I met Aye Aye Win a little while ago aboard the Karaweik, a two-story barge on Kandawgyi Lake in the middle of Yangon, Myanmar. The barge, like the lake, is artificial: It’s actually a building made out of concrete and stucco, sunk into shallow waters. Inside was a buffet restaurant with a stage, and on it, extravagantly costumed dancers. I hadn’t been sitting at the banquet table for long when a woman with a kind face and elegant cheekbones asked, softly, if the seat next to me was occupied.
Then she told me some of her life story, beginning with her father’s name.
My father’s name is U Sein Win. He passed away four months ago. He was with the AP from 1969. By then he had been jailed twice in his life as a journalist, for the stories that he had done. He had his own paper, but even then, he was jailed. He was arrested again in 1988. He was an A-class prisoner, so that’s not bad.
In my father’s time and before, from ’1948-62, he saw a window of absolute press freedom. We had a very, very free and vibrant media then: Chinese, Hindi, Burmese, English papers. Many were very influential in the region. Burma was the richest country in Southeast Asia, you know. The airport was one of the best in 1950s. From that, we became the least developed in the region. Twenty-six years of socialism ruined everything.
I went to Yangon University; that’s where all my siblings and parents graduated, too. In my parents’ time, they had to do at least two years in university. My mother’s a doctor. There’s a lot of attachment to the university here. The stupidity of the regime at that time, in the sixties, seventies—it was seen as a hotbed of protest, and moved out of the city center. They think they can contain any protest, and I think it works. It did work. They shut down the university, the buildings were dilapidated, and now kids don’t understand what a university is. The new ones are out in the paddy fields; most of the students do correspondence courses. When we were young, no one wanted to take the correspondence course or study in a desolate condition. You don’t call it a university life anymore. There are no bookworms around. We lost that.
In 1979, I graduated from university here in Yangon and said to him, “Dad, I want to be a journalist.” He said, “This is absurd, this is not a woman’s job.” But he agreed to train me. How many years do you think it took? Believe it or not it took me ten years. It was a dictatorial regime then, and my father did not want me to work. I was teaching English at university after I graduated. In those days, it was still a socialist era, and unless you were a member of a party, there were few jobs and little choice.
But by ’89, I became a full-blown journalist. I think I wore my father down. I burned his ears. I think he knew he couldn’t stop me anymore. I started with the AP 24 years ago and I’ve been here throughout everything. I think that’s a privilege.
I always say, in many of my speeches: a knock on the door at midnight scares me. The last 22 years was worse, even worse. There were more journalist arrests. I was once asked questions until two in the morning, then they let you sleep. But I don’t want to sleep because my mind might not be clear when I wake up. This is a lot of stress. Sometimes they would pick us together, my husband and me. My husband was put in jail once during the peak of the monk protest. He was there about a week, in a cell with two straight backed chairs so he cannot sleep. After three days he convinced the guard to bring him a deck chair. He is a diabetic, and his diabetes went out of control. He has a diabetic ulcer on his feet, and the ulcer went gangrenous. He almost lost his foot. The authorities didn’t know how to handle him, and he wasn’t accepted at the prison hospital because he was a prisoner without a number. He said to his captors, please do something about me, my foot is in pain, so finally, they sent him back home. I took him to hospital, where he had a very intense treatment, and finally, after 3 days, the doctor said he was OK now. He didn’t have to lose his foot.
I lived with a lot of trauma, though I’ve been sleeping very well in the last few years.
The music got very loud, and dancers streamed into the spaces between the rows of people sitting at banquet tables, to dance beside them. I leaned in very close and asked her how much different the country and its ruling class was today.
I have always told everybody not to get too excited or enthused. These are the same group of people; they just changed from uniform to civilian clothing. The mindset is still the same; the sense of distrust toward the media is the same. Under the new democratic system, it’s always an open-and-shut case. They are arresting journalists again. They will charge them under criminal laws. A girl was in the eastern district, interviewing a lawyer about a corruption story. The lawyer was very angry with her questions, and she was charged with trespassing and use of abusive language, and given three months in very remote prison. A young girl. This is very harsh. This was last December. She was freed in February.
In the past, there were no trials. Even my father, in 1965, was kept three years without trial. We didn’t know where he was taken. For eight months, he was in solitary confinement. We only found him after my mother traveled around the country, asking for where he is. Now, under the present regime, if you are arrested, you are allowed to engage in defense lawyer. But in the districts, lawyers are afraid to defend. You are not given the benefit of the doubt. When you are charged, they really assume you are guilty.
Currently five journalists are in prison. They wrote a story about a chemical weapons factory. They were very junior, and were not clever in the way they put it. They very bluntly said there was a chemical weapons factory—not allegedly. No one has seen, or not seen, this chemical weapons factory. The government won’t let the media go and visit. They keep saying, they are breaking an official secret. No one can really visit the place where the factory is not supposed to be.
When my father was arrested in 1988, he was already charged with high treason, which is a death penalty. We were worried, nervous. But there was a change of head of state and he was released a month later. As soon as he got in, he went straight to his telex machine, typing all the things he saw along the way from prison to home. When he went in, the situation was very tense, out, people cheering, democracy banners. immediately he went downtown just to see the mood, the people, the crowd. He didn’t write about his release. He wrote about what he saw, from prison to home—the amazing energy, enthusiasm.
You drop into a world where you do not really have freedom, it’s unfortunate, but it’s also fortunate. Sometimes freedom, if you are free, you don’t really value the meaning of not being free.
I’ve been working in my home office for last 22 years. Now that the AP has opened a full bureau here, I will mostly be working very comfortably at home. My sources know where to find me. Three years ago there was a big fire, some explosion, that happened in eastern Yangon. I was woken up by the explosion, and three minutes later I started getting phone calls, maneuvering my team. Even getting phone calls at midnight now, it’s no sweat. It’s kind of an addiction. The challenge makes the work more interesting. Now, I’m getting a little bored. My husband used to say, we are like Bruce Willis, playing cat and mouse with the authorities. We are not doing the Bruce Willis movies anymore.
Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor in New York. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo by Anthony Tong Lee.