup where the military takes control of just a few positions, or did you think it’d be the kind of coup we’re seeing now?
I was wrong about my prediction of how the coup would unfold. My prediction of the coup was that the military would not arrest many people and would not detain Aung San Suu Kyi. All of the members of parliament have to live in the municipality of Nay Pyi Taw, so you don’t need to round them up in the middle of night; they’re already there. They could not get out of the compound because of the covid-19 regulation. So the military just needs to issue a statement and say, “Aung San Suu Kyi cannot get out of there,” and then prepare a greater police force for street protests—that’s all. But I was wrong. I was wrong. They raided the monasteries. They targeted individuals who they thought would initiate broader public actions. They arrested a number of individuals, and then, when they made those arrests, they did it in a very stupid way—to give a message. All these soldiers dressed in full gear, in battle zones, and they used overwhelming force.
What does this mean for your staff in Yangon? You have about thirty people who work in your newsroom. Are they okay?
Two days before the coup, we wrote a story that, within seventy-two hours, there would be a huge political storm. It was written on the morning of January 28. I had already evacuated the newsroom. Still, nobody thought the coup is completely likely because [the power-sharing government has been] a military-orchestrated political framework. They retained so much power economically; they don’t need to obey anyone. They committed massacres of the Rohingya in the Rakhine State and detained all these journalists, and then they released all the soldiers and officers accused of committing executions. The military is so powerful, so why [stage a coup]? Some of my friends even cited [political theorist] Larry Diamond: in a transitional democracy, if there is a coup, that coup is never initiated by the leaders of the army; that coup is initiated by midlevel officers. I said, “We cannot resort to theories when we have dictators who don’t think in a logical way like we do. They can do anything.”
So when you told your newsroom to close down, since you’re not in the country anymore, where did your reporters go? Did you give them instructions?
Even though I foresaw the coup, I did not foresee the brutal way it would be launched. So before the coup, they all stayed in their houses, and then, within five hours of the coup, I ordered all my colleagues to leave their houses and stay somewhere with their families or their friends. Half of the team did not want to accept my idea because they were outraged, as equally as members of the public. “Why should we leave? We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.” If I worked in Yangon, I would not shut down the newsroom. I would not ask them to flee. I would keep operating the newsroom, no matter what the consequences. But since I’m out of the danger zone, I have the moral obligation to take precautionary measures.
It has now been almost a week since the coup began, and a lot of Burmese people have been out to protests, the medical university has threatened to strike, the teachers are involved; public sector workers, miners are involved. What do you think about the protests and the uprising from the people of Myanmar?
There is so much anger about what has transpired during the past week. We have developed so much anger and animosity toward the military. But the level of anger, the nature of the anger this time around is different because people have tasted democracy and liberty. No matter how it is flawed, no matter how it is limited in its nature and philosophy, people have tasted it. It was so delicious to all these people who languished in military rule.
Even people who are twenty-five or in their thirties have experienced two entirely different political systems: military dictatorship and democracy. Also, it’s very clear that the NLD party won the election. The NLD has remained the most popular political party not because of the charisma of Aung San Suu Kyi, not because of their performance in government, but because there is no rival.
If I were in my country, I wouldn’t want to cast a ballot for the NLD. The NLD has let us down time and time again. I’ve felt they’ve never done enough to improve human rights and democratic values, using all the resources at their disposal the past ten years. Particularly the Rohingya issue. It’s not just the Rohingya. We as members of humanity have to fight for their rights.
Do you think the protests will make a difference against the coup?
I don’t think so at all. The military knew how to deal with these protests, how to deal with public opposition. They have already started big-time information warfare, psychological warfare against the public. They have cut off all the internet. Yesterday, the vigilante groups hired by the military, they went around a neighborhood in trucks saying Aung San Suu Kyi was already released. People flooded the streets to celebrate the rumor of the release; they lit firecrackers. So I’m not hopeful about these ongoing protests, even though I congratulate [the people], even though I feel emotional about the bravery of the youth.
What about the fact that we’re still in the middle of covid? How is the military using that? I saw that their excuse for arresting the president was that he had campaigned in violation of covid guidelines. Is the military taking advantage of covid to stage the coup right now?
I’m not sure about that. I believe that, with or without covid, they would have done it anyway. This was premeditated.
