2021 Notebook: A closer look at unrest in Myanmar
THE BACKGROUND: Myanmar had another rough year in 2021.
On Feb. 1, the army seized power and prevented Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party from a second term in office. That day, Suu Kyi and top party and government colleagues were detained by the military just before the new session of Parliament was to convene. Elections had been held in November 2020, and Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory.
In early December, she was convicted on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions and sentenced to four years in prison — a sentence that was quickly cut in half.
February’s seizure of power was met by nonviolent nationwide demonstrations, which security forces quashed with deadly force. They have killed about 1,300 civilians, according to a detailed tally compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Peaceful protests have continued, but amid the severe crackdown on them, an armed resistance has also grown, to the point that U.N. experts have warned the country is sliding into civil war.
The weeks that followed the de facto Feb. 1 coup also brought challenges for news coverage of the unfolding unrest — not the least of which was the more than three-week detention of Yangon-based Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw. Here, the Bangkok-based AP news director for Southeast Asia and one of the agency’s longtime journalists covering Myanmar reflect on the story and the obstacles.
KIKO ROSARIO, AP news director for Southeast Asia:
It was so hard to communicate with people inside the country. Because of the language issue, we just needed to make sure that whatever we reported on was accurate and correct in terms of the statements that they put out on state media. We were still relying on people that we kind of activated inside Yangon to tell us or do the translations for us of any official statements regarding what the military did and whatever else is happening. We survived the first day and we have colleagues who have been covering Myanmar for the longest time. Jerry (Harmer) and Grant (Peck) are veterans and they know whether something seems to be suspect and they know whether we can take their word for it if that’s what they said.
The first month, I think, was the most challenging part. And, of course, that our photographer Thein Zaw got detained in Yangon, that was another big challenge. And he stayed there close to a month. He spent his birthday in Insein Prison. He was eventually released, after charges were dropped. While Zaw was inside, the crackdown on the protests started. So we were relying on freelancers in Yangon to provide us with the visuals. It was okay for a while, and in fact you can see our best visuals provided by the freelancers they were in the thick of the protests. Even when they started tear-gassing they were in the middle of it. It was really great visuals at the start, but I could sense that it was getting more serious because suddenly there were reports of shootings. So the safety issue had to be the primary concern. We asked our guys: “If you can shoot from afar, please do that. And please take care of yourselves. That’s the primary concern — we don’t want you to get hurt or we don’t want you to get arrested.”
When the crackdown really got serious — and in early March there was one day where I think more than 50 people were killed in Yangon alone — we started to rely more on getting user-generated content of the protest rallies because it wasn’t really safe anymore for anyone to be sending people to cover the rallies. So we have people inside Myanmar and outside Myanmar who are chasing user-generated content. Sometimes someone uploads a UGC and we asked our team to verify that and just make sure that it happened the day that they say it happened and make sure that the location is correct and just check the setting, whether it looks the same or similar. Proper vetting for UGC was important for us to do because we had nobody there.
It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. We will need to be covering this closely until they decide to hold the elections. The earliest date that they mentioned was August 2023. So another two years. ... We have been covering Myanmar for the longest time because of Aung San Suu Kyi and what happened to her. She was seen as a democracy icon, even though she lost support when she defended the military with the Rohingya issue in 2017. What happened to her now and the civilian situation, the democratic principles have been disrupted by what ever the military did in February. So we need to continue covering this until such time that they decide to hold the election. Whatever is happening to Suu Kyi. I think it’s a very important thing. ... If we don’t report on that, whatever is happening there, people might just forget that there was supposed to be a civilian government that was democratically elected. They won the election in 2020. And the military stopped them from continuing their civilian authority when they took over. So I think that’s the most important thing.
GRANT PECK, AP correspondent, Bangkok:
I don’t want to get into a chronology of events, but it’s worth talking about the coup. It pretty much caught people by surprise, though in hindsight, perhaps it should not have. Even the week before, there were explicit warning signs from the army, but I don’t think people expected a coup of such totality.
No one expected what would happen after the coup as well, and I’m referring to the massive and dogged resistance of the people, which was astonishing and is still astonishing. After the coup, I talked to a very good, top scholar of Burmese politics who has pretty good relations with the military. And I asked him specifically, did he expect Suu Kyi to be tried? Something like that? And he said no. Well, obviously she’s been tried over and over and over, which is interesting.
ON USER-GENERATED CONTENT: It used to be people would post stuff and it would stay up there and you could probably, maybe track them down. But the dangers of this, I guess, gradually sank in. So what people do now is post their video or whatever, long enough so it kind of seeds it, so other people will pick it up and then they’ll take it down and then you’re out of luck. OK? So basically, it’s picked up by other individuals and by aggregators. So it’s very hard to get rock-solid permission to use these. The other factor, of course, is that if once you get in touch with someone, they are pretty willing to say yes, they shot it and they did it. And that’s clearly unlikely, or at least doubtful.
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us