Fleeing Military-Ruled Myanmar: Mission Accomplished; Now a Greater Task Awaits

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 28 February 2023

It was a fraught, reluctant, but urgent and necessary operation. We could rightly call it an “escape mission”.

It was not the first time I had been forced to flee my home country to avoid political persecution—that occurred in 2000, a year after I was freed from the previous military regime’s gulag. Twenty-two years later, I found myself with no choice but to make my escape once again, for the same reason.

It was this month last year—Feb. 23, 2022 to be precise—exactly one year and 23 days after the military seized power, overthrowing an elected government and launching its reign of terror over a population that now lives in fear of arrest, torture and death at the hands of the regime. Its endless violent crackdown on dissent has forced countless anti-coup protesters, students, politicians, artists and members of various professions, including journalists, to flee the country.

A few hours before sunrise on that day in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, a colleague and I headed for a previously arranged location where an unknown driver would be waiting for us. Minutes later, two more colleagues joined us, and the young but calm driver wordlessly drove his old van into the darkness. His assignment was to take us to a remote border town; our mission was to flee our country.

It was something we hated to do.

In the van, it was still too dark to see each other, and we traveled in silence. But I could feel that all of the passengers were overwhelmed with worry and sorrow. For them, it must have been an unfamiliar feeling, as it was the first time they had undertaken such a journey. As for the driver, he must have had concerns of his own: Though he didn’t know we were journalists, he knew he was transporting “fugitives” fleeing the junta’s arbitrary persecution.

Fear of being detained by junta security forces before reaching our destination mingled with the sorrow of leaving our homes and loved ones behind, along with everything that we held dear, or that was simply familiar: a cracked or stained coffee mug; an old dining table around which family members would sit to eat every meal; a stained wall, empty, or perhaps with a tilted painting or yellowing, framed family photograph hung on it; the smell of one’s bed; the stuffy air in one’s rooms or the way sunlight shines through a particular window; a beloved pet; even the everyday noises of the neighborhood—and too many more to name. Nothing can replace such things, nothing feels more valuable or beautiful once taken away. Together, such things, I believe, add up to what we think of as “home”. Without them, there is no home, just a building. Their absence creates a powerful nostalgia for home.

Yes, leaving home was something we all hated to do. But we had to do it to survive.

Three days earlier, junta troops had arrested one of our admin staff who knew the home addresses of all of The Irrawaddy’s employees, including the editors and reporters. He was forced to show the authorities where we lived, making it necessary for us to leave our homes immediately. The group of us in the van were one of the last groups from our publication to leave the country.

After the junta’s ruthless and bloody crackdown on nationwide peaceful anti-coup protests in the early months of 2021, following the coup on Feb. 1, tens of thousands of people fled their homes and many of them left the country. Among them were many dozens of journalists.

As it confronts the sheer scale of the anti-regime movement, the military regime has identified as one of its main enemies the news media, in particular the journalists whose work daily exposes the true colors of the coup leaders—their cruel, inhumane and immoral acts against the entire population. Their work has made the media an enemy of the regime. Myanmar was the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists, with at least 42 journalists behind bars, at the time of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Dec. 1, 2022 prison census.

In those early days I made the risky—some of my friends said daring—decision to stay inside the country to continue to work as an editor for The Irrawaddy, which by this time had been charged under various repressive laws. I thought I would be able to hide, periodically shifting locations, while continuing to work. In early March, one month after the coup, I went into hiding. This life of concealment and disguising myself in public was manageable for a year, but eventually, moving from one hiding place to another became untenable due to the junta’s oppressive laws, such as the mandatory guest and household registrations, not to mention its manhunt operations targeting us. Friends who offered to hide me at their places became concerned for their own safety, as they were helping a “fugitive journalist”.

With the security situation deteriorating, the arrest of our staff member forced me and my colleagues to make the difficult decision to flee the country. It was an unwanted outcome but the only practical one if we were to survive.

Our car had to stop at every one of the many security checkpoints we encountered throughout the trip. The driver, however, was prepared, and knew how to deal with police and military personnel: He slipped a roll of cash into the palm of the security guard at every checkpoint. He had prepared many rolls of cash ahead of time; his method worked—we were never seriously asked to identify ourselves.

