Christopher J. Walker reflects on the reality of everyday life under military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the eighth 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.
Pots & Pans | April 23, 2021
Tonight at 8 pm we began banging pots and pans as we have done every night since February 1, the day of the coup. Soldiers often come into our quarter to put an end to it, but the next night we are always back at it. As far as I’m aware, this has been the case in every quarter. In the early days of the civil disobedience movement the regime actually enacted a new law specifically prohibiting it. (I’ve forgotten the identification number of this legislation because the military has come up with so many new laws that it’s become impossible to keep track of them.) The reason given was that the noise could kill the elderly. I’m happy to report that, so far, in our quarter, no one has died from listening to the banging of pots, and, in fact, every evening many old people join in!
As we engage in this nightly activity, we do our best to monitor our street to spot the police or soldiers coming and quit banging before they arrive. If you’re caught in the act they will enter your apartment, arrest the guilty parties, and steal whatever they please. We now have to watch as best we can since the 75 to 100 trustworthy volunteers who once made up our local street security team have mostly been arrested or are in hiding. Tonight we were taken completely by surprise.
Five minutes after we began banging, out of nowhere a squad of soldiers suddenly appeared in front of our apartment, immediately forced their way into one of the safe houses across the street, and arrested three well known protesters, one of whom had become something of a local folk hero. He usually changed apartments when the banging of pots and singing of songs ended, but tonight there wasn’t enough time.
After the soldiers took them away and continued on to the far end of the street, our near end quickly resumed banging our pans. Just as quickly the soldiers returned to our end. When we went silent, the far end of the street again started banging, so back the soldiers went to the other end. This back-and-forth went on for more than ten minutes, and for the entire time the soldiers were shouting, throwing bricks and stones at windows, and shooting them out with slingshots. Eventually they moved on.
While such a game of cat-and-mouse might seem comical, what the soldiers didn’t realize was that as they were running up and down, somewhat further along the street occupants of other safe houses were sneaking away to greater safety.
As soon as the soldiers were out of sight, people became extremely angry. Many started cursing and swearing at them at the tops of their lungs, and once again the pots and pans sounded. Once more, in greater force, the soldiers returned, again breaking windows. We went quiet. After about ten minutes the soldiers, apparently tired of the game, finally left and did not come back.
While it was extremely painful and worrisome to lose three courageous young people tonight, it could have been much worse. Overall we’ve been very fortunate. For the past ten or more days soldiers and police have entered our quarter daily to arrest protesters in hiding, but had come up empty-handed every time.
In phone calls, we’ve just been told that the soldiers have returned to the main road bordering our quarter, where there are many army trucks. We now hear pots and pans echoing from that direction, along with stun grenades exploding and quite a bit of gunfire. More phone calls are starting to come in. We’ve just learned that three more students who were in hiding have been arrested.
Painful days | April 24, 2021
Today is one of those extremely painful days, a day when once again I just want to break down and weep. I know that I should try to remain strong for those around me, but on such a day it just isn’t possible.
My morning began as it always does, with updates from those around me regarding events that took place overnight. The central theme is the torture of the thousands who are being held prisoner, and in particular the physical and sexual abuse of young women—the most horrible abuse that you can imagine, maybe beyond what you can imagine. It just tears my heart out. When I’m receiving these updates I want to shout, “Please stop. Don’t tell me any more.”
For many years I have battled severe depression, and throughout that time there was one constant: I didn’t want to live any longer; I just wanted to kill myself. From a very young age and for years I sought various forms of treatment, but conventional and unconventional. Nothing worked, until many years ago I was introduced to the Teachings of the Buddha. Only then was I able to come out of my depression and the daily desire to take my own life.
Now those old thoughts are returning to attack me, but in a slightly different way. It’s not that I want to die, but rather I just don’t want to live in a world where it seems so incredibly difficult for us to care for one another as brothers and sisters. And to be clear, among “us,” I include myself.
Almost as painful is the fact that the world just watches, or at most sputters a few words that have no real meaning for those suffering here every day. We have been led to believe that our respective governments would somehow attempt to remedy the situation that has now developed in Myanmar, as elsewhere. I do understand this way of thinking, but we cannot ignore the facts of history.
