It has been more than a year since Myanmar’s military seized power in a putsch that sent thousands fleeing the country. Among them were scores of media professionals who took up refuge here in Thailand.
Some have since moved on or resettled elsewhere, but others stayed in Thailand, living in fear of police roundup or deportation back to Myanmar.
“Their long-term residential status is the biggest challenge of being exiled, regardless of wherever they are,” longtime Myanmar journalist Aung Naing Soe, now living in Thailand, said in an interview.
Several initiatives have been launched by media organizations in Thailand for the journalists from Myanmar, providing them with financial and legal assistance so they can continue to run their news operations here, or at least avoid run-ins with authorities.
Aung Naing Soe, however, who is familiar with the reporters in exile, said more could be done.
“It will be helpful if there are any organizations helping them to get legal immigration status by helping them to resettle in a third country then help them to get back to Thai-Myanmar border legally,” he said. “Many undocumented exiled Myanmar journalists need a break and they also need mental health assistance.”
Not knowing who’s next
Thailand has been a major destination and transit point for those fleeing unrest in Myanmar for decades. Last year’s coup brought a new wave of refugees, including journalists, though observers say it is difficult to say how many are still in Thailand.
“Some left earlier on, say March 2021,” Johanna Son, who runs Reporting ASEAN, a website that monitors civil rights developments in Myanmar and the region, said. “Others tried to make it work, some found that it was not possible or wise to stay on and take their chances.”
Chavarong Limpattamapanee, president of the National Press Council of Thailand, estimated that at least 180 media professionals who fled the 2021 coup are in Thailand, most of them in the north, in border locations such as Mae Sot.
“And nearly all of them are very, very scared of being found or arrested,” he said.
Thailand is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention, which bars governments from sending refugees to their home countries if they face threats to their life.
“Those who entered Thailand legally and want to stay face significant challenges in maintaining legal status,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said. “While others who simply crossed the border face the threat of arrest for illegal entry, and possible deportation, at any time.”
In May of last year, five Myanmar journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma¸ an independent news organization in Chiang Mai, in the northern part of the country, were arrested. Although they were later allowed to resettle elsewhere, the incident spread fear among exiles.
In April, five Vietnamese asylum seekers were arrested in Bangkok, despite holding U.N. refugee status.
“The threat of harassment and detention by Thai police is always present, especially in towns … where the journalists have concentrated,” Robertson said.
Allies in the media
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, some organizations are helping Myanmar journalists with financial and equipment aid, helping them navigate Thai visas, as well as helping them depart to third countries, Robertson said.
One group is the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, which collected money and equipment for Myanmar journalists, some of whom had to abandon nearly everything when they fled Myanmar.
“A little equipment and some funds go a long way for journalists that were forced to vacate their newsrooms in cities and towns but still wanted to continue reporting from wherever they are,” club president Panu Wongcha-um said.
The club also held exhibitions of the work of freelance Myanmar journalists, with proceeds going directly to them.
“It is surprising how little some of these photographers get paid in light of the danger and the importance to what they are documenting,” Panu said.
Chavarong, from the National Press Council, a network of Thai media agencies, said his group held discussions with the local authorities to convince them not to arrest or deport the journalists in hiding.
“We ask them not to be overzealous,” Chavarong said. “We explain to them that journalists from Myanmar do not pose any threat to Thailand, that they are here to seek refuge for their own safety.”
There have been cases of Myanmar media professionals successfully resettling in other countries. The exact number is kept under wraps by both the governments involved and the U.N. Refugee Agency, due to the Thai sensitivities about the junta knowing just how many refugees have gotten out to safety through Thailand, Robertson said.
“Those who have gone overseas have either done so because they were sent by their network, like Democratic Voice of Burma,” he said, “or because they believe they can still work as journalists reporting on Myanmar from there.”
What is certain, though, is that many media professionals have stayed behind to report on Myanmar from Thailand for various reasons.
“While people continue to find ways to leave – not just journalists – many don’t necessarily find the idea of moving to, say, the West, an appealing idea,” Reporting ASEAN’s Son, said. “Some are OK with it, but far from everyone is. Many also are hoping things will change so they can go back. Many who stay, stay because they have family, sick relatives.”
“Clearly, the time for exiled media is back, after just a decade,” she said, referring to Myanmar’s previous period of junta rule.
Aung Naing Soe said many Myanmar journalists applied for resettlement in other countries as they have no other option left for their safe and long-term legal residential status. But still, many others decided to remain along the border or in Thailand.
“No one wants to flee Myanmar, and even [if] we had to flee, we still want to remain close to our home,” he said.