Christopher J. Walker notes some of the events during the closing days of a year under the repressive thumb of the Myanmar military.
Editor’s Note: This post is the thirty-fourth 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. Today’s post, marking the one-year anniversary of the coup, is, for now, the end of this series. A chronological archive, comprising this post and all previous Chronicle of a Coup posts, is 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.
The bill collector | January 28, 2022
A knock at the door. By the sound alone, I almost always know who it is. However, this is a knock I don’t recognize. I freeze at the thought of soldiers, but then realize that it can’t be soldiers because they would be pounding on the door.
Like everyone else, I’ve become hypersensitive to the unexpected or unfamiliar. In spite of that, one of the enemies we all face is complacency, because it’s almost impossible to remain continuously alert for days on end. Typically, I work behind a steel gate as well as a solid wooden door, and I can tell by the sound of the knock that the steel gate is neither closed nor locked. The fact that I am working at my desk without having first ensured that both were secured is a sign of a listless carelessness that could have potentially dangerous consequences.
As I wait for someone to answer the door, I scramble to take care of basic security measures: erasing phone messages, deleting e-mails, disposing of notes. Zoo, my boarder, finally goes to the door and asks who’s there. A woman responds saying that she’s from the water department. My respiration rate returns to normal. I know why she’s come.
Since the beginning of the coup almost everyone has done whatever possible to deprive the junta of revenue. Personal and corporate income taxes, sales taxes, electricity and water bills thus remain unpaid. Most people feel very resolute about this. I have largely avoided paying any of these, with the exception of an occasional sales tax—which in most instances can be negotiated with the vendor. But lately the regime, desperate for money, is focusing on bill collection. We are regularly being called upon to settle up.
In years past, one regime or another used unpaid utility bills to gauge who was for and who was against it. Obviously, those who oppose the regime are the most likely to resist paying their monthly bills. With hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unpaid tax and utility bills, it is no easy task to identify and track down everyone who’s in default.
As a show of continued opposition to the junta, I have numerous unpaid electricity bills, both for my home and shuttered business, that now total slightly more than US$1,000. So far, I’ve been able to avoid paying them, but it’s not without risk. And I have refused to pay my water bill since I received the statement for November-December 2020, which did not arrive until after the February 1, 2021, coup. That is why this woman is now standing on my balcony.
Zoo opens the door. Placing a sheaf of statements into Zoo’s hand, the woman politely explains that there is an unpaid balance dating back 15 months. Zoo spins the familiar yarn about having no money, and asks whether the amount can be paid in instalments. The woman explains that that is not possible, so Zoo grudgingly agrees to pay the water bill in full. But the woman demurs, saying the amount—the equivalent of US$12—would be too much. She meekly suggests, instead, that we pay half, assuring Zoo that it is unlikely anyone will bother us again for another six or eight months.
Suddenly it all becomes clear! She, like us, is opposed to the coup, and evidently wants to prevent the regime from getting our money. By recommending that we only pay half, she has however put herself in jeopardy, because she cannot know for certain which side of the struggle we are on. If we happened to be supporters of the military, which she of course knows very few people are, we could represent a significant threat to her. However, we do as she suggests and I pay half the outstanding balance, thank her with a nod and a wink, and off she goes.
Later that afternoon I receive a call to inform me that a bomb has exploded in the adjacent township. A military truck was hit and an unconfirmed number of soldiers were killed or injured in the blast. We have heard that more of this will be happening in the next few days leading up to the stay-at-home strike marking the one-year anniversary of the coup. Some of the embassies have issued warnings, urging their citizens to stay indoors on February 1 and the day after.
One fortunate result of the bombing is that tonight we shall not have to worry about soldiers and police barging in to search the homes in our ward as they have been doing all week. Instead, they’ll be occupied elsewhere searching apartments near where the bombing took place. A small blessing for us, more misery for others.
