Christopher J. Walker reflects on the effects of COVID-19 and the people’s resilience under military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-seventh 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 bust? | July 23, 2021
After a long hiatus, for the last two nights, we’ve been back to banging pots and pans at 8 pm. So tonight at 7:30 I assumed my usual position and watched the other apartments making their customary, furtive preparations. At 7:40 two military police motorcycles passed by, which is not entirely unusual at this hour, but they attracted my attention. I rose to see what they were up to. My heart sank. They stopped in front of the building where our communal oxygen supply is hidden.
I had gone there not 30 minutes before to warn my associates that I had earlier seen the ward’s military-appointed administrator walking by peering intently into each apartment and shop. When I arrived they had all been in a celebratory mood because one of them, after searching for most of the day, had, once more, been able to obtain a single tank of oxygen. Under normal circumstances, such a find would have meant almost nothing, but currently, the ability to locate even one cylinder is a big deal. While there, I was a bit concerned about their apparent lack of security, but said nothing. Now, although I couldn’t be certain, it appeared that the police had stopped by.
Because of their presence, 8 pm came and went without any pot-banging. I felt that something was not right. I did not hear the usual crackling of organizational walkie-talkies from nearby apartments. Then a military police truck full of soldiers drove by, and I again got up to observe as it too stopped near where our oxygen cylinders are hidden. It seemed almost certain that they had found our hidden cache.
At 8:30 I was still on my balcony watching. I was convinced that at least one unmarked police car was circling our quarter, possibly two. Then I saw the two leaders of our local voluntary security team walking down the street away from where the oxygen is stored.
By the look on their faces, it seemed obvious that our illegal oxygen supply had been discovered. However, because of the presence of the soldiers, I dared not try to get their attention. I’d just have to wait to find out what happened. I sat down at my computer and found that the internet was down, which was unusual at that hour. I felt that something had gone mightily awry.
Ultimately, happily, I was proven wrong about everything. Nothing happened. The police and soldiers eventually drove off. Out of a few inexplicable coincidences, I seem to have concocted a paranoid scenario. However, I consoled myself with a line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Thanks, but no thanks | July 26, 2021
The assistant to our military-appointed ward administrator walked through our quarter this evening announcing that anyone who would like to receive a COVID-19 vaccination should register at the administrator’s office. This should not be construed to mean that anyone will actually receive a vaccine; it only means that one can register for a shot. We already went through this exercise some months ago, and the program never went any further. As far as I know, not a single person ever received a vaccination in this way. If anyone did, it’s certain that they never received the required second jab. Likely only a handful of people will register; the vast majority want nothing whatsoever to do with the military.
In the face of this deadly global pandemic, it must be difficult for people outside of the country to comprehend the obstinacy of the ordinary Burmese citizen. But most foreigners have not experienced what the locals have had to endure for the past six months at the hands of a brutal regime that has no qualms about beating, torturing, and shooting them for nothing more than demonstrating peacefully.
People ask themselves, why would the military want to help us now? They recognize that this registration effort is merely another ploy to try to recoup a shred of legitimacy in the eyes of other nations. There is nothing the junta can do that will ever regain the people’s trust. As time goes by, they are becoming even more passionate in their resistance.
We have heard from multiple sources that every single household in our quarter has been infected with COVID-19, and in many instances the entire family has been ill simultaneously, rendering them unable to get food, medicine, or oxygen. Recently a new endeavour got underway to help such people. Neighbours are telling neighbours to hang a yellow cloth in front of their home if they need medicine, a white cloth if they need food. Volunteers travelling through the community will be on the lookout for these flags and help as best they can
The military is, of course, trying to put a stop to all such co-operative assistance. Yesterday four volunteers attempting to relieve a family in need were arrested. One of them was forced to kneel in the street while a soldier held a rifle to his head. What kind of person does this?
Last night the neighbourhood was flooded with police, soldiers and unmarked cars circling the streets. Their only purpose was intimidation, to ensure that no one dared to bang pots and pans in defiance of the law. For six months the military has tried everything it can think of to stop people from expressing their displeasure. The soldiers have cursed and shouted, thrown rocks through windows, damaged parked cars, tossed stun grenades, indiscriminately fired guns into homes, beaten people, arrested them, tortured them, and killed them. But the people persist.
One wonders whether there isn’t something more useful that these soldiers and police could be doing, such as helping people rather than terrorizing them? But such is not the way a junta thinks. They are simply not interested.
Tin soldiers, hollow victories | July 28, 2021Embed from Getty Images
My heart is very much with Ma Thu Thu Zin, a 25-year-old peaceful, unarmed demonstrator who was shot through the head yesterday during a protest in Mandalay. I write in her memory.
