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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Myanmar's Crackdown on Free Press Driving Journalists to Thailand

By Zsombor Peter July 21, 2021

On an early April evening in a thick patch of jungle in eastern Myanmar, Win, a journalist with a local news outlet, waited anxiously for nightfall before slipping across a quiet stretch of border and safely into Thailand.

Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch say he is one of dozens of journalists who have fled Myanmar for Thailand since Myanmar's military seized power on February 1 to escape a crackdown on the country's free press.

Like Win, many, if not most, crossed illegally. They fear arrest by Thai authorities and what Myanmar's junta may do to them if they are caught and sent back.

"They will torture [me] for sure," said Win, whose news outlet has been blacklisted by the junta, its offices raided by police and some of its reporters arrested and put on trial. He asked that his full name be withheld for his safety.

Of the thousands of people that Myanmar's security forces have arrested since the coup to quell protests and a stubborn civil disobedience movement, 98 have been journalists, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group tracking the junta's crackdown. With parts of Myanmar under martial law, some are being prosecuted by opaque military courts. Through lawyers and relatives, or since their release, journalists have also told of being beaten in custody.

Other dissidents arrested in recent months have died under suspect circumstances. Relatives say officials blamed a heart attack in one case and an accidental fall in another.

Under the military's rule, "life is not guaranteed for any artist like me," said Lagoon Eain. The political cartoonist went into hiding when his drawings lampooning the generals landed him on the junta's wanted list. After carefully stealing his way to the border from Yangon, in central Myanmar, he jumped a fence into Thailand in mid-April.

Lagoon Eain said he was "like brothers" with two politically active poets killed by the junta, and he fears ending up like them if forced to go back. News reports say K Za Win was shot by soldiers who opened fire on a peaceful protest in March and that Khet Thi died a day after police arrested him at home, his body returned to his wife with the internal organs removed.

A spokesman for the military regime could not be reached for comment. The army has said previously it was using only proportional force against threats to state security.

Out of sight, out of mind

Sharing a long, porous border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, Thailand has offered safe harbor to many of those fleeing violence and persecution. Tens of thousands of people displaced by Myanmar's long-running civil war between the military and ethnic-minority militias have been living in camps along the Thai side of the border for decades.

Even so, journalists who have slipped across the border since the coup are keeping a low profile to decrease the odds of arrest.

"I am worried too much," Win said. "When I go out, I wear a hat, mask and all these things so nobody could recognize [me]. I don't go visit to the place where Burmese people could come. I don't expose myself where I am. I don't meet Burmese people. … Neighbors, they don't know I am Burmese. I pretend myself to be a Thai or some ethnic [minority] living in Thailand."

He suspects the junta of having informants in some of the communities of Myanmar nationals living and working in Thailand and said even among his colleagues only two or three know exactly where he is.

In May, three Myanmar journalists for another blacklisted news outlet, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and two activists traveling with them were arrested in northern Thailand for entering the country illegally. At the time, local Thai authorities told Reuters the group would be deported. Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters the government would find a "humanitarian solution." Rights groups urged the government not to send them back to Myanmar.

In a statement a month later, DVB said all five had been safely resettled in an undisclosed third country. But the news of their arrest and ordeal still spooked Win, who quickly switched safehouses and vowed to stay on the move.

Than Win Htut, a senior editor for DVB who sneaked across the border in April, said he could not remember the last time he stepped out of the house he has been hiding in since he arrived in Thailand.

"We never open the window, we never go out. Some friends [are] helping us for getting food and some other things we need because we don't want our neighbors [to] see strangers going in and out," he said, speaking softly to keep his voice from carrying too far.

Shelter from the storm

Some of the new arrivals are already making plans to move on.

Lagoon Eain and two others, another political cartoonist and a freelance reporter who fled lawsuits and death threats stemming from their work, told VOA they were in the process of resettling elsewhere with help from the United Nations' International Organization for Migration.

The U.N. agency's office in Thailand did not reply to VOA's request for comment.

Win and Than Win Htut say they want to stay in Thailand and continue reporting on Myanmar until it is safe to return, close enough to keep easily in touch with sources and colleagues back home but far enough — they hope — to avoid the junta's reach.

"I would like to request to the Thai government to stand bravely for the humanitarian [cause] in their handling of the Burmese opposition group or Burmese exiled journalists [taking] refuge on the Thai side, like they did over the last decades," Than Win Htut said.

DVB and other news outlets based themselves in Thailand the last time Myanmar's military was in full control of the country, but began moving back around 2011 once the generals started on a series of tentative democratic reforms. Since February's coup swept away all of those reforms, much of Myanmar's free press has once again been forced underground or out of the country.

"Thais are good neighbors," Win said. "The only thing I want to ask from them is to allow us to [do] journalistic work. We will respect Thai law and we will not interfere in Thai politics. What we are doing is only for our country."

Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined VOA's request for an interview, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

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