“I didn’t look like a human”: journalist recounts torture in Myanmar

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When more than 100 soldiers and police surrounded his three-story building and cordoned off his neighborhood in Myanmar last March, journalist Ko Aung Kyaw knew they were coming to look for him.

So he began live streaming his arrest in the southern town of Myeik, capturing the soldiers in action as they smashed security cameras outside his apartment and threw stones at his windows.

When they broke down his door, he erased his cell phone memory to protect his contacts, even though he knew the punishment would be swift and severe.

He was taken to an interrogation center where he said the soldiers immediately started beating him. Smelling the alcohol, they burned his face and hands with a cigarette, stepped on his fingers and placed plastic bags over his head, nearly choking him eight times, he said.

His certainty that he was about to die strengthened his resolve not to give any names.

“In my mind, I was dead,” he said. “Later, when I saw the photo they took, I didn’t recognize myself. My face was swollen and I didn’t look like a human.

The New York Times could not independently corroborate the details of Mr. Aung Kyaw’s treatment, but reports of torture in custody have been rife since the military seized power in the coup. February 1. Interrogators often attempt to extract the names of associates, contacts and, in the case of journalists, their sources.

Almost all of the 11,000 people arrested by the junta in a brutal crackdown have been tortured to some extent, according to the rights group, the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners. At least 184 people have been tortured to death, the group said, including journalist Ko Soe Naing, who was arrested on December 10 while covering a protest in Yangon.

Mr. Aung Kyaw, video journalist for the Independent Democratic Voice of Burma, was a prime target. Even before the coup, he had spoken a lot about the corruption of the military, its land grabs and its practice of robbing the public.

Some of his online reports have received millions of views. The military was particularly irritated by its 2019 story which led to the arrest of a close military ally, the nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, for sedition.

Small in stature and sober in demeanor, Mr. Aung Kyaw, 32, has always been one to express himself, often risking his life. “I became a journalist because when I see an injustice, I cannot accept it,” he said.

Since the coup, the regime has killed more than 1,340 people and more than 8,000 opponents are still behind bars, according to the AAPP, Myanmar has at least 26 journalists in detention for their reporting, just behind China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The regime announced in October that it would release 5,600 prisoners, but released only a few hundred. One of them, to his surprise, was Mr. Aung Kyaw.

Knowing that he was likely to be arrested again, he and his family fled across the Thai border.

In 1989, the year of Mr. Aung Kyaw’s birth, the military ruled Myanmar for 27 years. His family lived in the small town of Kyaiklat southeast of Yangon, an idyllic location in the Irrawaddy Delta, where they owned a thriving boat rental business and a small sawmill.

His first memory is that of their house burned down when he was 3 years old. The fire started in the middle of the night in a neighbor’s kitchen and destroyed 13 houses.

The local administrator appointed by the army, instead of helping displaced and dispossessed families, responded by seizing the land on which the houses stood and handing it over to his friends. Families were forced to find accommodation and work elsewhere. Mr. Aung Kyaw calls this “a lesson in life”.

As he grew older, he realized that such injustice was common in Myanmar. At 14, he joined an underground movement to resist military rule.

“Everyone was scared,” he said. “But my mindset was that if we don’t oppose the military now, we will have to oppose the military in the next generation.”

As a teenager, he began to write articles denouncing the army and, at 19, he opened one of the first cybercafés in the country. It has become a gathering place for young activists.

His first arrest was in 2010 for criticizing the regime. He was taken to an interrogation center and interrogated around the clock for 11 days without sleep. He said he refused to cooperate.

Found guilty of breaking the telecommunications law and disseminating information that could harm the military, he was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment but released after two years of amnesty.

At the time of his arrest, the military began to loosen its grip on the country, leading to a proliferation of cellphones, an increase in independent media, and the election of civilian leaders who shared power with the military.

In 2015, Mr. Aung Kyaw started working full time for the Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB, where one of his roles was to help over 60 citizen journalists cover their communities. Since the coup, citizen journalists have played a vital role in reporting on the brutality of the junta.

After getting married in 2018, he moved to Myeik, his wife’s hometown. There, he reported the theft of fuel by the army from fishermen, his seizure of land from farmers and his involvement in drug trafficking.

On the day of his arrest, he broadcast a live report of soldiers beating people, including a pregnant woman, and stealing their money. It drew 2.8 million views.

The authorities came to pick him up, but he had already left the scene. When they surrounded his building that night, he was ready.

He knew that his interrogators would view the removal of his telephone contacts as a provocation that would result in more severe torture. “But it’s my job to protect my sources of information,” he said.

While he could not get him to speak, hit him, burn him and suffocate him, the angry soldiers beat him with a wooden baton, hitting his face several times. He thought he had lost both eyes. After a soldier kicked him in the head, Mr. Aung Kyaw said he could not move. He passed out, ending his questioning.

It was weeks before he could walk again.

He attended a hearing by videoconference two days after his arrest. With his face bruised and swollen, he told the judge about the torture he had suffered. The judge said it was outside his jurisdiction.

Mr. Aung Kyaw was again convicted of disseminating information damaging to the military – a charge often brought against journalists – and sentenced to two years in prison.

Since only two thin blankets at Myeik Prison, he slept on the wooden floor in an area so crowded that he could only lie on his side. He was put to work with other inmates to make false eyelashes for local businesses.

Drug traffickers, who made up the vast majority of the prison population, paid the guards for privileges. In Mr. Aung Kyaw’s cell, drug traffickers beat protesters and forced all political prisoners to stay in a small corner. He complained to the prison administration, prompting death threats from drug traffickers and guards.

Shortly after his release, he planned to flee Myanmar with his wife, their 2-year-old daughter and his wife’s sister, who also worked as a journalist.

Impersonating a family on vacation, they drove to the town of Myawaddy on the Thai border. Often using secondary roads, they passed dozens of checkpoints, sometimes paying soldiers to let them pass.

Eventually, they crossed the Moei River by boat to reach Thailand, carrying all their material goods in a backpack and a small suitcase.

Mr. Aung Kyaw’s sense of freedom while in Thailand was quickly tempered by the reality of living in exile in an unknown country. He and his family hope to be granted asylum in Europe or Australia.

“I’m worried because I don’t have legal documents or the language to communicate,” he said. “But I also have a feeling of relief that I am no longer living under a military dictatorship.”


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