Typically, and unless there is some financial or strategic advantage for them, most governments will revert to doing nothing. Or they will just make a bigger mess of things, often by instigating needless conflict. So ordinary folk can’t just stand back and do nothing, thinking that their governments will work it out. We all need to stand up and help our brothers and sisters worldwide.
But then I come back to the sad reality of it all and know that I’m just dreaming. But I will never give up my dreams. While I’ve come to an understanding of why little or nothing is being done, I don’t see how I can ever accept it. What little I can do to help the people here, I will continue to do.
Community services status report | April 25, 2021
I want to take some time to provide information about our overall situation, here, today. Understand, that despite my best efforts to give as true an accounting as possible, inaccuracies do from time to time get past me. Since all mobile services were cut a few weeks ago, it’s been difficult to get news from the internet and hence difficult to confirm certain events.
In large measure the internet remains shut down, joined recently by all the WiFi networks. The only remaining services are fibre connections, which, because of the cost and lack of availability in rural areas, very few people can access anyway. The vast majority of internet usage occurs through mobile data, and that was suspended some time back. I estimate that after the latest blockages more than 95 per cent of people are without internet.
More than anything else, the loss of mobile data has had the greatest negative effect on the steadily failing economy, because it’s so essential for conducting business. It shows how frightened the junta is about allowing people to communicate via mobile data. As desperate as they are to get the economy functioning again, the military doesn’t dare do the one thing that would have the greatest positive impact: open the internet. As for allowing fibre connections, there is no doubt that they would prefer to see them shut down too. However, to do so would probably ensure an almost complete collapse of the economy, so they have to tolerate them. But even at that, fibre internet connections remain closed for about eight hours each day. I would not be surprised to see a requirement that everyone wishing to use fibre connections first obtains a licence.
For much of the past two months and more the banks have, for all intents and purposes, been closed, because most staff support the civil disobedience movement (CDM) and don’t show up for work. Of course, no one is so stupid as to deposit money into an account; the only service customers want is the ability to withdraw. While some ATMs are in operation, they are woefully few. After locating a branch at which an ATM might be working, you have to wait in a long line hoping that the money available on that day doesn’t run out before it’s your turn. A nightmare!
People are very angry because they fear that the longer their money is in a bank, the greater the risk that their savings will be confiscated or simply disappear. A few branches of some banks have been open; however, to make use of their services you must now complete and submit an online application stating the service you require and the amount you wish to withdraw. After submitting the application, and after it has been approved, you are given an appointment, which can be as far off as a week, to appear at the bank. So many silly controls, so much nonsense.
The military has been desperately trying to reopen the banks, threatening staff in a multitude of ways, including at gunpoint, but has been largely unsuccessful. They issued a warning that all staff must return to work by April 29 or be automatically terminated. But actually the opening of the banks is nothing but a dog-and-pony show: without people and businesses depositing money, how will the banks earn a profit? Money only flows out, not in.
Another difficulty is that most people use some form of mobile banking to pay bills and receive funds, either through actual banks or similar institutions. But, of course, since more than 95 per cent of people are now without internet, this method of moving money around has essentially ground to a halt.
One of the great tragedies in all of this has been the loss of companies that loaned money to individuals, and chiefly served the poorest among the population. In the past, when the impoverished needed to borrow money, they would have to turn to black-market moneylenders who would charge them 20 to 30 per cent interest per month. (These moneylenders have done almost as much to enslave people as the current military regime has!) Several years ago licensed companies were permitted to extend small loans to those in need, but could only charge 1.0 to 1.5 per cent interest per month, which was very helpful to a great number of people. Sadly, because of current financial instability, these companies are no longer offering loans, which is particularly sad now, when the poor most need the help.
Electric services in our area are operated by government staff rather than by private electric companies. Since the early days of the coup these government employees have been on strike, refusing to work for the military regime. In the beginning we had thought that the electricity would eventually be cut since no one was around to operate, monitor or repair the system. Fortunately, courageous electrical workers have stepped up and are providing services outside of the military’s control. When something breaks down, which is a frequent occurrence, we now phone a special number and technicians quickly arrive to make repairs. When they have finished restoring power, the neighbours in the immediate area gather together and collect money to compensate them. A nice way of keeping the civil disobedience movement going.