We fled because it’s simply not worth getting arrested, tortured and given lengthy prison sentences, if not killed, for doing the work that is our calling—our work with the pen, with words. No citizen of my country deserves to live and work under this brutal junta and its generals, or any kind of dictatorship or authoritarianism. Our country has endured six decades of this. That should be enough, but it has yet to end. Of course, no one deserves such ruthless rulers; the Ukrainians don’t deserve Vladimir Putin’s invasion and war, either.

I endured plenty of what I didn’t deserve—to understate matters—under the previous regime. As a 19-year-old student, I was handed a 10-year prison sentence for my peaceful anti-regime activities, including publishing a pro-democracy journal, after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. I managed to survive that harsh eight-year incarceration in two notorious prisons. For what? To carry on what I started—my own revolution against authoritarianism and military dictatorship.

In 2000, one year after my release, I fled my country for the first time, vowing not to be jailed again. In the 13 years of exile that followed, I worked as a journalist, dedicating myself to exposing the real nature of Myanmar’s cruel, greedy generals and other powerful figures. I survived exile, just as I had survived prison. For what? To tell stories: Not only horrific stories of the regime’s inhumanity, but also stories of the resilience of the Myanmar people. To share them with those citizens of our world lucky enough to be spared such experiences, as well as for the future generations, for whom our stories contain valuable lessons of survival.

In the days following the coup in 2021, my friends urged me to leave the country immediately. They said it wasn’t worth it, risking another lengthy imprisonment. But I was stubborn, determined to continue my work from hiding. Why? Because I wanted to share with the world the stories of our people who were suffering and fighting against the brutal regime—I wanted to tell these stories from the ground.

Now, though, having been forced from my country for a second time, I have come to believe that the decision to leave was the correct one—that I need to survive this time, too. The reason is the same: to be able to tell the stories of our terrible, all too “interesting”, times—starting with my own experiences of life under the dictatorship.

After a 12-hour drive, we arrived at a town on the Thai border. The driver took us to a meeting point where a four-wheeled pickup waited for us. The drivers greeted each other familiarly; they seemed to have conducted many such missions since the coup. We moved straight from the van into the second vehicle, a four-wheeled pickup, which set off after a brief exchange of words between the two drivers. Our new driver was actually an officer from an ethnic rebel group. While driving through rebel-held territory he told us that, due to the heightened security situation along the border, his group had stopped smuggling people out of the country. He had made an exception in our case, however, as he had been told that our group was very important. He said: “You are VIPs. That’s why.” I am sure many “VIPs” preceded us in this journey. We thanked him.

A couple of hours later, we reached our destination. All things considered, it was a relatively quick and safe experience. Some of our colleagues weren’t so lucky. Traveling with a baby they endured a horrific, two-day-long ordeal on a different route, though they eventually made it out too.

Our mission was to escape from the hell of military rule.

Mission accomplished. We survived.

But escaping the junta’s persecution was just our first mission. As journalists, our new and greater mission is to continue to report and write about what’s going on in our country under the ruthless military regime, and to explain the larger truths beyond the headlines, both to our own citizens and the world.

The morning after our arrival, all of us did exactly what we had been doing in hiding for the past year: We turned on our laptops. This is the job we have been doing for many years. The difference is that we are no longer in our homes, or in our country. To be suddenly wrenched away from our homes, our loved ones and our cherished belongings leaves one vulnerable to nostalgia. But in nostalgia, along with the slight sadness, there is a positive side, something I remember feeling in my first exiled life: a positive, even pleasurable energy with the power to motivate someone who has been forced from their home to strive to find a way to return.

For me, it’s the beginning of my second life in exile. The first kept me from home for 13 years. For my colleagues, it’s the beginning of their first such life. The bitter truth is that nobody knows how long it will take this time, either. Well… it should no longer matter to me. I am what I am, as I chose who I am. I am sure this rings true for my dedicated colleagues, other journalists and the countless resolute citizens of our country who have been forced to leave their homes for acting in the service of their country.

At the very least, we all need to survive to see the fall of the dictatorship.

That still greater mission remains unaccomplished…