Christopher J. Walker reflects on the everyday emergencies erupting in Myanmar because of military repression.
Editor’s Note: This post is the sixth installment in an ongoing series, Chronicle of a Coup, comprised of reports written from within Myanmar by Christopher J. Walker (a pseudonym), a longtime resident, which together sketch one person’s first-hand account of the weeks and months following the February 1 military coup. A selection of his reports will be posted weekly, every Friday. A chronological archive is also available here.
Tea Circle is grateful to Christopher for sharing his personal account of life under military rule in Myanmar. Recognizing that his voice is one of many, we encourage other authors to submit their own accounts.
How to Explain | April 17, 2021
Every day I feel compelled to monitor the international news to see how circumstances here are perceived abroad. I am often frustrated because, while it is true that the situation in Myanmar receives a good deal of coverage, none of the articles or reports successfully convey the extreme gravity of the situation.
We are constantly in shock, incredulous that so much of the world is sitting back watching these events unfold and doing so little, or nothing at all, about it. Partly I understand, because unless you have actually lived through something like this and experienced the attendant emotions, then your comprehension is merely intellectual. If there were some way that I could convey not only the events, but also the feelings that coexist with these events, then no one would ignore the situation. Everyone in the world would jump up and shout, “STOP! Enough is enough! We cannot accept this kind of brutality for another minute.”
Even as the media fail, so in large part do I. Each time I sit down to write, I try my best to convey not only the events as they occur but, equally important, the emotions that people have to face and deal with every single day. If I cannot convey those feelings, then you will not be able to feel what we are going through.
How can my words possibly reach into the depths of another being? Pulling at your heartstrings is not enough; I would, metaphorically, have to tear your heart out. Even that would probably be inadequate.
How can I begin to describe the feeling of having to crawl through my apartment on my hands and knees because soldiers outside are shooting at anything that moves, and throwing stun grenade after stun grenade?
How do I adequately explain my friend’s terror when she was trapped beside a drainage channel because police and soldiers had burst into our quarter unnoticed?
How to explain my alarm when all I could do was send her text messages encouraging her to be strong?
Or what it was like to walk out my door and have three high-powered sniper bullets scream by my head?
Or what it feels like to watch helplessly as women and children flee frantically down the street, their eyes wide with panic, as they try to escape the oncoming police and soldiers who are tossing stun grenades and firing rifles and tear gas canisters?
I cannot even describe the lesser fear that I am experiencing at this very moment, not knowing whether soldiers will appear out of nowhere before I have time to whitewash my data, close my devices and conceal them. I am behind two steel gates and a solid wooden door, but if they cannot force an entry they might use a grenade to gain access. They have already done so elsewhere.
Because I cannot adequately describe the feelings attached to any of this, I wonder again, What is the point? Knowing that my words alone are not enough, I do what I do almost every day: I give up, feeling guilty and in total despair. Yet, if there is the tiniest chance at all that I can be of help, then I know that tomorrow I must try again.
The package | April 18, 2021
Today I had to pick up a package in a neighbouring township, a 15- or 20-minute drive from my apartment. I can’t mention why, but I had to take delivery, which for safety reasons is something that I had not done previously. Before leaving, I carefully checked with others to try and get a sense of the situation along the roads that I would have to travel. From what I could ascertain, the circumstances seemed favourable, which, especially for me and for the driver, was a huge relief.
This was my first opportunity, in weeks I believe, to go beyond the boundaries of our quarter. I was shocked by what I saw, or more accurately, what I didn’t see: there was not a single soldier or policeman along the entire route. I was amazed, confused and relieved. It was not in the least what I had expected.
At our destination was the parcel. I was shocked to see that it was much larger than we had assumed, certainly of a size that could not easily be hidden in a car. We had no choice but to place it on the floor between my legs. We were not terribly concerned, however, because of the absence of police and soldiers on the way.
Off we went. As we got closer to home we began to see more and more troop transports, but since we were only five minutes away we didn’t think too much about it. I was looking out the side passenger window when the car suddenly lurched and we were in a full-speed U-turn. I only had a second to look, but that was long enough to see that in the short interval since we had last passed that way a heavily manned, random roadblock had been established! Neither the driver nor I said a word. I could see that he was worried and in deep concentration trying to figure out an alternate route home. We were so close!
Confining ourselves to smaller roads, we were dismayed to encounter troop transport vehicles that were nowhere to be seen when we had departed half an hour ago. We knew that we had one more unavoidable hurdle to clear, another checkpoint where soldiers are always posted. The driver remained cool, but I was in a sweat. I was desperately trying to think of how I might hide the package, but was unable to come up with an idea other than to keep it at my feet. As we approached the blockade, now only 100 metres ahead, we were relieved to see that vehicles were not being stopped by the military. Strangely, unlike the six or eight soldiers typically on duty, today there were only two. To our great relief we passed through and, keeping to side streets, eventually made it back safely.
Later we were amazed to learn that roadblocks had been established in many areas throughout the city, and every car was being stopped and thoroughly searched from front to back and underneath. We heard that drivers who tried to avoid these checkpoints by turning around were photographed and even shot at. In one instance, when shooting at a fleeing car, the soldiers accidentally hit a pedestrian on the sidewalk. We heard that she died, but I cannot confirm this.
We don’t know what exactly the soldiers were looking for, but they must have been alerted to some kind of prohibited goods, possibly anti-coup objects or material, being smuggled into the city. For us it was a valuable lesson. Because of the size of the package, I should never have accepted it. In future I shall have to be much more careful.