No such thing as bad publicity | January 30, 2022
Minutes ago I received an early morning phone call from one of the security personnel at my business office, long closed since 2020 on account of Covid-19 and then the coup. He reported that township officials had shown up with a notice stating that we must be open on the day of the planned February 1 stay-at-home strike. They wanted him to sign a document as proof of receipt, but he explained that he was not authorized to do so. They simply left the unsigned notice with him and moved on to the neighbouring businesses. Basically, the notice stated (in translation):
“Township Municipal Office. Whosoever is associated with the terrorist groups NUG [National Unity Government] and CRPH [Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the people’s government, now in hiding]; or is sharing information about the strike; or is instigating and threatening citizens to join the strike; or is participating in the strike by staying home, banging pots and pans, clapping or using car horns, will be prosecuted under existing laws, including charges of assisting terrorist groups under the Counterterrorism Law, as well as under the Penal Code and the Electronic Transactions Act for other offences. Whoever shares such information on Facebook or in other ways will be charged under section 52a of the Counterterrorism Law, as well as Penal Code sections 12a and 505a, and the Electronics and Communication Law section 33a. We shall take action under these laws. Business owners who participate in such acts will have their merchandise and properties confiscated, to be handed over to other citizens of the country. In addition, if business owners fail to follow this directive they will have their business licences revoked, and the township administration will sue and seek other legal actions against them.”
In light of events since the call for the strike went out a week ago, there is nothing surprising about any of this. Police, soldiers and government administrative officers across the country have been delivering similar notices to almost all businesses, not excluding small outdoor market stalls. But their heavy-handed efforts to sabotage the strike have only served to heap additional disgrace upon the regime and highlight its fear of concerted resistance.
Besides threatening business owners, local regime-appointed officials, with the help of soldiers, have posted large warning signs in prominent public places, published news articles in regime-owned newspapers, and aired similar messages during regime-controlled television news programs, with a view to informing everyone what the “terrorists” are up to. People have already been arrested for posting about the strike on line. But by their much-publicized warnings, these officials have ensured that the entire country is well aware of the strike, and obviated the need to any longer risk arrest by posting notices about it on Facebook
The junta’s acts of desperation have guaranteed that everyone throughout the country knows what’s coming. The generals have foolishly brought more attention to the strike than any advertiser or organizer could have hoped for or planned. By their callous incompetence they have already made it a greater success than it otherwise might have been. Moreover, the generals’ tactics have not only further provoked people and inspired them to join the strike, they have also underscored how completely out of touch the junta is with the very people on whose behalf it claims to govern.
Inanity is often incomprehensible. The resources, in terms of personnel and supplies, that the regime is pouring into efforts to crush the strike are enormous. People are happy to see it though, because if the money were not spent on such follies, it would be used to buy bullets to shoot them.
As for the threats of prison time for violating counterterrorism laws by encouraging people to join the strike, it is the generals, not the citizens, who should be brought up on these charges. They have clearly done more than anyone to incite the public.
There is another puzzling wrinkle to all of this. As a show of defiance and to demonstrate their refusal to co-operate with the regime, many businesses, including mine, have already been closed for a year or more, at least since the day of the coup. In order not to break the law, do we now need to hire new staff to reopen for one day?
One for the price of two | January 31, 2022Embed from Getty Images
I have been trying to keep an eye on everything the junta’s been up to during the past week in its desperate attempts to derail the silent strike, called to mark the one-year anniversary of the military takeover on February 1, 2021. Originally, my greatest concern was what this murderous regime would do on the day of the strike, but today I am more fearful of what might happen tonight, on its eve. Will it be another “Night of the Long Knives” or a Burmese version of Kristallnacht?
Because I’m doing my best to monitor events, I’m not getting much sleep. I awoke early this morning to two notices. Last night the Karen National Union in Hpapun district, Kayin State, a longtime hotbed of regime opposition, put all government servants on notice that they have ten days in which to resign their positions or risk severe consequences. In the past, this kind of tactic has been employed with great success elsewhere in the country. The People’s Defence Force (PDF) in Magway Division recently issued a similar warning, instructing all civil servants to resign from their jobs under the regime or otherwise transfer out of the area. If they failed to do either, they would be regarded as enemy combatants.
The second notice claimed to be from the National Unity Government, the people’s government, now in forced exile, which the regime has designated a terrorist organization. It stated that the February 1 date of the stay-at-home strike had been postponed to an unspecified later date. I quickly discovered that this was fake news, another futile attempt by the junta to put a halt to tomorrow’s strike.
