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An anti-coup protest in Yangon: Photographers put themselves at risk of arrest or worse whenever they venture out to document Myanmar's unrest.
Myanmar Coup

In pictures: Myanmar photographer bears witness to chaotic 3 months

Young journalist wrestles with whether to risk carrying camera at all

KEN KOBAYASHI, Nikkei Asia photo editor | Myanmar

TOKYO -- Last Friday, Yangon photographer Berry arrived on the scene of an anti-coup protest thanks to a tip from a source. In pouring rain, he rushed to take pictures of the more than 150 demonstrators.

About 10 minutes later, the protesters scattered to avoid being arrested by the security forces. Berry, a pseudonym, followed suit -- satisfied that he had finally been able to capture a protest after a hiatus of nearly a month.

The junta's bloody crackdowns and strict control had forced their opponents to change tactics, shifting away from the large organized rallies seen earlier in the crisis.

With the "flash mob" gone, Berry packed up and left too, ever mindful that journalists -- especially photographers -- have become a favorite target for the authorities.

Berry had decided to become a professional journalist after graduating from university. He was influenced by a local photographer working for international media outlets, but he did not have enough money to buy camera equipment. Undeterred, he started out as a photographer in 2018, using only his cellphone camera.

A flash mob marches in heavy rain on April 30. Berry was on the scene with his camera for the first time in nearly a month.

A year later, Berry bought a secondhand camera with a loan from a friend. Gradually, he started earning more assignments.

Then everything changed. At 6 a.m. on Feb.1, Berry was awakened by a phone call from a friend, who told him there had been a military coup. He jumped out of bed and rushed to Yangon's city hall, only to find it was occupied by the army.

Internet and phone lines soon went down. Berry hurried to an ATM to withdraw cash, but a long line of others clearly had the same idea.

Later that day, the authorities announced a curfew. Berry felt that Myanmar's fledgling democracy had abruptly ended, plunging the country back into the dark era of previous decades.

A woman shouts at police in front of the Central Bank of Myanmar in Yangon on Feb. 15.

On Feb. 2, Yangon residents took to banging pots and pans on their balconies as a sign of defiance. The protest movement quickly swelled into large demonstrations.

On Feb. 15, at a rally outside the Central Bank of Myanmar, protesters tearfully asked police to take their side. Ultimately, the officers retreated.

On Feb. 22, another big rally was held near the city's iconic Sule Pagoda. It was so crowded that Berry feared a pedestrian bridge would collapse under the weight of so many people, prompting him to move to another vantage point.

In hindsight, he recalls that the security forces were not so violent at the time. He saw some police officers snapping photos of the demonstration with their own smartphones. But the situation was steadily deteriorating.

A huge crowd gathers near Sule Pagoda in Yangon on Feb. 22. Berry moved from the bridge, worried it might collapse.
A policeman takes a photo of protesters in Yangon on Feb. 22. Berry recalls being able to chat with officers at the time, before the violence worsened.

Feb. 26 marked a grim milestone, Berry said.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators, chasing down and arresting some of them. That day brought the period of peaceful protests to an end, and also forced Berry to become far more cautious.

A woman defies security forces with a three-finger salute in Yangon on Feb. 26.

While covering the day's events, he sensed he was in danger of being arrested himself and fled. He took refuge at a photo studio, but he worried that if the authorities showed up there, they would confiscate his camera and other belongings. He hid his equipment and data card in the studio.

The military is well-aware of the power of images. Since Feb. 1, countless citizens have recorded the protests and crackdowns on their phones, posting pictures and videos for the world to see. As a result, the security forces have come to regard being photographed and filmed as troublesome -- making anyone with a camera a target.

Protesters run from security forces in Yangon's Tamwe Township on March 17.

Berry feels it is somewhat safer to pretend to be an average citizen than a professional photographer. After Feb. 26, he stopped wearing his helmet and vest bearing the word "press." He keeps his media identification tucked in the back of his bag and his camera out of sight as much as possible. He has even pretended to be a member of a family that sheltered him.

A protester practices firing a slingshot he crafted himself in Yangon's Tamwe Township on March 17.

On March 17, Berry was back in the streets covering protesters' preparations to confront security forces. The demonstrators were armed with handmade shields, slingshots, Molotov cocktails and other rudimentary equipment. Protesters said they had learned how to make weapons on YouTube and hoped to at least delay the authorities' efforts to break up their rallies.

Those weapons quickly proved to be no match for the soldiers' guns. And despite the desperate resistance, the protesters' death toll continued to rise day by day.

Bereaved family members weep at Sai Waiyan's funeral on March 28. 

On March 27, Berry attended the funeral of a 14-year-old child. The military had entered an area where a protest was expected and opened fire with live ammunition in a narrow street. Sai Waiyan, who was not a demonstrator, was killed by a bullet to the head. His body was seized by the military on the spot, and the bereaved family later claimed him from a hospital.

More than 50 people gathered at the funeral, where Sai Waiyan's parents cried out and embraced his coffin. "We will never forgive the military until the end of the world," his mother said.

Berry felt a mix of anger and sorrow. He fought back tears as he clicked his camera shutter.

A nearly empty street in Yangon on March 10.

In April, large-scale demonstrations all but ceased. The military monitors social media, so most demonstrations became flash mobs -- sporadic gatherings arranged through direct communication. They dissolve almost as quickly as they form.

But the strategy that makes it difficult for the military to crack down also makes life harder for photojournalists like Berry.

In any case, Berry's fears for his own safety became more and more acute. Though he tried to be inconspicuous, he worried spies and informants could be on every street corner. He would hide his camera whenever he returned home, but simply carrying a camera at all seemed too risky. After April 5, he decided to stop using his camera and reverted to taking pictures with his smartphone.

Upon receiving an assignment from a foreign media organization to photograph Sule Pagoda, Berry ventured out to the site with a friend. He pretended to snap photos of his friend first, before quickly pointing his phone at the landmark.

Frustrated, he felt he had been relegated back to 2018, when he could not afford a proper camera of his own.

Protesters stencil images of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on a bridge on Feb. 14.

So last Friday, when Berry received a call from a friend about a flash mob, he picked up his camera again. He was still afraid that he might get caught. But he decided to take the chance.

Out in the rain, he relished the sound of each click of the shutter -- incomparable to the sound effect smartphones make.

"There are still many risks involved in the media," Berry said. Sometimes he convinces himself that his motto is, "Run for your lives, life is the most important thing," and runs. At the same time, he sees that "everyone is fighting in their own way now."

"For me, it is the camera. I have to photograph the truth and pass it on to future generations."

Anti-coup protesters hold up their smartphone flashlights on March 14.   © AP

Berry's real name could not be used in this article for safety reasons.

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