Christopher J. Walker reflects on the everyday emergencies erupting in Myanmar under military rule.
Editor’s Note: This post is the second 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 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 Christopher’s voice is one of many, we encourage other authors to submit their own accounts.
Our offices, our cause | February 27, 2021
Myanmar is divided into states and divisions that are subdivided into townships. Townships are further broken down into wards or quarters, each with an assigned name and number.
The highest-ranking government official in every quarter is the ဥက္ကဋ္ဌ, or oakkahta, an elected position with a five-year term. In our quarter an election for a new oakkahta was to be held soon, but it was cancelled in the aftermath of the coup. Instead, current oakkahtas who refused to support the military regime were removed from office and replaced by coup supporters, mostly retired military personnel.
In our quarter, as well as in most others, people were outraged by this and have been protesting by refusing to recognize the regime-appointed oakkahta. A few days ago police arrived in our quarter and posted a sign at the oakkahta’s offices indicating, essentially, that the offices were now under the jurisdiction of the military. New locks were installed on the doors, which further inflamed the situation. Thirty minutes after the police left the signs were torn down.
Later that afternoon about 300 to 400 residents marched peacefully through our quarter shouting in unison that they would never accept these changes, that it was the constitutional right of citizens to choose their own government officials. The march ended in front of the newly installed oakkahta’s apartment where the crowd called for him to resign. Rather than acknowledge the residents, he chose not to show himself. I am told that he has not been seen in public since. Later that night, and in violation of martial law, several hundred people assembled, retook control of the offices, and installed numerous new locks on the doors. This happened without any intervention by police or the army.
This morning the police returned, removed the new locks, and once again seized control of the offices. For some reason our alarm, the beating of pots and pans, was not sounded on their arrival in the quarter and therefore no timely resistance was able to be organised by the residents. From our balcony we could see the police leave, and not a minute after they disappeared we could hear our neighbour saying not to worry because the residents will just take them back again.
Later in the afternoon it was announced that the citizens would march again and take back the offices. But this turned out to be a ruse.
Shortly before the demonstration was to start, I was told that the march had been postponed by two hours. At the same time, I was informed that the quarter’s CCTV cameras had already been switched off, which surprised me. As people gathered they too were told that the time for the march to begin and for the retaking of the offices had been delayed, and so the crowd dispersed.
However, unbeknownst to most of us, as soon as the demonstrators had gone a group of residents quietly went to the offices and once again took control. So for now, they are back in the hands of the residents. But it is doubtful that this will last for long. It is quite possible that at 8 pm, which is when each night there is the 20-minute beating of pots and pans, the police will return and once more seize control. Still, the people are keeping up the pressure.
Ultimately, all of this will result in arrests and the regime will likely be forced to post armed guards at the offices. I am certain that there is already a plan in place for that eventuality. The people are adamant that the offices are rightfully under their jurisdiction through the electoral process, and if the past four weeks are any indication they are not about to back down.
တို့အရေး Dote ayae! Our cause!
In other news …
Today the violence against citizens ratcheted up. The very moving recent speech by the Burmese Ambassador to the United Nations, U Kyaw Moe Tun, in which he announced his opposition to the coup, apparently took the regime completely by surprise. I have been able to confirm from a few sources, one of whom is very reliable, that following his speech an emergency meeting of regime members was hastily called in the capital, Naypyidaw. It is not known what was discussed, but it is believed that it was decided that stronger action had to be taken, evidence for which is today’s bloody and prolonged violence.
Gunfire and severe beatings are occurring everywhere. Today I saw a recording of police, both in uniforms and in civilian clothes, severely beating a man with batons and steel pipes until he could no longer stand. After a minute or so, with him still on the ground, they beat him once more. And then they came back and beat him a third time! After that, I could not watch any longer. While I have seen others beaten and even killed, this was by far the most despicably brutal.
Speechless | February 28, 2021
Last night was hell, but today it’s even worse. I have no information about the rest of the country, but here in the city, it is absolute bedlam. Early this morning numerous gunshots resonated about 100 metres outside our quarter and police arrested several local residents. People can barely contain their anger. In our part of town, everywhere we try to go we find streets blocked by residents. The main road that borders our quarter has been very heavily barricaded. At one end are four large trucks; at the other, dumpsters and concrete. I have no idea what other areas are like, but I expect that it is much the same. As I sit here, all I can hear are people shouting and screaming. We are told that the police are coming this afternoon, so everyone is preparing.
Suddenly there’s a lot of shouting and desperate screaming in front of our apartment. Just as suddenly everyone is pouring into the street. Three 5,000-kyat men have been spotted in our quarter. Our local security team has caught one and is searching for the other two. The guy they caught had a large open knife and is now under citizen’s arrest.
