Photojournalists in Burma Weigh Duty Against Dangers

By Nobel Zaw 10 April 2015

RANGOON — When riot police began bludgeoning about 200 student protestors in Burma last month, the violence sent nearly all of those present fleeing for the surrounding jungle or a nearby monastery. Amid the chaos, however, one group was notable for its instinctive—but hardly self-preservative—decision to move closer to the threat: photojournalists.

Photographer Sai Zaw of The Irrawaddy immediately jumped to the ground from the brick wall that he had been perched on and ran toward an ambulance where a melee was unfolding, even as his colleagues urged him to retreat.

The resulting photos showed the degree of police brutality—at one point victims of the crackdown were beaten inside the ambulance on scene—but also made clear the substantial potential danger that comes with being near the action in such circumstances: A baton blow to the head was, fortunately, blunted by the helmet Sai Zaw was wearing. Were it not for one level-headed police commander who arrived and ordered his officers to exercise restraint, the situation could easily have turned out much worse.

“I didn’t even think about how dangerous it was; at that time the only thing on my mind was to expose those unjust things,” Sai Zaw said.

The 33-year-old is one of a cohort of local photojournalists trying to tell the story of Burma in transition. Going behind the lens openly to capture moments like the crackdown would have been unthinkable five years ago, when Burma’s former junta ensured that any journalist intending to speaking truth to power did so at great personal risk.

But as the police’s behavior in Letpadan, Pegu Division, showed, the extent to which authorities are willing to tolerate greater press scrutiny is unclear, and a much-improved media environment still holds potential perils for those who push the envelope.

An Opportunity to Expose

In 2011, the newly installed government of President Thein Sein kicked off an ambitious reform program that included a dramatic opening of Burma’s previously censorship-heavy media environment. Private newspapers, banned since shortly after the 1962 Ne Win coup, were granted publishing licenses once again.

For international wire agencies, it offered a chance to open up Rangoon bureaus, and attendant improved access to cover an unfolding story of global interest. For local photojournalists, it meant the chance to sharpen their skills.

When private daily newspapers were permitted for the first time in 50 years on April 1, 2013, there were pages to be filled not just with text, but images to accompany the news du jour. And with international interest in the former pariah state still high, major news outlets are offering local photographers an unprecedented degree of international exposure.

One of the world’s most well-known dailies, The International New York Times, published a front-page photo of civilians fleeing conflict in northeast Burma last month that was captured by photographer Ye Aung Thu.

“I have had many fantasies that one day my news photos would be published [on the front-page of international news media],” said Ye Aung Thu, a photojournalists for Agence-France Press (AFP) who started working for the agency in 2012. “You could say that dreams do come true.”

But the pathway to that dream has hardly been a smooth one.

“In the past decades, photojournalists were not welcomed by either side—the government or the public,” said Khin Maung Win, who has been a photojournalist for about 20 years and currently works for The Associated Press.

While Burma’s repressive military rulers considered photographers a threat, members of the public would avoid their cameras, considering such photos to be an unnecessary risk under a regime known to arbitrarily imprison on lesser “offenses.”

Helping fuel that fear was the Electronic Transactions Law, legislation enacted in 2004 and still on the books today, which criminalizes the sending or receiving of “detrimental” emails. Since 2004, several journalists have been jailed under the law, though there have been no known cases since Burma’s reform process began in 2011.

When a bomb rocked Rangoon’s Buddhist New Year festivities in 2010, The Irrawaddy’s photographer JPaing admits that he decided to self-censor for his own safety.

“I arrived before the bomb blast, so I got many newsworthy photos of the scene, but I didn’t send my photos to any media and also didn’t let others know I was there,” said JPaing, who was working at the time for the People’s Age weekly.

About 10 people were killed in the incident, at one of the many so-called water pandals spread across Rangoon annually, and the government subsequently sentenced two journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) for filming the attack’s aftermath. One, Maung Maung Zeya, was charged under the Electronic Transactions Law.

Fearing a similar fate might befall him, JPaing hid his camera’s memory card in the bottom of a pot filled with rice. It remained there for two years.

The Photographing Few

While there are certainly more jobs for photojournalists today than there were in 2011, the number of positions available is still modest.

