Chronicle of a Coup:  April 29 & 30, 2021

Christopher J. Walker reflects on Gen Z’s audaciousness and the banking situation under the repression of Myanmar’s military.

Editor’s Note: This post is the tenth 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.

A magic show  |  April 29, 2021

Yesterday I watched what I believe was one of the best visual recordings that I’ve seen since the February 1 coup. Before explaining, I’ll take a moment to provide some background.

From the beginning, many millions of Burmese took to the streets to express their utter disdain for the military takeover. This happened not once or twice, but day after day after day for more than a month. Soldiers and police were ordered out in large numbers, and protesters were subjected to severe beatings in the streets. Yet they returned every day. Later, to quell the uprising, the junta’s brutality escalated into tear gas, arrests, kidnappings and detention. Still the people came out. Then the punishments inflicted became truly barbaric: torture, gang rape, targeted and indiscriminate shootings, including the killing of children, wounded protesters thrown onto fires, and numerous other atrocities. And when that proved insufficient to extinguish the protests, the soldiers brought out their hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and other explosives, mortars, tanks, and in Karen State, jet bombers. All, I must emphasize, captured on cellphone cameras for the world to see.

A couple of days ago, two memos were leaked from the highest levels of the military to a national newspaper. They ordered generals to annihilate the “rioters,” the junta’s disingenuous characterization of the protesters. Having learned about this, demonstrators still find ways to let their feelings be known and publicly express their condemnation of the coup. In action, these are by far the bravest protesters I have ever seen, every moment at risk of being shot and killed—women and men alike.

That is the background. Now to the incredible recording, about which I was told nothing in advance; I just hit the play button. The footage begins with a camera filming what, to all appearances, is a typical urban street in our area. People are walking up and down the sidewalks. Some are waiting in line at shops, others are window-shopping. There is nothing at all unusual and not a thing that catches my attention.

All of a sudden someone runs to the middle of the street and starts jogging in place. An instant later, from the other side of the street, a second person jumps to the middle and starts doing the same. And then another and another and another, and before I can begin processing what is happening the street is filled with people jogging in place, and I’m wondering what the heck is going on.

Like a school of fish, they all begin simultaneously jogging together toward the left of the camera’s view, where they come to an intersection. From either side of the intersection scores of people flood onto the main road. 

And from beyond the intersection, further down, hundreds more are arriving. They all abruptly turn in unison and head back down the main road at a slow jog. Suddenly they are waving flags and four-metre-long vinyl protest banners. Before I can wrap my mind around what I’m seeing, more signs are quickly being pulled from backpacks and shoulder bags and displayed. The people continue to jog surrounded by black-shirted guides moving them along and directing them forward.

Because so many things are happening so rapidly it’s difficult for me to make sense of what is actually unfolding. Then the camera catches the apartments lining each side of the road, and on the balconies above I see people clapping heartily. It’s only then, as the protesters head on down the road and filming ends that I realize I’ve been watching the beginning of an amazingly co-ordinated demonstration.

What a performance! Like a magician’s illusion: while I was focusing on one spot, the real action was happening in another, and when I turned my attention there, the action had already moved elsewhere. A few seconds ago people were standing and walking in the street as usual, and what happened evolved so quickly that my mind couldn’t quite keep up with it. People appeared out of thin air. Out of nowhere, banners and flags were unfurled and hoisted, black shirts wondrously materialized. It was breathtaking, the best magic show that I’ve ever seen.

I was told that, right after the demonstrators cleared the first road, they coursed up and down adjacent streets. Fifteen minutes later when police and soldiers arrived, hundreds of people dispersed in all directions, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared. As far as I know there was not a single arrest—a next-to-impossible feat given that police and soldiers are stationed everywhere. These days it’s almost impossible to assemble a group of five people before the soldiers are on them. Later we were able to see similar recordings of other protests that materialized in many other neighbourhoods in much the same way.

In my opinion, this film should win an Academy Award for Best Choreography. Generation Z, you’re simply the best! Thank you so much.

P.S. After finishing writing what’s above, I stepped out onto my balcony to look around and noticed someone whom I know, apparently loitering at one end of our street. I turned my attention to the other end and saw a couple of guys standing in front of a food vendor, but something about their alert postures caught my attention. I immediately had a feeling that something was going on.

Next I heard people leaving the safe house in the apartment below, but they were outside my field of vision. Farther off, at the top of the street, I saw a figure walking toward me whom I definitely recognized, someone I fondly refer to as “the Mouse.” He’s been very busy in our quarter from the first day of the coup, and is one of the few active protesters who hasn’t been arrested or fled. I love watching him because, like a mouse, he moves his eyes left and right without turning his head, and his feet are always in motion. He stopped at the safe house below me, but from my balcony I could only see his shoulder.