Anything but simple | April 19, 2021
The simple act of giving is now anything but simple. Burmese people are well known for their generosity, but during these times it’s dangerous to give money, shelter or even food to others. A couple of days ago a rice seller in the local community was trying to help his neighbours. To every person who purchased a kilo of rice he would give another half kilo. People were very happy about this, but by the end of the day government officials had learned what he was doing and the shop owner was promptly arrested. In another instance, local officials quickly confiscated food from some young men who were trying to donate it to residents in an impoverished area. The donors were told that if they wanted to donate anything they had to give it to government officials who would then distribute it as needed. Of course that would never happen because the donation would surely be stolen along the way.
Like many others, we have been trying to help those in need, but beyond the obvious risks it is very challenging and can take a great deal of time to organize in order to ensure our own safety and the safety of those receiving our donations. For a variety of reasons it is even more challenging to get assistance to the neediest areas, in part because of a larger military presence there.
Recently we spent three days plotting how to go about donating rice in a very poor quarter. Two days before we were to execute the plan, a lot more military checkpoints were set up throughout the city, substantially increasing the risk involved in accomplishing our goal. After discussing among ourselves,we decided to go ahead, as we had taken a lot of time to coordinate everything and we didn’t want to reschedule. It turned out that we got a break because on that day the checkpoints were unmanned. The soldiers and police had turned their attention from the heavily travelled main routes and had gone into local areas.
As planned, the rice was delivered to several waypoints and from there it was to be further distributed to local residents in several different quarters. We had direct contact only with a half dozen confidants whom we knew individually and were certain could be trusted. Nonetheless, fear coexisted with that trust.
When we met them, what we heard was heart-wrenching. People have very little money. They are unable to afford bags of rice and are forced to purchase by the cupful. To stretch what they have, they make the rice into a porridge. In addition to stories about the lack of food and financial problems, there were also reports of those who have been beaten, wounded and killed during the recent demonstrations, and of those who were forced to flee their homes. Such sadness, and we don’t see an end.
After five or six hours, we had almost completed what we wanted to accomplish and started for home. We were about to make one last stop along the way, but because of a large presence of soldiers in that neighbourhood we were forced to abandon the delivery and so continued on our way without incident. Hours later we began to receive phone calls from those who had redistributed the rice among the various other quarters, and were brought to tears by what we heard. Those who had received the rice were extremely grateful, and most surprising to me was how happy they were to receive a good quality rice, which many rarely eat even in the best of times.
But the most touching anecdotes were from those who had risked their own safety to distribute the food to individuals. We had reminded them that while their own situations were difficult, many others lived in circumstances that were desperate. We had explained to each of those to whom we gave large quantities of rice that it was now their rice, to do with as they wished, and that when they shared it with others it would be their donation, not ours. What we later heard from each of them was how happy they had been to be able to donate to their neighbours in such a way, as they had never had an opportunity to do so in the past. It was all incredibly moving. I only wish that those who had originally made it possible could have heard this for themselves. All of us thank them very, very much.
We have already begun to plan additional deliveries.
Tears and barbecued chicken | April 19, 2021
For those of you who have never visited Myanmar, it is worth mentioning the street vendors who play an important role in providing food for people. Some bring large bowls of beans, noodles, fish, chicken or other products on their heads and sit at the edge of the roads selling from them. Others shoulder flattened bamboos, hanging at both ends of which are snacks and other food items, often along with a couple of small plastic stools. They too stop along the roads to sell, and the stools provide customers a place to sit while they indulge in whatever they’ve purchased. And then there are those with pushcarts who go about the neighbourhoods calling out the names of the fruits, vegetables, flowers and other goods that they have to offer.
Not far from my place a young boy of about 13 who sells barbecued chicken always occupies the same spot along the road. He puts small pieces of chicken on a skewer and barbecues them on the spot over a charcoal fire that he tends in a small brazier. Since the coup, he’s been absent from the street because it’s not been safe to sell there. Soldiers and police steal the food or attack the vendors with clubs, breaking everything that they can.
A couple of days ago, however, the boy made an appearance on the road with his chicken for sale, no doubt in hopes of earning some money to help his family. A local woman saw three soldiers standing around the boy. His hands were trembling and it was obvious that he was terrified. The woman watched and after five minutes or so the soldiers moved off, but only about ten metres away. The woman approached the boy and was deeply saddened to see how afraid he was, with tears streaming down his cheeks.
She asked what the soldiers had said that had frightened him so, to which he responded with even more tears, “Auntie, I was so afraid that I didn’t understand anything they said.” And he began to cry even harder. “Please stay here with me, Auntie,” he begged her, “until they leave. Because I’m of Indian descent, these Burmese soldiers treat me even worse than they do others.”
With a breaking heart and despite the risk to herself with the soldiers still nearby, she took a seat and ordered some of his barbecued chicken. With trembling hands and tears smudging his face, he prepared the skewers and placed them over a cooler area of charcoal so that the chicken would take longer to cook.
Unable to wait any longer for fear of completely burning the chicken, the child took them from the fire, wrapped them up and handed them to the woman. After she had paid the boy he remained visibly distressed with the soldiers still lingering close by. Before the woman could walk away he pleaded with her once again. “Please, Auntie, let me give you a present for your dog.” Understanding what he meant—the woman has no dog—she sat back down while the young boy began to slowly clean the chicken bones for “her dog.” Soon thereafter the soldiers finally quit the area. The woman rose and simply said, “Son, please take care of yourself.”
This is merely one of many brief but moving anecdotes that will ordinarily never reach you, but is typical of what we hear nearly every day. Similar poignant stories are repeated thousands of times and spread throughout the country.
Christopher J Walker (pseudonym) has called Myanmar home for a number of years. He thanks his friend and editor Mathieu Lukas for his assistance in preparing these reports for safe and timely publication.