Best of all, we have not paid for our electric usage since the last metered bill in early January, but still everyone has power! Early on, the regime announced that we would have to continue to pay for our use of electricity, at which time many customers decided to let them go ahead and turn it off. Given the lack of supply during prior regimes, people have a lot of experience managing without electricity, so they were not overly concerned. Those with gas-powered generators share them with neighbours. For cooking, which for the most part is electric, some people have reverted to more traditional methods consisting of clay or cement pots under which wood or charcoal is burned. Rainwater that is collected throughout the year is used for washing up and, if that runs short, bottled water can be used.
While everyone is prepared to return to these traditional methods, it has mostly not been necessary. Despite demands by the regime for people to pay their electric bills, that has been impossible because the meter readers are also on strike and the office staff are off supporting the CDM! Thus this revenue stream for the military has all but dried up. Another great example of civil disobedience at work.
Approximately three weeks ago the military tried to bring the railways back into service, but to do so they had to storm the railway employees’ housing compounds and force many of the workers to return to their jobs at gunpoint. Others were told that if they were not going to work, they had to vacate their government-provided housing. Happily, we heard that most workers opted to move out and since then the railroads have barely been operating. Hardly any passengers are seen and they generally consist of the poor who come into the city with hopes of earning some money as day labourers.
By and large the trains have been used to ferry police and soldiers from one area to another, but even that has been infrequent. You can always tell when soldiers are being transported in the passenger coaches because the window shades are drawn and the interior lights extinguished. While the military might think that they’re being cunning, it merely further exposes their ineptitude.
We have been delighted to see so few passengers on the trains because it keeps the military from earning the revenue they so badly need, and so they are certainly operating at a loss. A new phenomenon is that on every train the first car is now a flatbed loaded with steel in anticipation of explosives on the tracks.
Ordinarily, quite a few long passenger trains full of commuters arrive in the city each morning. Recently there have been only two short trains. One consists of three cars with just a few passengers; the other also has three cars, one of which is filled with soldiers. Today we witnessed something quite different: they were not running on the two main tracks, but rather on two alternate tracks that I’ve never before seen used for through traffic. Even stranger, the trains were headed out of the city rather than into it, contrary to the direction they ordinarily travel during morning hours. Finally, only these two trains ran throughout the entire morning. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve noticed odd occurrences along the tracks and have repeatedly heard rumblings that protesters might be sabotaging the rail lines. I think it’s quite possible that overnight the primary lines were blocked, burned or cut, but this is only a guess that I cannot confirm. We shall have to wait and see what unfolds.
Almost all outside investments have ceased due to the unstable situation. Most businesses remain closed and a majority of large companies have shut down. The building industry has been especially hard hit. I’ve heard estimates that this has resulted in the loss of more than a half million construction jobs, many of them day labour. Those businesses that are still open are principally food stores, mobile phone shops and beauty salons!
Most health care providers remain on strike despite the regime’s efforts to order them back to work. As I understand it, there are hundreds of arrest warrants out for physicians. I must also note that these same health care providers have been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their nonviolent opposition to the junta.
The regime has ordered primary schools for grades one to ten to resume classes on May 5 or June 5. (I’ve heard both dates reported.) About two weeks ago, special teachers’ training sessions were announced, to be held a week ago, and that anyone who attended would be given a promotion. In reality, teachers were forced to attend by their headmistresses, who were likely dispatched under duress to summon each individual teacher. But approximately half the teachers, many of whom are in hiding, were already on strike. What we hear locally is that parents are refusing to send their children to the state schools.
As for university students, all I can say is good luck! Past regimes have already had the unhappy experience of trying to keep the universities open during times of protest, but these institutions soon became hotbeds of resistance. During the previous dictatorship of General Than Shwe, the universities were relocated far outside the cities so that any student unrest would not spread into the nearby urban areas. It was during that time that the military instituted what they called “distant education.” For a few years I had an assistant who received his degree that way. He told me that, in an entire semester, he only had to attend an actual class a couple of times. Needless to say, his professional skills were poor, although his computer skills were very good because he was self-taught. Computer skills were never part of the academic or professional curriculum. Small wonder! Modern resistance runs on communications technology.
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.