Most local media are too cash-strapped to dedicate resources to photographers, while other editorial teams believe the role is unnecessary in Burma, where lax intellectual property protections make ripping content from other sources viable. Some give their reporters cameras, expecting them to serve dual roles when covering stories.

The number of dedicated photojournalists in Burma is not more than a couple dozen. Perhaps that’s all the more reason that the group has felt the need to cooperate with each other, often arranging to travel to conflict zones together, at a fast-changing and volatile time in the country’s history.

A lack of formal training options has also hindered development of the profession. Thanks to Internet connections that have improved since 2010 (while still sometimes agonizingly slow), online resources have filled the void to an extent, offering a wealth of photography techniques and advice in forums and Facebook groups.

“I learned on the Internet, Facebook pages, and would wake up at 6 am and walk around shooting the whole town till evening,” Ye Aung Thu said. “At that time, photography training was very expensive and was only taught for modelling and landscapes, which were money-makers.”

Burma’s transformation from military dictatorship to quasi-civilian governance has been a bumpy one, perhaps disheartening for democracy advocates but undeniably an opportunity for those interested in conflict reporting.

Kaung Htet, the 31-year-old director of photography for the Myanmar Times, has worked in conflict zones in Kachin and Arakan states, and covered last July’s rioting in Mandalay, during which two people were killed. While he said he always tried his best not to shy away from covering sensitive material, he described one instance surrounded by a mob during the Mandalay violence where self-preservation trumped his journalistic duty.

“At that time I had to decide whether to take photos of that scene or not,” he told The Irrawaddy. “If they saw that I was taking photos, I would be torn to pieces.”

During the recent fighting between the government and ethnic rebels in northeast Burma’s Kokang Special Region, a Red Cross convoy carrying displaced civilians and a handful of journalists was ambushed by unknown assailants. Two people sustained gunshot wounds, including a Red Cross worker who later died of his injuries.

Among the journalists riding with the convoy was JPaing, who was not wearing a bullet-proof vest or any other protective gear.

“This trip, I relied only on my luck,” he said.

Such vests, helmets, life insurance and even basic training in conflict reporting are occupational luxuries that most local journalists are not able to enjoy. While foreign photojournalists are often paid several-fold what a local might make, it is often in the most dangerous places—from which foreigners would be barred—that local photojournalists are the only ones able to get the story out.

As in conflict reporting the world over, ethical dilemmas inevitably arise.

JPaing’s photos were some of the only visual documentation to come out of the Kokang ambush, but a shot of four people carrying an injured fifth man to safety drew criticism online, with some social media users questioning why he too had not help the man.

“At first I felt sorry when I saw the comments, but if I hadn’t shot that scene, it might not be known to anyone. I took care of the injured person throughout the drive to the hospital.”

Though these local photojournalists are eager to cover conflict areas and document an important period in Burma’s history, family members are not always of the same mind, viewing the job as a low-paid and unnecessarily risky occupation.

“The younger generations of photojournalists have been trying very hard since they saw a little greater opportunity for media. They compete with each other and I very much appreciate their courage,” Khin Maung Win said.

The potentially deadly nature of the job hit home for Burma’s press corps in October, when the Burma Army announced that it had shot dead a freelance reporter in Mon State. The military said the man, Par Gyi, was working for ethnic armed rebels active in the area, and that he was shot and killed after he reached for a soldier’s gun. Critics, including the journalist’s widow, have said his death was a reminder of the impunity with which the Burma Army continues to operate.

Other journalists have also run afoul of the government, but less dramatically so. At least 20 journalists have been arrested in Burma since 2013, and 12 members of the media are currently serving prison sentences, some for up to seven years.

While competitive, the small but growing clique of photojournalists in Burma share their knowledge on social media and in meet-ups. The Irrawaddy’s JPaing said there are plans afoot to start a “Burma Bang Bang Club,” a reference to a group of photojournalists in apartheid South Africa who risked their lives for the story during that country’s tumultuous transition toward universal suffrage in the 1990s.

“International photographers win Pulitzer prizes and World Press Photo awards with news happening in my country, so we have a dream to get these prizes with our own photos,” he said.