Interview: ‘It has become very risky for me to do the job.’

Myanmar freelance photojournalist Ta Mwe, a pen name he uses to protect his security, the pseudonym named for his security, has won awards for his news photos of the crackdown on anti-military junta protests following the Feb 2021 coup that ousted the country’s elected civilian government. To mark World Press Freedom Day,  Ye Kaung Myint Maung of RFA’s Myanmar Service spoke to Ta Mwe about his work on the conflict.

RFA: Can you tell me about the award you won?

Ta Mwe: I have won the jury’s choice for honorable mention in Southeast Asia and Oceania category of the World Press Photo awards. (I submitted) a series of 10  black and white photos about the Spring Revolution in Myanmar. My photo series covers the scenes from the early days of protests after the military coup in 2021. The contestants in this category are required to submit their ten best photos from their work that depict the story. So I picked my ten best photos taken in four months, from February to May of last year.

RFA: Can you tell me about your career as a photographer?

Ta Mwe: I started my career in photo journalism as a citizen journalist. Around 2007, I started taking photos using my phone and uploaded them anonymously to Burmese language blogs on Blogspot.com. Around 2011, I started working as a full-time photographer. I had worked as a full-time photojournalist for a local weekly journal, then became a freelance photographer.   

RFA: What can you tell me about the situation of press freedom in Myanmar at the moment?

Ta Mwe: The situation has become extremely difficult for journalists now. When we cover news activities on the ground, we first need to find a route to flee from the scene and escape arrest, before we start doing anything like taking photos or interviewing people. We have to figure out how to ensure our own security before we hit the ground. As I have covered flash mob protests in Yangon, I have planned carefully which streets to run away on as soon as I finish taking photos. It has become very challenging. When I grab a taxi on my way back from the coverage, I don’t do it in the streets close to the scene. I walk a few blocks to hide the traces of my identity before I take a taxi. Before, there were several news media and several photographers working at the scene. They now have either been arrested or gone into hiding.

RFA: We have seen that informants for the military authorities are everywhere. How risky it is for the journalists to do their jobs under those circumstances?

Ta Mwe: As when I was covering the flash mob protest in Yangon, I have to be at the scene before the activities happen and check the surroundings if there are authorities in plain clothes near the scene. There could be informants at the scene. If I think it is not safe to cover the activities closely, I have to take photos from a distance. It has become very unpredictable. I think the chances of spotting the informers are 50/50. Sometimes, I can easily distinguish the informants from the crowd because of their appearance. But other times, I cannot distinguish them. I hear that sometimes they suddenly come out of a parked car to arrest people. It has become very risky for me to do the job.  

RFA: Now you are at a safe location. What do you expect to do to continue your work?

Ta Mwe: I am now at a safe location. But I will keep doing the journalism work by recording the happenings in Myanmar and disseminating them to the world, because we are witnessing a historic turning point in Myanmar. For someone of my age, it is very significant. I will keep covering the news happening in Myanmar from a distance. If it is possible, I will go and cover it on the ground.  

RFA: What kind of message do you want to pass to concerned leaders around the world, working to restore peace and democracy in Myanmar?

Ta Mwe: As a journalist, I am risking my life to report news about Myanmar so that the concerned leaders around the world can make the right decisions. It is their job to make an informed decision. I believe it is my job to send out the correct information, regardless of the risks. I hope they will make the right and unbiased decision based on the information received from us. I also would like to implore them to work harder to secure the release of journalists in detention. Without journalists working on the ground, the people in Myanmar will be under an information blackout, and concerned leaders around the world will have many blind spots in their decision making and they will not make the best decision. I would like to appeal them to try hard for the release of journalists in prison and support those who are in hiding or evading arrest.

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