With its jet bombers, attack helicopters, artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, sundry other weapons of destruction, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the Tatmadaw wants to believe that it has put an end to the nonviolent protests of millions of weaponless, defenceless citizens who took to the streets following the attempted February coup. In an effort to win international approval and support, the junta recently proclaimed that, with the exception of a few small areas, the country is now peaceful and stable.
No doubt the uppermost echelon of the military sees its ability to temporarily clear the streets as some great triumph, but in actuality, it is nothing but the hollow achievement of cowards. How can anything such as stability be proclaimed when soldiers, with a staggering array of modern weapons, continue to maim, torture, and kill unarmed civilians? Are they proud of themselves? Do they view themselves as gallant fighters? That soldier, the one who purposefully took aim at the head of Thu Thu Zin and pulled the trigger, does he imagine himself a brave and brilliant warrior? Do the mothers, wives, and children of these tin soldiers lavish them with praise when they return home after a long day hunting and slaughtering their helpless fellow citizens? How can it be? Certainly, and sadly, something in each of them must also have died.
Now, six months into the people’s rebellion, the battle continues with a view to ejecting a brutal and merciless regime that overthrew the people’s democratically elected government in a bloody coup d’état. And while currently, the streets are largely clear of protesters, the resistance is busy confronting another enemy, which, similar to the Tatmadaw, also terrorizes, tortures and kills.
As the COVID-19 pandemic extinguishes the lives of hundreds every day, the Tatmadaw has developed ways of weaponizing the virus in hopes of exerting total control over not just government, but also private hospitals, oxygen production plants, pharmaceuticals, desperately needed medical supplies, and all forms of humanitarian aid—to keep them beyond the reach of desperate citizens. The military itself has confirmed that hospitals and quarantine centres are over capacity, and with thousands of doctors and nurses on strike in defiance of the regime, the citizens have been forced to care for their sick at home with whatever meagre medical supplies they have at hand. But even if they had a choice, the people would continue to do everything possible to resist any form of help from the military. If that means caring for their sick at home, most do so willingly rather than engage with their oppressors.
But the people’s resolve to resist the military has required a new type of strategic anti-COVID-19 battle plan. Once again the citizens’ forces have mobilized; once again they’ve taken to the streets. But this time not to protest, but to scour cities, towns, and villages for every ampule of medicine or small bottle of oxygen. They fight this new battle in obscurity. Striking doctors and nurses and other health care professionals continue their rebellion: rather than returning to government hospitals and risking arrest, they serve without pay in underground clinics.
That, too, is a campaign fraught with many risks. About a month ago, a group of five doctors operating an underground outpatient clinic were lured into a trap by soldiers posing as COVID-19 patients. When two doctors arrived at a house intending to care for them, they were arrested, and under interrogation and probable torture were forced to reveal the location of their clinic, where the three remaining doctors, as well as support staff, were taken into custody.
Even organizations like UNHCR and UNICEF must contend with the Tatmadaw as their trucks, laden with relief supplies, have been denied access to the many thousands of internally displaced refugees forced into hiding by artillery fire and bombs from warplanes. As the terrified people retreat further into the jungle with whatever they can carry, the pursuing soldiers linger to loot and burn their flimsy temporary villages. Nevertheless, valiant volunteers continue, at great risk, to bring food and other necessities to those compelled to flee.
Unlike the so-called “victories” that the military likes to claim, the victories of the people are exemplified by successful quests for a single ampule of blood thinner that will keep a COVID-19 patient breathing for another day. Unlike the ignoble military forces who measure their “victories” by counting bodies, the true victories of the people are measured by counting the lives they have saved.
These are noble victories, the type that the soldiers who oppress their compatriots will never experience. The regime can claim neither stability nor victory as long as it feels a need to shoot a harmless young woman for daring to protest. The people, by co-operation and determination, rather than by pulling triggers against the innocent, will surely defeat this immoral enemy.
While the people fight each day to save lives, the Tatmadaw’s apparent disdain for such benevolence is evidenced by a story that appeared yesterday on Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), the official mouthpiece of the junta. One of the acute problems now faced by funeral homes throughout the country is their inability to keep up with the surge in cremations, the result of hundreds dying daily from the coronavirus. On MRTV, the junta proudly announced that it will soon construct ten new crematoria in Yangon to deal with the demand and that people “now no longer need to worry. The new crematoria will be able to handle an additional 3,000 bodies per day.” While the people struggle to minimize deaths, the Tatmadaw focuses on disposing of the bodies.
To the soldiers I say, Go home to your wives, your children, your mothers, and fathers, and explain to them your valorous deeds. Compare your day to other young men and women who struggle to avoid arrest or death at your hands, who walk into the homes of their neighbours with a single, thin cylinder of oxygen. How differently will their characters be assessed by their parents, spouses, and children compared to yours? Your families, forced to share your shame, will look down at their feet and silently weep, while the true soldiers of the people will everywhere be greeted with warm smiles of appreciation and gratitude.
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.