Chronicle of a Coup: February 22 & 26, 2021

Commencing his Chronicle of a Coup, Christopher J. Walker reflects on local coordination in the coup’s aftermath.

Editor’s Note: This post is the first installment in an ongoing series, Chronicle of a Coup, comprised of reports, dating from February 22 and written from within Myanmar, which together sketch one person’s first-hand account of the weeks and months following the February 1 military coup. The impressions of Christopher J. Walker (pseudonym), the primary correspondent, are occasionally paired with those of family, friends, and colleagues. Christopher’s copious reports, which are still being written, will be posted weekly, on Fridays for the foreseeable future, and are available in chronological order here.

Tea Circle is grateful to Christopher for sharing his personal account of life under military rule in Myanmar, and to Mathieu Lukas (pseudonym), his friend and amateur editor. Recognizing that Christopher’s voice is one of many, we encourage other authors to submit their own accounts, which might be written independently, or in conversation with the other letters posted here. Tea Circle is also currently accepting Burmese-language submissions, including those describing everyday experiences since the coup. We welcome others to join this ongoing conversation.

An ominous morning  |  February 22, 2021

Every morning, beginning at 5:15, itinerant pe byouk-, nambya– and rice-sellers walk through the various quarters calling out the names of the foods they are peddling. But today, not one of them is to be seen.

5:30 – By this time, those who sell from pushcarts are in the street out front preparing their carts and wares for the day’s business. This morning there is none of that.

5:45 – By now the call to morning prayers would have been broadcast from the mosque over a loud public address system. Today it’s dead quiet. Strangely, even the roosters and other birds are largely silent.

6:30 – This street serves as an outlet for our quarter. Usually, at this hour scores of private cars and taxis would be coming through. So far today I have counted five. And judging by the markings on the vehicles, they are being driven by supporters of the civil disobedience movement.

As I look up and down the street, all the parking spaces, except one, remain occupied.

The trishaw stations at either end of the street are empty; even they seem closed for the day.

There are no newspaper delivery boys.

7:00 – An elderly woman returns from shopping, but her basket is empty. Obviously the market and its shops are closed.

In the distance, not a single commuter train can be heard, but this is no longer unusual since the railway workers have been on strike for more than a week.

7:45 – I walk over to the main commercial district. Every shop is shuttered except for three that are preparing small food packets to hand out for free to demonstrators.

Many businesses in this area are protected during the night by private security guards, some of whom, ordinarily, would still be lingering around after their shifts. Today, they have all disappeared.

People are angry with the military, very angry. During the night graffiti artists again expressed their indignation in written format. This time they used oil paint, which is not so easily cleaned off.

Painting on the pavements has become commonplace. Yesterday in the late afternoon, in twelve-foot letters, a neighbourhood volunteer work party repainted a statement of their displeasure on the main road. What amazes me is that this was done in broad daylight: the painters were protected by citizens who kept the police at bay.

Image courtesy of The Panda Group, 2021.

Protesters, easily identified by their white, black or sometimes red clothing, are beginning to leave their apartments and are headed to the various local staging points before continuing to the main assembly areas.

Today, a Monday, is a day of national strikes. Offices and businesses will be closed.

A message has come that the internet will be shut down until 1:00 pm, apparently to discourage strike and demonstration organisers. But this will have minimal effect because everyone has a cellphone and information spreads quickly.

(Typically, the internet has been down from 1:00 to 9:00 am every day anyway. While it has, at times, been operating outside of these hours, service is frequently intermittent or dreadfully slow. The only reason that the junta tolerates the internet is that institutions and businesses now rely on it in order to function. This was not the case in 1988 or 2007 when there were no internet providers or cellphones, and the vast majority of people had no telephones even in their homes.)

To date the military has done everything it can to incite riots, but for the most part, people are aware of this and are not “biting.” I earnestly hope that they will continue in this way.

I just received word that protesters are being discouraged from demonstrating in the town centre because they can easily be trapped there. There is a widespread fear that starting today police and soldiers have orders to shoot at them. (I had first-hand experience of this tactic in 2007 when I and others were hemmed in by soldiers, and people were beaten and fired upon.)

9:00 – Surprise! The internet is working.

9:15 am – From my window I can see large groups of protesters advancing toward the centre of town, in spite of the danger.

Security  |  February 26, 2021

As you can probably imagine, communication has been one of the more challenging things for me in the past few weeks. At issue is my safety as well as that of those around me. These days anyone can be imprisoned for the most spurious of reasons. Friends have been of great comfort and help in keeping my communications safe.

At this point I feel reasonably secure, having several layers of security built in with multiple devices, ISPs, passwords, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. This in itself creates numerous challenges as I try to recall passwords, and which computer or device, SIM card or phone number I use for which transmission. I have tiny pieces of paper hidden all over, not just in my apartment but in other places too. And of course I have to remember where those are!

Now that I feel reasonably safe, I shall try to write more regularly and geared more to what you are unlikely to see in the media. No doubt some of you will think that I shouldn’t do this, but it is something I really must do. I promise to use the utmost caution. What I ask, in fact encourage, is that everything I send be shared with as many others as possible.