Then from the apartment next to mine, I saw one of the leaders of our local protesters exit and go down to join the others in front of the safe house. It became obvious what was taking place. It has now become very dangerous for them to have indoor meetings because all too often the police and soldiers somehow come to know, probably through informers, where they are. So rather than risk being trapped in an apartment or on a rooftop, they’ve obviously decided that it’s safer to meet in the street, where they have their own security posted far enough away so that if soldiers appear they’ll have sufficient warning and time to flee. After 15 minutes the meeting was over and everyone disappeared.

A run on banks  |  April 29, 2021

Embed from Getty Images

The banking system, at least to my untrained eye, is now on the brink of collapse. The regime has invented various schemes to raise money, but nothing seems to be working for them—except stealing money from people’s personal accounts under the guise of fines for participating in the civil disobedience movement (CDM) or, using the same lame excuse, from nonprofit foundations. 

General Min Aung Hlaing ordered all banks to open by today, but even that it is a disaster. Those few branches that have opened are understaffed because most of the employees support the CDM and refuse to return to work.

People are desperate to get their savings out of the banks, but it’s next to impossible. Customers have to undergo a week-long online application process to withdraw money within a bank. Consequently, people have turned to the ATMs, which cannot possibly meet the demand of the throngs trying to retrieve their savings and get them safely into their own hands. At some ATMs lines have been as long as 250 metres. I saw a video recording of hundreds of people lining up at an ATM and the queue was not moving.

Police line the roads cursing at customers and threatening to shoot them if they act out in any way. Imagine lining up peacefully at an ATM and threatened with being shot!

Myawaddy TV News, one of the junta’s mouthpieces, announced today that the government would soon be issuing new 20,000-kyat notes. (The largest now in circulation is a 10,000-kyat note.) This latest idea is, of course, a recipe for uncontrolled inflation and certain disaster. Also today, those who receive pensions from the government were informed that their payment will be late this month. No reasons were given and no dates provided for future payments. 

Some of the foreign-owned factories that reopened this week no longer intend to pay their workers in cash—they are handing out ATM cards! Employees walked out. Other factories announced that they will close again in May. In any case, exporting anything is next to impossible. Most businesses that service the shipping industry are closed because their staff are out in support of the CDM. A newspaper article published yesterday reported that even the customs offices are closed, but I have not been able to verify that.

Of course, in all of this the poorest are hurt the most.

Money matters  |  April 30, 2021

In Myanmar, there’s a long history of people stashing money in their homes or elsewhere, rather than entrusting it to a bank. Even during the five years of quasi-democracy, people remained skeptical about keeping money in banks, except for whatever amount they needed for mobile-data transactions. 

I mentioned previously that one of the problems people now face is withdrawing money from their own bank accounts. Those with ATM cards can withdraw small amounts, but they never know on which day which ATMs will be operating. If they can find one that is, they have to endure long lines, and often the money peters out before the queue does. Those wanting to withdraw without an ATM card must submit an online application stating what specific banking service they require and other relevant information. After the application is reviewed and approved, they are given an appointment by the bank. The whole process can take a week or more. If the application is denied, no response is given, leaving one to wonder.

HAPPILY, all that has now changed! Last night on the news the military regime made an encouraging announcement regarding the banking system. We learned that the junta understands that people might be hesitant to keep money in their homes lest it be stolen. So, to relieve the citizenry of their enormous financial angst and to help stabilize the economy, the junta has trotted out a new program: if you open a new bank account starting on May 3 and deposit money into that account, you will enjoy the luxury of being able to withdraw your money whenever you wish. If you believe that, then I know of a bankrupt business that you can invest in at a bargain-basement price.

This offer does not apply to accounts opened before May 3. Of course, everyone is out on the streets today, rejoicing at this news. Oops, my mistake. I was just told that those are protesters. Well, all I can say is that General Min Aung Hlaing was certainly correct when he announced a few days ago at the ASEAN meeting that the situation in Myanmar is rapidly improving. What an irrepressibly optimistic guy!

In reality, the junta is hemorrhaging money and trying every possible means to attract it. 

One comical gambit was the announcement of the reopening of the national lottery. New rule: if you are one of the lucky winners you can collect 60 per cent of your winnings now, with the balance to be paid at some unspecified later date. Good luck with that. I have not seen a single lottery-ticket seller in months.

We have heard numerous accounts of soldiers being paid weeks late or not at all. The military claims that the disruption caused by protesters is the reason the troops have not gotten their money. Soldiers use this bogus excuse to justify breaking into people’s homes and stealing whatever’s of value. In fairness to the soldiers, I respectfully request that the protests stop so they can be issued the money that they have earned and so rightly deserve for their excellent work terrorizing, arresting, kidnapping, beating, torturing, gang-raping and killing the civilians whom they are supposed to protect.

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.