Christopher J. Walker reflects on the psychological repercussions of living under military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh 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, 2021, 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.
Where is the humanity? | April 20, 2021
On many days it feels as though there is no more room for sadness. Day after day the noose that has been placed around our necks is drawn tighter and tighter as we are exposed to more and greater atrocities.
Due to health issues that I have been facing, and because of a sense of utter despair, for the last couple of weeks I have not been able to send off updates. And during the past several days especially, it has been difficult for me to share much of anything. While I continue to write, I find it more and more difficult to express the intense horrors and desperation that is consuming us.
I think I speak for almost everyone here when I say that the Burmese feel intensely alone. This in no way diminishes the amazing support we have received from so many individuals. I hope that one day I shall have an opportunity to explain this to those who have made it possible for us to assist others. In fact, most of the past three weeks has been devoted to converting the generosity of our many friends into meaningful offerings of aid. Getting assistance to where it is most needed has been time-consuming, challenging and immensely gratifying.
The simple act of aiding another human being is, in many cases, now against the law, and breaking that law is punishable by three to seven years in prison, or worse. Two days ago we were asked to help someone in acute distress, which we were happy to do. In normal times this would not have taken more than ten minutes, but under the current circumstances it took the better part of a day and put several people at risk. Protesters have been shot and lie wounded in the street. Those who attempt to retrieve them are also shot. Hiding five metres away, all one can do is watch the blood drain from their bodies.
After shooting scores of people, soldiers went through the streets and piled the dead and wounded like cordwood in the middle of the road. A Buddhist monk approached the soldiers begging them to permit carers to remove the wounded so that they could be tended to. With guns pointed at the monk, they told him that he had better be on his way. In another confrontation, a woman was shot in the street and the police taunted bystanders, challenging them to come and save her.
The United Nations Security Council, or as we now say, the United Nothing Security Council, recently met for two hours. It was incredibly disheartening to watch, and offered additional proof of how out of touch the U.N. is with what is happening here. Members seemed to be reading statements as if from a menu or telephone book, completely devoid of any humanitarian sentiment. Just more words. They spoke about avoiding a future bloodbath. Like ours, maybe their internet too has been cut off and they haven’t had access to the wrenching videos and heartrending reports coming out of Myanmar. They talked about the need for action before a civil war breaks out. It’s already going on!! Intense battles between citizens and the regime are occurring every day! A few days ago and a few hours from us, armed conflict broke out between the junta and ethnic armies. Only yesterday there was another such battle.
I completely fail to understand the purpose of the U.N. It is altogether impotent.
Staying at home | April 21, 2021
Throughout the world, anytime demonstrations are called for, in the minds of organizers is always the question of how much support their actions are likely to attract. In Myanmar it is no different. But with more than 95 per cent of the people lacking internet access, one of the challenges is how to get the word out. For the same reason, it is nearly impossible to assess how successful a particular protest or campaign has been. This is all the more so because of a lack of reporting by the local media. Many have been shut down for the past several weeks, and the most prominent journalists arrested. So, support for any campaign is largely limited to the immediate area that people can encompass with their own eyes. Such is the case for me.
Recently a stay-at-home campaign was announced. But given the short notice and limited means of communication, I was skeptical how effective it would be. Once again I was proven wrong. In fact, this campaign appeared to be the most successful so far. The streets in our quarter were almost completely empty. The silence was soothing. At any given time I could see only one or two people about, and with few exceptions they only ventured out to walk a dog or bring their garbage to the collection point.
Part of the reason for the campaign’s success is that most people are consumed with feelings of helplessness. Any demonstration that calls for visible action can be extremely dangerous, so people are understandably fearful of participating. These days, if a protest on the streets is called for, the action is usually crushed before more than five or ten people can gather. Anything larger is almost always met with gunfire and deaths. Both police and soldiers are billeted in our quarter. To try to take to the streets is nothing short of suicide.
The relentless fear | April 21, 2021
I’ve been asked how I’m holding up under the current circumstances, and mostly I tend to deflect the question or laugh it off because, really, I just don’t know how to answer. I will attempt to do so now, but please understand that while I answer for myself, all or at least a part of my answer is shared by millions of others in Myanmar.
