As they return to their own base, Karenni Nationalities Defense Force fighters celebrate overrunning the junta base in Shadaw town, Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

Despite risk, a photographer stays at the front line in Myanmar

With many of his colleagues dead, arrested or in hiding, a freelance photojournalist insists on recording history.

May 29, 2024

Photo documentary by Khu Sam

After the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, many reporters fled the country for their safety.

Photographer Khu Sam chose to stay put. Since then, the freelance photojournalist — who is being referred to by a pseudonym for security reasons — has traveled the country documenting the spiraling conflict and its human costs.

KNDF and People’s Defense Force fighters – along with medics from the Free Burma Rangers – gather in the jungle before attacking a junta base in Hpasawng township in Kayah state, Jan. 22, 2024.

From Kachin state in the north to Tanintharyi in the south, almost no part of Myanmar has been spared from fighting. More than 50,000 people have died, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a global conflict monitor, and an estimated 2 million have been displaced.

Across Myanmar’s villages and towns, more than 80,000 homes have been torched, according to the NGO Data for Myanmar. Healthcare, the economy and schooling are all in shambles; and the war rages on.

A new batch of KNDF fighters marches during their graduation ceremony after completing two months of training in Kayah state, Feb. 7, 2024.

“A lot of people are traumatized. Wherever I go, the children are really traumatized, they are really sad. I see that every time,” Khu Sam told Radio Free Asia. “When they see a plane or hear the sound of the plane they are shaking, they start saying ‘we need to hide.’ … It’s like a nightmare.”

Civilians flee Hpasawng town as fighting between junta forces and opposition fighters intensifies in Kayah state, Feb. 29, 2024.

Khu Sam was on the ground in Yangon on Feb. 1, 2021, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government, imprisoning the nation’s top leaders and installing the generals once again.

When large scale protests broke out in the days and months that followed, soldiers reacted brutally, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands more. Among those to die was a photojournalist friend of Khu Sam’s, who was killed while trying to photograph a demonstration.

Free Burma Rangers gather for their morning briefing before heading to support alliance fighters in Hpasawng, Kayah state, Jan. 24, 2024.

Journalists like Khu Sam have faced particular scrutiny. At least 176 have been arrested and four killed since the coup, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Khu Sam moved house every few months to evade arrest; eventually, leaving Yangon made the most sense.

Free Burma Rangers medics carry an anti-junta fighter wounded by a landmine during an attack on a junta base in Hpasawng, Kayah state, Jan. 23, 2024.

“When I arrived and when I started shooting [pictures] inside the revolution area, I felt like I’m safe for the moment. I’m safe from being arrested or targeted by the junta,” he said.

“But on the other [hand] they’re bombing — not only on the front lines but bombing villages, hospitals, schools, everything … basically no place is safe anymore in Myanmar after the coup.”

Free Burma Rangers medics treat wounded KNDF fighters in the jungle near Hpasawng town in Kayah state, Jan. 23, 2024.

Despite the danger, for Khu Sam and his handful of remaining colleagues, covering the conflict has become like a compulsion. They lack body armor and sometimes resort to wearing motorcycle helmets for protection. Khu Sam is down to one lens; some colleagues lack even a spare battery.

“All Myanmar photographers are really struggling for the moment,” he said. “We know it can be dangerous and we can be hit but we don’t have any choice, so we just go there.”

Fighters with KNDF carry a wounded soldier during their battle to overrun a junta base in Hpasawng, Kayah state, Jan. 23, 2024. Severely injured fighters were transferred to hospitals from jungle medical units in rebel-controlled areas.

In these photos from February and March of this year, Khu Sam presents the front lines of a conflict that shows little sign of abating. Haggard families trudge past a rebel’s car as they escape yet another bombing; medics treat a gravely wounded soldier; fighters duck gunfire inside a temple. But the photographer also captures moments of humor and grace: young fighters smile as they splash in a river; a soldier cradles a pet monkey like a child.

This image contains content that some viewers may find disturbing. Click to reveal at viewer's discretion.
The remains of a junta soldier lie in a captured junta military base on a hill in Shadaw town, Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

“For me, this is a history — a history of the country as well as a people's history,” he wrote in a text. He and his colleagues “are trying to record the changing history, so that the people know about real news,” he explained.

KNDF fighters cautiously run toward a junta base in Shadaw town during a dayslong attack in Kayah state, Feb. 2, 2024.

This feeling helps him push on. Even today, each time Khu Sam goes to the front lines, he says a little mantra to comfort himself.

“I just pray to myself: Okay today maybe I’m going to die but my last photo is going to be what’s happening right now.”

The body of a junta soldier lies on a sentry point of a junta military camp overtaken by anti-junta fighters in Shadaw town in Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

KNDF fighters secure a Buddhist pagoda in Shadaw town after overrunning a junta military camp based in the complex in Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

This image contains content that some viewers may find disturbing. Click to reveal at viewer's discretion.
KNDF fighters walk past the remains of a junta soldier after overruning the junta base in the compound of Shadaw town’s Buddhist pagoda in Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

A KNDF fighter secures the entrance to a junta base at the Shadaw town pagoda in Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

KNDF fighters celebrate the capture of a junta base in Shadaw town, in Kayah state, Feb. 14, 2024.

At their own base, KNDF commander, 27-year-old Khu Reedu, center, and fellow fighters celebrate the capture of a junta base in Kayah state, Feb. 15, 2024.

KNDF fighters and Free Burma Rangers relax in Kayah state, Feb. 24, 2024, before deploying to the Shan state border.

Produced by Gemunu Amarasinghe
Written by Abby Seiff
Visual editing by Charlie Dharapak, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
© 2024 Radio Free Asia
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