More shouting. A tightly packed and angry crowd of a hundred or so people has gathered about 40 metres from our apartment. I don’t need to be told that a second culprit is in the middle of it. I hear people furiously shouting not to hurt him, but they are very angry. Sure enough, they have caught the second miscreant and he is also put under citizen’s arrest. Both are being held in the community hall at the end of our street.
More shouting! And now clapping. The gathered throng has again surrounded someone. Again the calls not to hurt him. No doubt about what has happened: they have nabbed the third culprit.
In the past when these intruders have been caught in our quarter they have been turned over to the police, who release them within minutes. This time I am told that they will be held prisoner and not delivered to the police. In every situation that I know of they have been hired by the police or the military for a small amount of cash and drugs. When caught, they frequently have drugs on them, and everyone comments on their eyes and how crazed they look, I guess due to amphetamines.
In previous instances, when other men have been questioned by our local volunteer security, they are either so afraid that they can hardly speak or they completely open up. I have watched recordings of the interrogations. The security members doing the questioning keep reassuring them that they will not be harmed. True to their word, after getting information from them and going through their phone logs, most often they bring the intruders to the police to be set free.
There is a large crowd in front of the community hall where these three men are being held. I am told that there are three different groups vying to determine the fate of these interlopers. I hope they have not been hurt, but if they have I can understand. One of my close associates is there trying to calm people down, apparently without much success. People are very angry and tempers are flaring.
I am trying to locate a friend who could go and try to ease the situation. I will walk over to the community hall and see what I can find out.
From the sound alone, I can tell that the crowds have swelled on the main road. Still, there are no police. I guess they are trying to bring a bulldozer to clear the barricades before they move in. So far we’ve seen that they don’t usually advance without backup behind them in trucks, and right now trucks cannot get through.
I am thoroughly frustrated that there isn’t more that I can do to help, but people on my street seem to understand. This sense of helplessness is painful, but I think everyone feels more or less the same way. Today for the first time I heard people express disappointment and even anger that the countries they were counting on for help have essentially abandoned them by doing nothing more than slapping the generals on the wrist. Someone needs to step in, because I feel strongly that this situation could degenerate into a major bloodbath. There has already been so much shooting followed by ambulances with sirens blaring. By noon today four people have been shot, and since the afternoons and evenings tend to be worse, it is thought that many more will be killed later.
Fire! | March 1, 2021
Morning, 6 o’clock. These days, mornings are an especially peaceful time. Sleep is difficult to come by during the night, even with the security perimeter that we have set up from 8 pm to 4 am. People worry that the police will come and make arrests during the night, or 5,000-kyat men will infiltrate the quarter and cause trouble. So at 6 in the morning the majority of people are sleeping.
Suddenly a fire erupts on an electric line in front of our apartment. This same line was smoking yesterday, but because the electrical department is on strike, no one was answering the phone when people called to report it. Now this morning it has burst into flames and I am tongue-tied, unable to remember the Burmese word for fire. Consequently, I start shouting Fire! in English, but no one is waking up.
The banging of pots and pans is used nowadays for a variety of reasons, most importantly to announce that police or 5,000-kyat provocateurs have entered the quarter. Thus, with no one responding to my cries, I start banging away on a pot. Everyone immediately wakes up. Our local volunteer security people, whom I call the Minute Men, start running outside and everyone is clearly frightened.
Fortunately, most people on our street quickly recognize that it’s only an electrical fire. On the neighbouring street, however, they can certainly hear me banging away on my pot but are, of course, unaware of the nature of the alarm. Things quickly settle down, but many are shaking their heads and surely thinking “Oh, it’s that crazy foreigner.” I’m thinking, “Sorry, sorry, sorry! Let me serve you some tea.”
Someone goes over to the electrical department to alert them of the fire. At night, staff are in the office standing guard to ensure that the police or 5,000-kyat men don’t try to cut the electrical services—which, a couple of weeks ago, the police attempted. In normal times, four or five technicians would respond to such a call, but today we had to be satisfied with one technician whose extension ladder is transported by a trishaw driver. Fortunately, the fire burns itself out and damage is limited to the wires. A good thing, given that the fire department is also on strike! Such is life here these days.
I’m sure that, years from now, the only thing that I’ll be remembered for is being that crazy foreigner who woke everyone from a deep sleep on an otherwise peaceful Monday morning, and scared the heck out of them because he forgot the Burmese word for fire.
Christopher J Walker (pseudonym) has called Myanmar home for a number of years. He thanks his friend and editor Mathieu Lukas (pseudonym) for his support in preparing his reports for safe and timely publication.