Soe Soe Htet, 2021 winner
Soe Soe Htet, an ethnic Karenni, worked for a decade for local news outlets before joining RFA as a stringer in June 2020, based in Demoso in eastern Kayah State. It’s the first time RFA has had a videographer based in that region. She quickly distinguished herself by reporting about unpopular investment projects, like the Chinese-funded metal refinery where local people were concerned about dumping of waste; and human interest stories, such as how the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the local ‘long-neck’ Kayan tribe to switch from making a living from tourism in neighboring Thailand to tilling fields back in their native Myanmar.
She then covered November 2020 elections that were meant to usher in another five years of civilian-led rule in Myanmar. She reported on irregularities in the distribution of ballots, then on the hopes of voters. Like most of the country, she thought she was documenting the latest stage in Myanmar’s bumpy transition to democracy.
But events took a dramatic turn on Feb. 1, 2021, with a military coup that transformed the Southeast Asian nation and the life of Soe Soe Htet with it. Protests against the military takeover erupted across Myanmar and spread to her corner of Kayah State, where she covered demonstrations, interviewed protesters and reported on police defectors.
As military authorities declared martial law and cracked down with deadly violence and arrested journalists, Soe Soe Htet kept filing photos and video to RFA. Although her reports were published without her byline, special branch police began lingering around her house. She felt it was no longer safe to stay home and began staying at villages around Demoso – meaning a difficult separation from her husband, 8-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. “I reported some news when internet access was available and passed the night away from my babies, knowing junta forces would grab news media people after nightfall,” Soe Soe Htet said.
On May 19, she got a tip from a local police officer that her arrest was imminent. She alerted her husband, who fled their home with their children. On May 20, about 100 security forces descended on the house and interrogated their relatives. The forces confiscated her cameras, computer, solar-powered battery, and equipment in her husband’s household supplies and copier shop. All of the family had to sleep in the forest.
They planned to escape by car to the state capital, Loikaw, but fighting broke out between anti-junta militia and government forces, who shelled roads leading out of Demoso. Soe Soe Htet and her family spent nearly two weeks in the jungle, lacking proper food and shelter, before on June 1 they began trekking under escort by ethnic rebels to another destination — the Thai border. That journey took eight days. They had lost virtually all their possessions and relied on basic supplies from the rebels to survive. Soe Soe Htet carried drinking water and her husband carried their three-year-old daughter on his back, while their eight-year-old son trudged alongside them. They walked in the rain and forded creeks, and endured restless nights.
Finally, on June 8, they reached a displaced persons, or IDP, camp in a Karenni rebel-controlled area near the Thai border, where they could at last sleep in safety again. Soe Soe Htet began reporting once more.
Using a cell phone, she shot video stories about ethnic Karenni people uprooted by the fighting. Her stories capture the hardships and defiance of women like her. She profiled the wife of a policeman who defected and joined anti-coup rebels. She interviewed a mother in a camp about how she struggles to feed her young family with bamboo shoots and lotus leaves she gathers from the forest. And she spoke to a medic who lost her three-month-old twin daughters when she fled the fighting in April, and now provides health care to other refugees.
Soe Soe Htet faces technical hurdles. Internet is not available in the IDP camps, so she has to climb 20 minutes up a mountain to get even a weak signal. When she needs to send video files, she treks for three hours through forest to reach a Karenni village across the Thai border that has internet service. She typically brings her young daughter with her, while her husband, who volunteers on a project to supply water to the IDP camps, looks after their elder child.