Myanmar’s military coup – six months on

On the morning of 1 February, most of Myanmar awoke to find they had no mobile phone service. To those in the media, this meant only one thing.

1 February was to be the day that the new parliament, elected in a landslide the previous November, was sworn in. Instead, it will become a notorious landmark date, the day General Min Aung Hlaing led a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government.

Today, 1 August, marks six months since that day. It marks at least 931 deaths at the hands of the military. It marks 95 journalists arrested, 34 journalists charged, 19 arrest warrants issued for journalists, 37 journalists still detained and eight independent media houses banned. Almost all journalists who have been detained reported that they were interrogated, beaten and tortured.

To put this into context, the Committee to Protects Journalists sates: “This is a worse situation than China, this is a worse situation than Turkey, this is a worse situation than Iran… this is a global press freedom crisis”.

The UNHCR estimates that since 1 February, over 200,000 people have been internally displaced and a further 22,000 have fled across borders. For journalists seeking safety outside the country, few options are available. With all land borders closed and flights requiring permission from the authorities, there is no official way out. For those independent journalists who choose to remain working inside the country, there is only one choice: you work underground, in hiding.

At this time of great need for access to information, information has become harder to come by. The internet has been blocked at various stages; social media platforms – the main source of information in Myanmar – remain blocked and only accessible now via a VPN. Large parts of the country outside the main centres do not have easy access to the internet, and when they can access it, it is rife with mis- and disinformation. While credible independent media outlets – most of them banned – still work overtime to provide information, it is harder than ever for journalists to verify what they are hearing.

“Sometimes I have to do phone interviews with someone I have never met. I am sceptical while talking on the phone about whether I am being lied to or told the truth. The problem is that it is not always feasible for us to go out and verify if what we have been told is accurate,” said a senior BBC Burmese journalist who asked not to be named to Frontier Media.

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In the last week, three protesters were injured, six protesters arrested and two protesters were killed in Mandalay. Journalists cannot attend such events for fear of being targeted and must rely upon reports and images from the public.

Add to this that Myanmar is now in the grip of a third, and by far the most ferocious, wave of Covid-19. Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, fears the country may become a global super-spreader. With no reliable figures available, anecdotal reports from the largest city, Yangon, seem to indicate that almost half the population have, or have had, the virus. And as Andrews notes: “In Yangon, it’s common to see three types of lines. One before ATMs, one for oxygen supplies – which is very dangerous because people are literally being shot at by the Myanmar forces for standing in line for oxygen – and the third being lines at crematoriums and morgues.”

And what is the military administration doing? The vaccination programme seems to have stopped, testing numbers are so small as to be irrelevant, hospitals were full long ago and doctors who have been at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement have been forced to treat patients in secret because they face the constant threat of military violence or arrest. Just last week military officials reportedly posed as Covid patients in need of treatment to entrap medical volunteers in Yangon. Three doctors who went to help were subsequently arrested, according to a report by the independent outlet Myanmar Now.

In the grimmest of ironies, the military-controlled media announced this week that the military administration will build 10 new crematoriums at cemeteries in Yangon to cope with the fatalities. No hospitals, no oxygen…just crematoriums. Yet most Myanmar journalists continue to work. Some have made it outside the country, but most remain inside Myanmar, working in hiding. It is very clear that the junta is aiming to eliminate the free press and will use any means necessary. These journalists are aware that their work is more important than ever, and they are aware that they risk their lives every day just to do their jobs.