Succinctly, I am in great distress. There is no other way of saying it. I am wholly unequipped to deal with what we must face here every day. My physical condition is quite poor. My knees are shot, as well as my hips. My back is perpetually in pain. I’ve probably lost ten kilos and my head constantly feels as though it’s filled with a thick syrup. I’ve easily aged 15 years. But I accept this, and do so with gratitude.
I willingly accept this because I’m surely one of the lucky ones. I’ve not yet been tortured as have thousands of others. I’ve not been lynched. I’ve not been beaten to death by ruthless uniformed monsters. I’ve not been injured by a rocket-propelled grenade, then had my body thrown onto a fire and burned to death. I’ve not been wounded trying to protect my neighbours and then shot three more times in the head at point-blank range. I’m actually grateful for every bit of physical pain that I experience, because it serves as a constant reminder of how so many others have suffered and continue to suffer unbelievably more than I do. I am, no doubt, one of the more fortunate ones.
I have little or no energy, am forever exhausted. Those who know me will surely agree that I’ve always been a hard worker regardless of the task. For me, it’s not at all unusual to work 16 hours a day 7 days a week. I’ve never required much sleep, rarely more than 4 or 5 hours daily. All that’s now changed. I have to push myself every day merely to get out of bed. And once I’m up, I feel as though I haven’t slept. One hour later I’m ready to go back to bed. This might be due in part to the fact that my sleep these days is more like that of a dog: asleep but always extremely alert, never in a deep sleep. Maybe that’s why dogs tend to sleep so much more than humans.
In the current circumstances we never know when 30 or 40 soldiers will show up in front of our home, firing rifles and throwing stun grenades. With so many house arrests going on around us night and day, we have no way of knowing whether we’re next on their list.
As for my emotional state, I can only explain it as what I suppose is unremitting shell-shock or perhaps PTSD. It’s not at all unusual for me to stare into space for two hours getting lost in thoughts concerning the dozens of things that I should do, as opposed to what I actually can do. The same painful dramas play over and over in my mind, and then I berate myself for wasting precious time.
A few nights ago I was on my balcony when I noticed one of my neighbors, well after curfew, pacing back and forth on the street below. We all know this is extremely dangerous because he could easily be shot just for doing so. And there were soldiers just 50 metres away. As he walked in circles, I watched him swinging his arms and talking to himself. Clearly he was in great distress. I tried calling out to him, but either he didn’t hear me or he just wasn’t able to respond. My heart was breaking as I watched helplessly.
We phoned a neighbour who came to his balcony and also tried to get the man’s attention, but to no avail. I finally decided to go out and grab him, but others wouldn’t permit me to do so. Instead, we decided to watch and see whether the soldiers would come, and if they did we would start beating pots and pans to momentarily distract them while someone went out to pull the man off the street. We stood vigil for five or ten minutes, when to our great relief he finally went inside. This is just one of the many ways in which the constant and unrelenting stress plays itself out.
I’m in a constant state of fear that a message will arrive to inform us that a loved one has had their home invaded, has been snatched off the street, arrested or shot. I hate to hear the phone ring and I go completely tense when it does, because it almost always brings sadness or alarm.
And then there is the fear of planning an attempt to help someone, the fear of a knock at the door, the fear in the evening of getting up from the chair on my balcony and having a bullet slam into my back, the fear of opening the window shutter at the rear of our apartment and being shot by soldiers (as if opening a shutter somehow defies the 8 pm curfew), the fear of falling asleep before the soldiers and police have left our quarter, the fear of merely walking on the street. It goes on and on.
And then too there’s the constant feeling of helplessness, especially when writing something like this. It seems I always end up at the same place. It just doesn’t seem possible by words alone to convey what’s really taking place here. Unless you’ve lived through this day after day, week after week, and month after month, it will just not be possible to understand. I close in deep despair, knowing that once again I’ve failed to convey the plight of millions here, but I also know that tomorrow I will force myself to try again.
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.