How Australian Steve Tickner escaped Myanmar’s brutal regime

Tickner, who has lived in the capital Yangon since 2012, documented the protests after the military took power for his employer Frontier Magazine.

“In the first few weeks of the coup, the atmosphere was quite amazing. Day after day, people poured into the streets in tens and hundreds of thousands. It was like a street party… it was incredible to witness,” he says.

“I remember my editor [and I] We talked about it and I said look, everything seems great on the street. But the military, I think, was a little surprised by the reaction, and [I told him] It would take them a few weeks to build up military and police resources in Yangon. And in the end the gavel would fall. And that’s what happened.”

Police are looking for anti-government protesters after the coup.

Police are looking for anti-government protesters after the coup.Credit:Steve Tickner

Junta forces were soon gunning down protesters in the streets and dragging others away to torture. On Myanmar Armed Forces Day, March 27 this year, up to 163 anti-government protesters, including children, were slaughtered in a single bloody day.

Tickner was no stranger to conflict zones. A former photographer with the Newcastle Herald and Gold Coast BulletinHe worked in Afghanistan. In East Timor, he was the last foreign photographer when pro-Indonesian militias went on a murderous rampage after Jakarta’s independence vote in 1999.

Tickner was later at a temple in Bangkok where six anti-government “Red Shirt” protesters were fatally shot by the Thai military in 2010, and in 2013 he was a Walkley Award finalist for his images of the Myanmar military’s attack on the Kachin Independence Army, which controls large areas in the north of the country near the border with China.

However, when the crackdown in Yangon ended fatally, a ruthless, barbaric campaign to stay in power began.

Tickner covered a political rally for Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015.

Tickner covered a political rally for Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015.

One day, after helping an elderly man who had fallen in the street when protesters were being shot at, Tickner realized events had taken a frightening turn.

“We then ran back to the students and activists … and I got shot in the back of the head,” he says.

“Fortunately not through a live round. I still have no idea what it was. But I do know that it was bleeding quite profusely and I had a fairly large lump the size of an egg in the back of my head. It could have been a catapult, it could have been one of those beans[bag] rounds, something like that. After that it got pretty difficult. We all had to be on our toes.”

“I was someone they wanted to get their hands on”

Media figures faced an increased risk of arrest after the coup as the junta tried – in vain in the age of the internet and social media – to prevent news of its atrocities from reaching the world.

Dozens of mostly Burmese journalists were arrested, but foreigners were also jailed. Tickner’s American editor Danny Fenster spent nearly six months in prison, while Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota spent three and a half months behind bars before being released in November under an amnesty that also included the release of Australian economist Sean Turnell.

An injured protester is carried away during the first protests against the military takeover.

An injured protester is carried away during the first protests against the military takeover.Credit:Steve Tickner

Tickner faced additional scrutiny for having been blacklisted by the Suu Kyi government back in 2020 for “visiting prohibited places,” a reference to border areas he had traveled to for work deemed prohibited. He couldn’t just drive to the airport.

From then on, he operated without a visa and was desperate to avoid being taken to the city’s notorious Insein prison. He carefully avoided spot checks on the street and evaded police three times after being followed.

One day last June, a senior official at the hotel where he had been quietly living noticed him and raised an eyebrow at a western face. Tickner was able to escape without issue, but later found that the officer at the hotel had asked for his passport.

At the same time, he was troubled by an inflamed stomach, and three days after the collision with the police officer, his health deteriorated.

Fortunately, as it turned out, after the collapse and hospitalization, the authorities shut down.

“When I was in the Yangon hospital after emergency surgery about two days after my recovery, the hotel was searched by senior police and senior immigration officials [officers] find me,” he said. “Obviously when they got my passport … they realized I was someone they really wanted to get their hands on. In a way, I dodged a bullet by passing out and ending up in the hospital. They didn’t know where I was.”

After seeing two people die in the beds around him, he was thrown out of the hospital after 10 days – the limit for patients – unable to pay the hefty bill and could barely walk.

It was only after a group of foreign journalists in Thailand learned of his predicament and set up a fund for him that he was able to pay for the tumor removal surgery he underwent and find refuge in a monastery with the help of “unexpected friends”.

Tickner spent months there and at another undisclosed location in Yangon before finally exiting last month.

He will not reveal the mode or details of his departure, which he said was carried out with “considerable cunning and planning”. His fear is that if he reveals how he left Myanmar, it could pass weaknesses in the system to the military regime and expose those who helped him.

Tickner has lived and worked in Myanmar since 2012.

Tickner has lived and worked in Myanmar since 2012.

“It was people who were almost strangers who came in and stepped in and helped me,” he says. “That really touched me. Those were Burmese. They knew they were taking an extreme risk by getting involved with me.

“There were foreign journalists in Thailand… and in the IFJ [International Federation of Journalists]. A lot of these people I don’t even know who they were.”

“I really feel sorry for the Burmese people”

While Tickner is safe now, his health woes aren’t over. He may still need surgery. But his thoughts are still very strong with the people of Myanmar, whose plight he has reached out to ensure they are not overlooked.

“I really feel sorry for the Burmese people. They’re going through such a horrible experience,” he says. “And you can’t sleep at night because when the military shows up, you want to be wide awake. It took me a month to go back to not sleeping during the day and being able to sleep at night.

“It’s not just me. These were all my Burmese friends. Many people simply suffered from insomnia. The noise you didn’t want to hear at 12pm at night was military trucks on the road or the local dogs barking as that meant they were about to be mugged. That was her favorite time to raid houses.”

While Tickner does not appear to be returning to Myanmar anytime soon, his concern for the country’s future is such that he has put together a strategic document based on what he knows on the ground and sent it to Secretary of State Penny Wong.

But as the latest streak of military leadership enters its third year, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing shows no sign of being hunted down.


“The Burmese military…they take an oath to protect Myanmar and its citizens. But the reality is that they have never fought an external conflict in their entire history,” says Tickner. “The only people they’ve killed in decades [are] Burmese citizens. They bomb and shell villages; they blow up schools, churches; They burn down people’s houses.

“This is how the Burmese live now. They know they could be ambushed at any time. Your house could be destroyed, your children could be arrested, your grandparents could be arrested. You live with it every day. And that was my experience too. It was a shared experience. And I’m kind of grateful that I went through that.

“I’m really sorry about what they have to deal with and how they live there. But despite all of that, there is such strong support for the young people who are fighting back.”

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Callan Tansill

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