The farcical efforts put forth by the generals in their attempts to crush the strike have revealed how ultrasensitive they are about it. The time, money and other resources they are consuming is staggering. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader who brought us to this painful point, and who last summer proclaimed himself Prime Minister, is evidently feeling the heat. He appears desperate to ensure that February 1 will not be a repeat of the successful December 10 strike, which resulted in deserted streets throughout the country.
To coax people out tomorrow, the regime announced a few days ago that it would, in Mandalay, be hosting a bicycle race and handing out free food. But someone in uniform must have concluded that having the army encourage bicyclists might look too unmanly. So, also in Mandalay, in a bid to tempt motorists, petrol stations either owned by the military or with ties to the military announced that for one day only they would be selling gasoline at cost. Due to recent sharp increases in fuel prices, people are discussing the merits of taking advantage of the sale for the express purpose of sticking it to the—also military-owned—oil companies. In addition, I heard about a ridiculous effort in an Ayeyarwady Division township: the army ordered residents to produce one person from each household who must be on the street with neighbours to wave their hands during the strike.
During the earlier December 10 strike, people were recruited and paid to join pro-military rallies. One such group assembled in front of the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon where, historically, the largest demonstrations have been held. Using various photographs, I counted roughly 90 people at their “big” event. Last year, in the early days of the coup, before peaceful demonstrators started getting shot and killed, many tens of thousands showed up every day for weeks to protest the takeover. If people could still take to the streets without being shot, there would easily be one hundred thousand protesters surrounding that pagoda on any given day.
Over the past year the top general has repeatedly professed that, in the “next month or two,” he would return the country to a state of stability. As recently as mid December he promised that, come February, he would have the situation under control. That unlikely scenario, however, continues to fade inexorably as time goes by. Should tomorrow’s silent strike be anything like the one in December, it will destroy whatever shred of credibility Min Aung Hlaing and his cronies retain in the international community. Worse, it will be a significant public embarrassment and, consequently, a blow to his bloated ego.
Meanwhile, for the last week I’ve noticed a strange absence of the soldiers who patrol the streets of our ward numerous times a day. My associates and I have checked their usual haunts, but there are few signs of them. Yesterday one of our neighbourhood security volunteers told me that he had inadvertently found some of them earlier in the morning. He was passing through a distant quarter on the outskirts of the city when he observed more than 20 empty troop transport vehicles parked adjacent to a building containing a large hall. Presumably the soldiers were all inside attending some kind of meeting, probably related to tomorrow’s strike. Or was it for another reason? I have always felt that the most likely end to the coup, and demise of Min Aung Hlaing, would be a counter-coup led by other generals, almost all of whom are experiencing severely diminished revenues as a result of ineptitude at the top. The day of the strike, with everyone at home, might be an opportune time to make a move. Of course this is mere conjecture. Whatever the reason that so many troops were secreted away at a meeting, the only certainties are that its purpose was sinister and that the people will bear the brunt of whatever decisions were taken.
Another reason for anxiety is the recent apartment searches in our ward. Since the onset of the coup it has been mandatory for all residents in every ward and village throughout the country to report their permanent addresses, along with the names of all those living under the same roof, to local officials. Any visitors must also register, and re-register every fortnight, or monthly, depending on the locality. This requirement makes it easier for police to locate people, but its true purpose is more transparently menacing. Soldiers and police are free to search any residence for any reason, at any time, night or day. Once every month or two, they go to each apartment and house ostensibly to examine the occupants’ documents; however, their real purpose is to search for members of the PDF or other activists, as well as for weapons. About ten days ago they came to our ward, and over the course of a few days inspected every apartment except those on our street, which for some unknown reason was omitted. Given that during the past year our street has been the most troublesome in the ward, it seems highly unusual that they would overlook us. We are left wondering whether this was intentional. Perhaps tonight, on the eve of the strike, they intend to hit our street as well as other unruly streets in other wards. All we can do is wait, but it has us all on edge.
Some business owners, who are being forced to open tomorrow, have come up with a clever stratagem to discourage strike-breakers. They will be holding a one-for-two sale. Anyone out shopping will be required to pay for any two of an item in order to get one. Some disgruntled shopkeepers are saying that any non-striking shopper will also be entitled to a slap at no extra charge.
A more detailed account of the successful February 1, 2022, silent strike can be found here.
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.