Three months ago, it was forced to leave Myanmar, the place where I had called home for almost a decade.
After a military coup on February 1, a lethal crackdown on protests and widespread arrests had made it impossible to continue working safely as a journalist there.
Jo He drove to the airport early in the morning. The streets were quiet, but signs of the chaos that had occurred hours before were everywhere. Brick dust stained the streets red. Wire, concrete blocks and large orange rubbish bins strewn across the roads – remnants of makeshift barricades that protesters used in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from attack by security forces and their bullets . The walls and upper steps were full of graffiti; three-fingered greetings and desecrations condemned the coup and military leaders.
It was an emotional journey. He left behind friends and loved ones to face a situation that only seemed to get worse as he returned to the comfort and safety of the UK.
I was right to worry. In the weeks following my departure, more and more friends and contacts stopped. Myanmar’s state television channel began announcing a daily list of people subject to arrest warrants. As the numbers increased, more familiar names began to appear. Famous people, activists and politicians, people he had met and interviewed, but also journalists: friends and colleagues.
Most faced charges under the recently amended section 505A of the Penal Code, which is generally addressed to anyone who encourages civil disobedience.
“I’m upset that they didn’t use a photo of me,” a friend replied in a message when I got in touch after seeing her name added to the list. Like others, he had made the decision to hide soon, long before the order was announced, so he at least knew he was safe. “I look so bad in this photo!” he complained jokingly.
Like many of my friends, he always responds with cheerful humor to his plight. His optimistic attitude makes it easy to forget everything he has had to leave behind. His family, his dogs, his friends, his job. He was a well-known TV presenter and now hides in the jungle, washes his clothes in the river and fights biting insects. “You know me, Ali, I love an adventure,” he reassured me. “At least I can walk safely and go swimming. As long as I don’t think about what will happen next or how long I will have to stay, I’m happy. “
Others have not been so well received. A friend cried as she relayed everything she had left, describing how she and her colleagues had to sleep in the jungle and drink from the rivers during their journey. There are now checkpoints across the country, and for high-profile TV reporters with famous names and faces, it’s not an option to cross them. They are forced to take off-road routes through forests and conflict zones to achieve safety.
I keep talking to the people of Myanmar almost every day – checking in with friends and contacting people as part of my news coverage. After a decade of working in Myanmar, journalists and activists make up the majority of my closest friends. Most have made the decision to flee their home and hide. For security, we use encrypted messaging apps to talk, but people have also started changing their numbers regularly, and all of a sudden the accounts will be idle. Sometimes those I’ve been in regular contact with keep quiet for a few days or even weeks. It can be hard not to fear the worst. When I take care of them, I’ve learned from some awkward exchanges to stop asking people where they are. “I can’t say where I am, but I can say I’m somewhere safe,” a friend recently reassured me, the unmistakable sound of cicadas in the background, a track they were no longer in town.
For those who did not find a safe place in time, most of those I know are detained in Insein prison and denied contact with friends, family or colleagues. The mother of a detainee tells me that every day brings more uncertainty. He’s afraid to make strong statements against the military over the phone, but he tells me he feels powerless. “If I could go back in time, I would rather be still in January. Because that’s not what anyone wants. “
More than 6,000 people have been arrested since the coup and journalists are one of the many target groups. Both local and foreign journalists have been arrested. Some have been dragged from their home at midnight, others have been detained at the airport or while reporting on court proceedings or have been caught during raids on their offices. A journalist friend I know was arrested from home along with his son, a teenager who is still thinking of a little boy.
Myanmar is leaving the headlines as interest in the world wanes, but for many of my friends their lives have been permanently altered.
After 14 days of no response in early May, a friend suddenly appeared on my phone that I was especially worried about.
“Hello”. It was Facebook Messenger, a platform that most people have been avoiding due to lack of security. I was wondering if it really was him, but a video call soon arrived. He tells me that he has been running away for two weeks and that he had lost communication with most people. He had reached a safe place, albeit temporary, he says.
I have so many questions, but I know it’s too dangerous to ask them. The best thing is for as few people as possible to know where you are. But obviously he is eager to share the story of his ordeal; he tells me that he has had to give up all his belongings. He only has two shirts and a small backpack with him. But he is pragmatic.
“We have to adapt,” he says. “It’s better than torture sessions.”