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The Daily: Covering a Coup from Afar

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Being a foreign correspondent is usually an exercise in being there — unless you’re trying to cover a coup in Myanmar during a pandemic. Even before the putsch, the country was almost entirely closed because of the coronavirus. And now that the country has returned to full military rule, those of us who used to fly in regularly for reporting trips to Myanmar are realizing that visas won’t reappear once the virus wanes.

Luckily, we at The Times have a remarkable network of reporters and photographers in Myanmar who are risking their lives to get the story out. They report even as they are living with summary executions on the street, daily internet blackouts, long lines to withdraw small amounts of cash from A.T.M.s, the constant threat that security forces will knock on their doors with an arrest warrant.

To be a reporter in Myanmar today, to be someone who documents the military’s casual and cruel violence, is now a crime. Dozens of journalists have been arrested. Others have been shot at. Despite this, a brave corps of journalists is documenting the military’s slaughter — at least 600 civilians have been killed since the coup — and telling the stories of those who are standing up in protest. Their ranks are supplemented by citizen reporters whose footage and photos are valuable evidence of what is unfolding in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, those of us stuck outside the country have had to rely on skills that we honed during the pandemic year as foreign correspondents who don’t travel. That means a lot of video chats and talking with sources on encrypted apps. It means asking someone to please pan their phone camera to get a full view of the interior of their house because it might provide a salient detail for a story. It means poring over shaky videos of military brutality and crosschecking them with others from different angles to ensure that the geotagging is accurate.

Even when Myanmar’s internet wasn’t strangled by the military regime, as it has been since the coup, the country was awash in rumors. The wealth of whispered stories shared with journalists was a result of the long years of isolation imposed by the ruling junta. One of my favorite activities in a Myanmar teahouse was to lean forward as someone would spill the latest tea over actual tea.

Today, the rumor mill is spinning in overdrive. It takes time to confirm things, and some of the more outlandish gossip turns out to be just that. But in other cases, what seems like unimaginable cruelty turns out to be real. Have the security forces killed more than 40 children, often with a single bullet to the head? Yes, they have. Did they burn off a tattoo on a man’s arm because it depicted the country’s ousted civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Yes, they did.

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