What about the influence of China and Russia? Early in January, there were military and high-level foreign-ministry visits from China and Russia to Myanmar. And China and Russia have blocked the condemnation of Myanmar’s killing of Rohingya people in Rakhine. Do you feel that these countries have been encouraging authoritarianism in Myanmar?
My gut feeling is that China is the most responsible entity for the coup in Myanmar. We had coups in 1962 and 1988, but China’s influence on Myanmar was not very strong. Actually, the Myanmar military was fighting against the communists, who were supported by Beijing. But after 1988, the military generals in Myanmar have had no choice but to turn to China for all the support they need—economic support, political support—and then the ethnic armed groups around the border have grown.
There’s a lot of influence from China on the military in many ways. What the military has done is, they started colluding with China—a lot of businesses and also at a personal and government level. The Burmese generals became shareholders in Chinese companies. China struck successful business deals with the military before the political transition. We have the controversial biggest copper mine in Myanmar: that deal was done before the transition. They signed a contract to build a huge hydropower dam in the northern part of the country, which has been delayed until now. The Chinese government proposed construction of an oil-and-gas pipeline. And the Chinese proposed the construction of railways and bus lines allowing for this oil-and-gas pipeline.
During the Obama administration, the US was much more involved in Myanmar. During the Trump administration, the State Department was not really active. Do you think that the Trump administration’s neglect of Southeast Asia led Myanmar and the military to get much closer to China?
I don’t think so. Democratic forces have felt very discouraged by Trump’s pathetic diplomacy towards Asia in general, but with or without Trump, the military would have done it anyway.
I’m curious about the relationship between protesters in Myanmar and protesters in Thailand. There’s a lot of overlap, as seen most visibly in photographs of people raising the three-finger salute. It seems like there’s been a lot of exchange.
One sure thing is, the Thai military learned something from Myanmar’s political transition, a militarily guided transition. They were inspired by the military generals in Nay Pyi Taw. They launched a coup—they concocted a constitution of their own, which gave them a lot of leverage. And I think the Burmese generals got inspired again by their Thai counterparts. There’s a complementary process going on. There was a small protest in front of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok a few days after the coup, and then Prayut [Chan-o-cha], the prime minister, came out saying that the media should not inflame the anger or something like that; he was basically protecting his counterpart in Nay Pyi Taw.
Do you have thoughts on January 6 in the US? Here, we called that an attempted coup. People were frightened.
I already had a clear analysis of what was going to happen in Nay Pyi Taw, in Myanmar, so I felt very emotional about what was happening at the US Capitol on January 6. I felt that we are going to see the resilience and the strength of the US’s democratic institutions in resisting this lunatic president who wants to be a dictator. If this was not the US, if you did not have all these institutions made over the centuries, the man who wants to be dictator—he would not incite a mob; he would send soldiers. And then I saw the soldiers in my own home country.
It sounds like you’re very pessimistic about the next few months. What do you think is going to happen in terms of journalism? What is the responsibility of journalists in Myanmar, and outside Myanmar, to keep track of what’s happening? To inform the public of what the military is doing, especially with the cutoff of internet and phones?
We will have to follow not just the political events, but our entire focus also must be on the brutal injustices waiting to happen. Also, the international community, we have to scramble to find out what leverage we can use to support—emotionally, psychologically, or physically—people who are oppressed, and also to punish those individuals who are torturing their own citizens.
At the same time the military uses a lot of psychological warfare tactics to divide the public, we can’t be like, “Oh, let’s do neutral reporting” or “All sides are to blame.” Sometimes we forget about the need to do critical reporting in the proper context.
We will have to follow not just the political events, but our entire focus also must be on the brutal injustices waiting to happen
What are you going to do at Myanmar Now? Your newsroom is in hiding. A lot of people are on the run. How do you operate a newsroom in these conditions?
Half of the team is now back at work. They are going out from their hideouts to cover the protests. It would be a shame if we missed the entire public opposition. It would be psychologically devastating to all of us—we’d feel very irresponsible—so I put half the team back at work. But still, we’re in disarray. They’re still grappling with the trauma of the coup.
I’m talking with our donors about whether there’s a possibility of setting up the newsroom in a neighboring country. Many journalistic colleagues won’t want to work for a newsroom in Myanmar. They will have to accommodate the junta; they will have to adjust their coverage to the reality of military rule. There will be a lot of injustices, tons of stories to cover.
E. Tammy Kim is a freelance reporter and essayist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and many other publications. She coedited 2016’s Punk Ethnography.