It was more than nine months after the military staged its coup in Myanmar that journalist Khit Thit chose to leave the country.
In the weeks after the generals’ power grab, Khit Thit spent her time racing around Yangon, the country’s largest city, documenting the pro-democracy demonstrations that were taking place daily.
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Authorities’ initial response to the protests had been restrained, but within weeks the security forces began beating and arresting peaceful protesters, firing live rounds into crowds, deploying snipers, and conducting point-blank executions.
A few weeks after the coup, Khit Thit, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was covering a demonstration in Sanchaung, a narrow warren of streets just north of Yangon’s city centre, when she narrowly escaped the clutches of the police, taking refuge in a nearby hotel. She reached the rooftop of an adjacent building, from where she saw officers viciously beat a protester as he pleaded for mercy.
Nights were not much better, with soldiers patrolling neighbourhoods after dark, and forcibly entering homes to arrest those suspected of taking part in the protests.
“It was a really scary time. I couldn’t sleep at all, and was constantly worried I’d be arrested,” she said.
Khit Thit shared an apartment with several other journalists, but while some of them fled to border areas, joining one of the many People’s Defence Forces (PDF) formed to launch an armed resistance against the coup, Khit Thit stayed behind. She hoped to continue to report on developments in Yangon, but as the situation in the former capital became increasingly unsafe she returned to her hometown in rural Myanmar.
There were risks there too.
Khit Thit’s neighbours knew she was a journalist, and she worried one of them might inform on her.
She hatched an escape plan with her mother, planning to flee out a back window and hide out at a monastery in case the authorities came calling.
After several nerve-wracking weeks, she decided to leave the country altogether, catching a flight to Bangkok, the capital of neighbouring Thailand.
“I had so much anxiety, it wasn’t sustainable,” she said. “It was such a difficult decision. I didn’t want to go to another country, or leave my family like that. I also felt guilty because my friends were in the jungle, fighting for their country, but I was only looking out for myself.
“Even as the plane left, although I felt relieved, I also felt depressed, because I didn’t know when I could return,” she said, adding that her guilt also prevented her from telling her friends in the jungle she had left.
Maung Lwin faced a similar experience. After the coup, he stayed behind for several months, before fleeing to Thailand worried he could be arrested.
“I felt guilty because I felt like I was being selfish,” Maung Lwin said. “I took a long time to make that decision, and even though I could leave safely, I was not relieved.”
Living in fear
Since the coup, life for many in Myanmar has been completely upended. The economy has tanked, in large part due to the coup, with the World Bank last week projecting growth of just one percent in the year until September, having dropped 18 percent in the previous 12 months.
Fear is also a constant.
In response to widespread resistance to its power grab, the military has shown “gross disregard for human life”, according to Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights chief, including the torture of journalists, “clearance operations” targeting villagers, and indiscriminate attacks “through airstrikes and the use of heavy weaponry in populated areas”.
More than 1,500 people have been killed since the coup, not including those who have died in the myriad armed conflicts across the country, while the UN estimates that more than 300,000 have been displaced over the past year.
An unknown number have fled across borders.
Some with the resources to do so, such as Khit Thit and Maung Lwin, have flown to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and India, while others have gone further afield, either due to concerns for their safety or because of a lack of economic opportunities back home.
They include Nickey Diamond, a prominent human rights activist before the coup. He left Yangon, then later Myanmar, when he was warned by contacts within the military that he was on their wanted list.
He is now living with his family in Germany, researching his PhD in a lakeside town in the country’s south, while continuing to work as an activist.
Diamond said he also felt extreme sadness when he left Myanmar, admitting to having bouts of “survivor’s guilt” because “we were able to leave the country, but other people are left behind”.
But as someone who was able to leave, he also feels a responsibility to raise the issue about what is happening in his home country with friends and colleagues around the world.
“We have become sort of ambassadors, to educate people about the situation in Myanmar. In other countries, I meet people who don’t know what is happening, so it is my job to tell them,” he said, adding that this role’s importance was heightened by the fact that the internet is increasingly being restricted by the military government in Myanmar.
“Not everyone has become an armed activist. A lot of people are continuing in the city with non-violent protests, and sometimes they need funding for relocation. So whatever my colleagues need in my country, I am helping with that,” he said.
In recent weeks, Khit Thit, the journalist, said her guilt about leaving the country has subsided, and she has come to the realisation that her work as a journalist can help raise awareness about what is happening back home.
After much soul-searching, she also told her friends in the jungle she had left.
“They were happy to hear I was safe. I didn’t expect that, and it made me really happy,” she said.
Like Diamond, she now hopes to use her time abroad to continue telling the truth about what is happening inside Myanmar.
“As a journalist, all I can do is show the real situation in my country to Myanmar people and the world. Wherever I end up, I will do the best for my country, and I hope that by doing this I can help to remove the military from power,” she said.