Where Flying a Drone Gets You Questioned by the Military

In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw remains suspicious of commercial drone pilots.

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Feb 13 2015, 10:00am

​ In early September of last year, Nyana, a Myanmar native, wanted to boost interest in his drone-focused photography and videography agency. He rented a booth at a trade show in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and economic capital, looking to pick up new clients.

For two days he buzzed his drones through the convention hall and sent them flying over the parking lot, while attendees looked on and snapped pictures of their own.

A few days later, he received a phone call. Word of Nyana's drones had piqued the interest of senior members of Myanmar's powerful military. They wanted to speak about what he was doing.

Though Myanmar has been ruled since 2011 by a nominally-civilian government, the military remains a highly-secretive and ever present organization. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known, holds a quarter of seats in the country's parliament, retains vast economic interests and is  engage​d in clashes with armed ethnic groups.

"They wanted to know everything"

After a few conversations on the phone, Nyana gave officials a demo of his drones at a park in Yangon.

"They wanted to know everything," he said on a recent day in his newly constructed home that also serves as a hanger for his fleet of around half a dozen drones. The flat roof, he said, makes for an ideal launching pad.

Nyana is one of a small but growing number of commercial drone users in Myanmar who are keen to use the small aircraft for photography and videography purposes, but find themselves in a legal grey area where the repercussions for their actions could be serious, and suspicion of their intentions is high.

Myanmar has no specific laws or policies that apply to the use of drones, but there are anti-espionage and reconnaissance regulations that prevent photographers from snapping pictures of installations that are deemed to be restricted areas.

Shwedagon Pagoda in downtown Yangon. Photo:  Myanmar Aerial Videographic Solutions

Nyana's company, Myanmar Aerial Videographic Solutions, and a few freelance videographers and photographers in Yangon primarily use their drones for commercial purposes. Resort owners who want sweeping shots of their beach front properties for promotional materials hire them, as do construction companies who want a bird's eye view of their projects to track progress.

Other clients include people eager to get a glimpse of what the view from their penthouse apartment might look like before dropping a heap of cash on a new residence in  Yangon's skyrocketing real estat​e market.

Myanmar is not unlike other countries grappling with how and to what extent to allow commercial drone usage. With its space-age nature and military connotations, the technology easily stokes fear of privacy invasion.

The issue is complicated by Myanmar's history of being less than welcoming to journalism, or photography of even the most traditional kind.

Though the country has opened significantly in the past three years and has seen its media freedoms increase since the abolishment of most censorship in 2012, the government still remains weary of prying eyes.

Last year, five employees from a local publication were sentenced to 10 years in jail with hard labor for violating a state secrets act when they reported on a military installation in central Myanmar. The charge has since been redu​ced to seven years on appeal.

A shot for a local musician's music video. Image: Myanmar Aerial Videographic Solutions

Tourists on a popular historical tour through downtown Yangon are warned not to take pictures of the building that houses the police's Special Branch unit.

Even when drone users are filming in non-sensitive areas, Myanmar's authorities can be heavy-handed. Most have stories of being hassled while working. As recently as last month a photographer had his drones seized while shooting footage of a road race through Yangon.

The Ministry of Information requested that questions regarding the use of drones for photography and videography be submitted by email. These questions were not answered.

Win Naing, the founder of Myanmar Aero Hobbyist Association, a group of enthusiasts who fly everything from planes to the quadcopters most commonly associated with the term 'drone,' said that the lack of regulations around flying are only a part of the problem.

Bringing drones and the parts needed to keep them running into the country is another hurdle. Laws prevent the import of certain radio-control equipment. Drones shipped into the country risk being seized by customs officials who often want bribes to let them pass.

To avoid this, some send drones in parts or bring them and replacement parts overland across the porous border from neighboring Thailand.

Aerial footage of Bagan from Myanmar Aerial Videographic Solutions.

According to Win Naing, this drives prices for drones and parts to two times the retail value.

With no laws on the books, Nyana said drone users like himself are "caught in the middle," a contradiction that becomes clear when looking at his client list.

Government ministries are some of his most regular customers. Ministries overseeing constitution of major infrastructure developments often hire him to shoot sleek promotional videos of otherwise mundane projects, like dams and industrial zones.

The only observers are a few grazing cows and some children from a cluster of nearby rattan shacks

Both Nyana and Win Naing, himself retired from the Myanmar Air Force, want laws that would allow for use of drones without running the risk of falling foul of authorities. To do so now, Nyana makes sure to get written permission whenever possible from local authorities. He also drafted a set of regulations on drone usage and tried to submit it to the military, but said they had lost interest.

Win Naing and his group exile themselves to an abandoned industrial development outside Yangon when flying their drones. The concrete streets sprouting weeds now serve as runways. The only observers are a few grazing cows and some children from a cluster of nearby rattan shacks.

Here he teaches proper flying techniques and mechanics, with the hopes of sending some of his younger understudies to the aerospace university where a fledgling unmanned aerial vehicles research group was recently launched.

"The government might think we are spies or something. [Drones] can do a lot of things, but we aren't interested in that," he said.

Lead photo: orange groves in central Myanmar. All images:  Myanmar Aerial Videographic Solutions