Christopher J. Walker contemplates some of the changes in Myanmar brought about by COVID-19 and military repression.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-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.
High-priced free eggs | August 1, 2021Embed from Getty Images
Today my anger is getting the better of me. Near the office of the unpopular, military-appointed, ward administrator, his nephew and some accomplices are preparing to hand out free eggs. Ordinary folk standing by the road and giving away food would not be tolerated: they would be quickly shut down and likely arrested. We have been able to give food away, but our attempts are always discreet and occur only when we know that the police and soldiers are elsewhere.
I can tell as I watch these guys put six eggs in plastic bags that something is not quite right. They seem uneasy about something, but exactly what I’m not sure. Four policemen arrive on the scene with rifles at the ready, apparently assigned to guard these purveyors of eggs. How bizarre that they need to be defended by paramilitary police! When we donate food we have learned to fear the very same police who are now protecting these guys dispensing eggs.
Ten minutes later it begins to rain and they are forced inside. Five minutes after that the police leave, each with bags of eggs that were intended for the residents of our quarter.
None of this surprises me. Their blatant and callous disregard for the people, evidenced by the atrocities that they continue to visit upon them, is stored deep in every person’s memory, not to be forgotten anytime soon or even by future generations. They know well these wolves in sheep’s clothing.
By some inexplicable and severely faulty reasoning, the military regime seems to believe that six free eggs are going to win hearts and minds. What makes me angriest is that while with one hand they give away a few eggs, with the other they steal the nation’s freedom, its dignity, and everyone’s basic human rights.
Never did we imagine | August 4, 2021
May, my roommate, just returned home. Two hours ago the phone rang and she ran out to tend to an elderly couple nearby who had a difficult night with COVID-19. While she is neither a doctor nor a nurse, she has gotten sufficient experience over the past few months to offer rudimentary medical assistance, and has now graduated to administering injections due to the difficulty of finding a medical practitioner willing and able to make a house call.
Never did we imagine that our future would be anything like this, but with hospitals and quarantine centres full, and the military weaponizing medical relief by attempting to control medicines, oxygen and oxygen generators, we have been left no choice but to acquire new skills to combat the virus that is ravaging our quarter and taking numerous lives every day.
But it’s not only the past few weeks that have exposed us to the unimaginable, it’s the entire six months since the coup when a few generals thought that enslaving and terrorizing 55 million people was a worthwhile undertaking if it meant that they could preserve their wealth and power.
We’ve been forced to crawl on our bellies through the apartment while soldiers outside randomly fired automatic weapons into people’s homes. I’ve felt the breath of bullets from a sniper’s rifle pass within centimetres of my head. We’re familiar with that chilling fear that comes when soldiers try to force the twin metal gates at the entrance to our building. May has hidden beneath a counter at a shop and helplessly watched the boots of soldiers rampaging by a few metres away. I know the feeling of helplessness texting her to stay put and stay strong. We’ve come close to panic trying to get medical attention for a young demonstrator shot twice in the back. We know too well that boiling rage and impotence that comes from watching our neighbours beaten while being arrested for the crime of banging on a pot. And we’ve seen the bodies of the many who’ve died of asphyxiation because the military is hoarding ordinary cylinders of oxygen.
What we don’t know, however, what we haven’t witnessed, are the horrors of the tens of thousands of others that go well beyond what we’ve experienced. We have not seen bombs fall from the sky, indiscriminately killing innocent, unarmed civilians. We have not been strafed. We have not felt artillery shells detonating metres from the hole in which we sheltered our children. We have not had to dig trenches to lie in. We have not wept alongside others after our village was burned and our loved ones scattered. And we have not yet seen firsthand the tears of a child appealing to her dead mother to rise up.
Of late, Burma’s struggle has largely fallen from the news. Now and then there’s a short report, quickly read, as if it’s all in the past, with no realization that each of the horrors noted above is repeated every day as people battle with those who are determined to oppress and enslave them. Every day they continue to resist their persecutors in every way possible. They bang pots and pans. They travel from township to township to find illicit cylinders of oxygen for those who gasp for breath. They queue up at pharmacies in search of the most basic medicines. They do what they can for the thousands hidden away in safe houses. And they await news of those in prison, who were seized while pursuing their stolen freedoms.
Travelling to safety | August 7, 2021
This morning, May and I walk to the home of the elderly couple, down with COVID-19, whom she has been helping by offering rudimentary medical treatment, home-cooked meals and her comforting presence. Along the way, an ambulance slowly passes with its lights on, but the siren is sadly silent because the emergency passed along with the patient. Another local resident taking a final drive.
May ascends the stairs to the couple’s apartment and I wait nearby on a wooden swing engraved with memories. She and I use to spend hours sitting here talking with our neighbours. So much has transpired since then. Now I sit alone and try to make sense of it all. Why this misery that I see all around me? How has everything gone so terribly awry? Where did we make the wrong turn, abandoning the promises of a braver and better world?
While I contemplate, close to where I sit a friend steps from her apartment carrying a pot and a sheaf of coloured papers, and kneels at the edge of the street. While her husband, young son, and niece stand behind her with broken eyes, she builds a little fire in the pot. I watch her remove pages from a yellow notepad and offer them to the beckoning flames. Sometimes, before they disappear, she stops to read what’s written on the paper—best wishes, shared memories, words of loving-kindness. It’s a sombre but soothing memorial.
With the blaze rising higher, she adds gold and silver paper printed with geometrical designs, currency for another world, another life. Next come larger pieces of paper in the form of an ancient or mythical boat.
With comforting words of love and memories from her daughter, gold and silver paper to pay her way forward, and a vessel to take her across a heavenly river into her next life, our friend’s Chinese Buddhist mother now has what she requires to travel on the other side. She is free of the virus that only two days earlier stole away her breath. She is safe from the soldiers who commit atrocities on her street. She is away from the suffering they leave in their wake. She is surely in a better place.
May returns from tending to the elderly couple. As much as I would like to keep passively participating in this hushed requiem playing before me, there are still those in this world who need to be thought of and cared for. We walk past the pot of diminishing flames, bow our heads, and softly smile at our friend. With understanding eyes that forestall any need for words, she gently returns our smiles. As the flames disappear I wonder where her mother is now, and think that “somewhere” might be the best explanation. We continue on our way, grateful to have those who still need us.
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.