Every day I experience guilt and frustration because there is so little that I can do to help. However, one thing that I can do is try to explain what life here now is like, the struggles and fears that the Burmese face each and every day. 

Few of us know what it is like to go to bed with an intense fear that tonight trucks full of soldiers might pull up in front and take me away, or awake with the thought that I survived another night.

I subject myself to this because it is important that others know what is actually happening here and what the people of Myanmar are going through. The daily news cannot possibly cover it all. I believe that the more people elsewhere know of the situation, the more likely it is that outside assistance will come. Without pressure and support from sources abroad, the struggle here will become all the more difficult.

A simple act can be powerful. A case in point: On day two of the coup an apparently famous American singer named Rihanna posted a message on Twitter expressing her support for the Burmese people. I have no idea whatsoever who this person is, but everyone here was happy to get her message. The response and gratitude were amazing.

The Burmese desperately want the rest of the world to know of the injustices and violence visited upon them daily. They are pleading for assistance from the United Nations, the U.S., U.K., Australia and Japan. Whenever a representative of any of these countries speaks out, here it gets everyone’s attention and appreciation. Most understand that support from abroad is vital for their civil disobedience movement (CDM) to be successful.

I just got interrupted. A neighbour, a woman in her 80s, came from across the street to deliver a meal to us. She is doing this for all those in our quarter who have supported the CDM, and in memory of a person who was recently shot and killed by soldiers. I gratefully attempted to refuse her offer hoping that she would pass it on to others who are more needy and worthy, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

More than ever I have to look for the positives in all of this, and one is that people have grown closer and more patient with each other. These are incredibly sad times here. I just cannot figure out how such things can happen. Tears start to well up as I think of it. To turn my back on what is occurring is something I could never live with. I must do what I can.

People’s bravery, courage and commitment are truly incredible. Most impressive is their commitment to a nonviolent movement. I have not seen a single example of violence on the part of the CDM demonstrators, although I’ve heard that in some parts of the country it is slightly different. I have heard too that folks in other areas have suffered the worst kinds of torment and brutality, so can understand their frustration and anger. How far can people be pushed?

On one occasion I witnessed a hundred or so protesters throwing plastic water bottles at retreating police trucks, and a few times I saw bricks and stones thrown at police. Twice I saw people using slingshots. And I do see more and more people carrying sticks, but these are rather for defensive purposes. I have never seen nor heard of a single instance when anyone was struck by a demonstrator. When speaking with people I always mention the great importance of remaining peaceful, and to a person they understand and agree.

At times 5,000-kyat men have come into our quarter to cause trouble, and been caught by our new local security team. The 5,000-kyat men are spies and provocateurs hired by the Tatmadaw, the military, often felons and drug addicts freed from prison in exchange for their “services.” They are used to infiltrate the quarters to gather information, to cause diversions by committing acts of vandalism such as breaking windows and lighting fires, and to assault demonstrators in an attempt to provoke them to violence and provide an excuse for soldiers to attack. As a deal-sweetener, they are supposedly paid 5,000 kyat, about US$3.25, for each assignment.

I have seen these provocateurs detained and questioned by our local team. As angry as the local security volunteers were, they never once harmed these people in any way. I once saw the police return to their barracks apparently forgetting two of their vehicles that were left in a throng of protesters. No one laid a finger on either one. Elsewhere in the world, how long would those vehicles have lasted before they were engulfed in flames?

Groups of police or soldiers typically include a photographer. In one situation, the police left an area but their photographer somehow didn’t realize it and quickly found himself alone. A dozen CDM demonstrators surrounded and began photographing him. They didn’t hurl any abuse, nor did they in any way threaten or detain him. When they finished, they just left him to hurry off. In many other places such an opportunity would have resulted in the policeman being badly beaten, or worse.

It is now 9:45 on a Friday morning. In various quarters across town, the police have already begun arresting and shooting people. Previously, this would only happen in the afternoon or under the cover of darkness. At the same time, 100 metres from my window, thousands are beginning to march as they do every day. These are the kinds of things that I see and hear, and do my very best to report as objectively as possible. How long the demonstrators’ peaceful and commendable responses will keep up is anyone’s guess. We all have a breaking point.

I am so very exhausted. My brain is painfully full. I apologize that my writing is so poor—my sixth-grade grammar teacher would be very disappointed. I’m sorry, but I cannot bear to go through this report again. I shall send it as is, knowing that you will understand.

Now, as I finish, police have appeared in our quarter. I don’t know what they are up to. Two nights ago the local citizens took control of the offices of the oakkahta, the elected head of the quarter. Now I am told that police have retaken them. Eventually they leave, and I hear one of my neighbours say, “It’s OK. Tonight we will take them again.”

တို့အရေး တို့အရေး   Dote ayae, dote ayae.   Our cause, our cause.

Christopher J. Walker (pseudonym) has called Myanmar home for a number of years.