Photojournalist Moe documented the military’s terrifying and brutal attacks on protests in Mandalay, until even carrying his camera became too risky

by Moe, as told to Emily Fishbein

My first encounter with the military came on 4 February 2021, three days after the coup. From the back of my friend’s motorcycle, I hid my camera under my clothes and attempted to photograph soliders as they drove in trucks through my native city of Mandalay carrying their guns. I couldn’t get a good picture, however, because one of the vehicles started following us and we had to retreat.

Within days, almost the whole country had erupted in protest. I couldn’t stay still any more, and I joined the crowds on 7 February.

Monks in saffron-coloured robes with other protesters, many carrying flags, marching through a city

The first crackdown came a week later. Water cannon, smoke bombs and sound grenades sent us running in every direction. It was a totally new experience for me, and although I had tried to prepare myself, when it actually happened I felt shocked and scared.

Still, I returned to the streets the next day, as protesters gathered in front of a state-owned bank to urge its workers to join a growing civil disobedience movement and go on strike.

Map showing location of Mandalay

First, soldiers and police fired rubber bullets and air guns to disperse the crowd. Then, they went after us journalists. More than 20 people chased us with sticks and guns and tried to surround us.

I somehow managed to escape and, luckily, people from the neighbourhood pointed where to run and one man opened his door for me.

I climbed up to the rooftop of his building. Looking down on the street below, I saw soldiers and police fire catapults and air guns at fleeing crowds. I recognised four journalists among them, and watched with horror as one of them, my friend, was caught. I saw them beat him with their batons and rifle butts, and kick him; before he managed to get away, they also destroyed the video camera he had borrowed from me .

I tried to film this with my phone, but couldn’t get a clear view, and almost got hit myself by a stray projectile that pierced the steel rail of the balcony in front of me.

The protests and suppression only intensified from there. On 20 February, crowds gathered at a dockyard to support striking ship workers as soldiers and police attempted to force them back to work. I saw regime forces aim their guns at protesters’ heads and open fire with sniper rifles. I also saw the determination of the protesters, who ran for cover and fired back with catapults whenever they had the chance.

Many protesters were shot, and there was blood everywhere. Two of them were killed that day, including a 16-year-old boy.


What is the Reporting Myanmar series?


In February 2021, Myanmar’s progress towards democracy was brutally stalled when the military seized power and took control of the country.  

In the year since, the country has been plunged into violence, poverty and mass displacement as the military attempts to crush widespread resistance to its rule. 

Internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, a ruthless curtailing of freedom of speech and escalating military attacks on civilian areas have silenced the voices of people from Myanmar.  

For this special series, the Guardian’s Rights and freedom project has partnered with a diverse group of journalists from Myanmar, many working in secret, to bring their reporting on life under military rule to a global audience.

Journalists in Myanmar are working in dangerous and difficult circumstances, as the military government attacks the free press and shuts down local media outlets. Many reporters still inside the country fear arrest, with others forced to leave their homes and go into hiding in areas increasingly under attack from military forces. 

All the reporting in this series will be carried out by journalists from Myanmar, with support from the editors on the Rights and freedom project.

These are the stories that journalists from Myanmar want to tell about what is happening to their country at this critical moment.

After that, bloody crackdowns happened daily. Initially after the coup, we journalists wore helmets and vests that said Press, thinking the gear would protect us, but by early March, we didn’t dare to identify ourselves and instead focused on not standing out.

Large numbers of seated protesters with raised fists in front of Mandalay Central station

On 3 March, I saw a young woman demonstrating on the frontline of the protests, wearing a black T-shirt that said: “Everything will be OK.” I tried to photograph her, but soldiers were everywhere and I had to run.

From a nearby rooftop, I saw soldiers and police hunt down protesters as they attempted to hide. I tried to keep photographing, but rubber and steel bullets hit the wall behind me and smoke grenades exploded too. But as soon as I had the chance, I ran back on to the street.

A woman makes a three-fingered salute at soldiers from behind a makeshift barricade, on a street in Mandalay.

I saw bloody wounds and scattered brains; I also saw the body of the young woman wearing the black T-shirt. Her name was Kyal Sin, and she had been shot in the head. The 19-year-old – one of three people killed during that protest and at least 28 unarmed protesters killed across the country that day – has since become an icon of the protest movement. I photographed her funeral the next day.

Throughout these traumatic experiences, I set my mind on my responsibility to document everything. With that motivation, I was able to continue.

Young people trying to protect protesters from bullets and smoke grenades with handmade shields during a crackdown near the city centre
A crowd of protesters gather behind a makeshift barrier, just before a crackdown by the military. One flies the flag of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions
The shirt and sandals of Ye Swe Oo are laid out on a street, with a sign that reads RIP
The body of Saw Pyae Naing. A relative is crying at his feet among a crowd of people

By early April, the brutal suppression of protests had convinced many people that street demonstrations were not enough to defeat the junta. Some left the city to join the rapidly growing armed revolution, while others held early-morning guerrilla protests on narrow streets. Although they had changed tactics to avoid being shot or run over by military vehicles, soldiers and police still found ways to violently put down opposition.

I tried to go out with my camera a few times by hiding it, and then tried to document the protests on my phone, but it was too dangerous – and I couldn’t get a good shot. Finally, I stopped going out altogether.

A trail of blood on the street

It has now been nearly 10 months that I have not been able to go out and photograph. But even staying inside, I don’t feel safe at all. I haven’t been home since the coup, and I am constantly moving from place to place.

Journalists often encourage me to flee the country and report from abroad. They might wonder why I stay here in this situation. But I have never thought about leaving.

My purpose is to document what is happening here for the public and the world, and I believe that the time will come for me to go out again. I am waiting for that time. When it comes, I will resume my work no matter the risks.

  • Moe is a photojournalist based in Mandalay. He is using a pseudonym to protect his identity

  • Translated by Nu Nu Lusan

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