Christopher J. Walker describes one attempt to help relieve the dire food shortage resulting from military rule in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the seventeenth 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.
Food and folly | June 1, 2021Embed from Getty Images
It should never have to be this difficult, but sadly it’s our lived reality. We ventured out for the second time this week to deliver food in some of the more destitute suburbs. Despite the satisfaction of being able to help, the anxiety of doing so runs high and my patience rather low. I’m always nervous about these operations because we’ve heard too many stories about people being caught, beaten or arrested. The most recent case was just a week ago. The military always assumes that any food or medicine being delivered anywhere is for the People’s Defence Force (PDF), and thus a major infraction.
Our operation actually began yesterday with the necessary preliminary arrangements. Security in executing the plan is paramount, and so we began by gathering intelligence, focusing primarily on police and military deployments in the areas through which we need to be travel, and ascertaining where roadblocks might be expected. The risks for this particular delivery were higher because, also yesterday, the PDF fired upon a contingent of police and soldiers in a drive-by attack. Therefore we had to expect that they’d be on high alert.
This time the pick-up of the food to be delivered was different than usual. Over several months we had accumulated a cache of rice and other nonperishable foods that had been stockpiled in various apartments in our quarter. We stored them for emergencies, when certain foods would no longer be available or priced so high that most people could not afford them. Rice is the Myanmar staple, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, some of it had been compromised by insects, and so the first thing we had to do before the distribution was winnow them out—a time-consuming task. We’d already made arrangements for a safe place to do this, which meant getting the rice out of our quarter without attracting too much attention from soldiers or informers. We began loading at 7 o’clock this morning.
Members of our quarter’s security team had spread out beforehand along the street and in the immediate neighbourhood to keep watch. Other volunteers went to the apartments where the 50-kilo sacks of rice were stored. Some of them were on sixth or seventh floors, and carrying the bags down the stairs wasn’t easy. It took about an hour to bring them all to street level and to load the truck. Altogether we had more than 1,000 kilos of rice, but by 8 am we were on our way.
Typically, for reasons of security, I don’t go on such runs, but this time I tagged along to visit a friend whom I hadn’t seen in months. He happened to live near our first destination, so I took the opportunity to check in on him. I was in the support vehicle positioned behind the truck. If the truck were flagged over at a military checkpoint, we would pull in behind it and, with luck, negotiate our way out by spinning a plausible tale about where we were going and why. If that failed, we’d discuss money—perhaps a “fine” to be paid on the spot. Our greatest worry was not so much that we’d be arrested, although that could happen, but rather that the soldiers would confiscate the truck and the food, which they’d sell somewhere. It might have been a greater risk having me on board, but I thought we’d be able to get by.
We had already been warned that there was a checkpoint on the main road, but we could tell by the traffic flow that it was probably undermanned and inactive at that early hour. As we drove past we saw the typical bunker on each end, made of sandbags piled on three sides to shoulder height. Behind each of them stood a nervous-looking soldier with an automatic weapon pointed toward the passing cars. The fact that the soldiers seemed nervous made me nervous. Anything unexpected could result in a barrage of bullets; however, like other motorists, we passed by without incident.
As we drove further, a couple more checkpoints came into view, but again we could tell by the steady flow of traffic that they too were not yet in operation. As we sped by I managed only a fleeting glance into the eyes of the soldiers concealed behind the sandbags. We were then past the last of the more-or-less “fixed” checkpoints; for the rest of the way we had only to be concerned with the so-called “flying” roadblocks that can appear spontaneously anywhere.
Sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, I rarely took my eyes off the surface of the road. There’s always a risk of a landmine planted beneath the roadbed by the PDF, or left in a plastic bag lying on the pavement. As part of the security report that I receive each morning, the PDF regularly announces which roads citizens should avoid. While the road we were travelling had not been so designated, it’s always prudent to keep an eye out nonetheless.
We encountered no further checkpoints, but after a few kilometres we came upon two police pickup trucks parked on the shoulder. Three policemen sheltered behind the trucks; the fourth had his foot on one of the rear bumpers and his rifle at the ready. After we passed them we began to make phone calls to the volunteers who would be helping to clean and repackage the rice, to inform them that we’d soon be there.
We travelled for about a half kilometre around the edge of a poor area, concerned that here we might be stopped by other such police vehicles on patrol. The police posted in this area were notorious for their cruelty, stealing whatever they could from those whom they accost, usually the poor. Thinking that those who live in poverty are too frightened to speak out, the policemen feel free to rob them, although they have to share their plunder with their superior officers back at the station.
Fortunately, we managed to arrive unmolested at our destination, where ten volunteers were waiting. The truck was quickly unloaded and it departed forthwith, so that it would not draw unwanted attention. With only a rear door open in the nondescript building, the volunteers immediately began the process of sifting through more than a ton of rice.
With two others, I soon set off in the car to visit my friend, but before leaving I put on a simple disguise so that, with luck, I could pass along unnoticed. I had never before been to my friend’s apartment, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. As we pulled up, I was surprised to see children and adults everywhere outside the five-story building. My companions opted to wait for me in the car, so I alone got out, keeping my head down as much as possible. After removing some items from the trunk, I had trouble closing the lid, which was stiff. A man standing nearby came to my aid and started chatting, but I kept my head down and pretended not to hear. With the hatch closed, I walked away and entered the building.
I was caught completely off guard. The stairwell was full of people—children playing, adults loitering about. They seemed to be everywhere. I could tell by the exterior of the building that each apartment would be very small and poorly ventilated. The stairwell was probably the only place where residents could enjoy a cross-breeze. With my head still down, I climbed, apparently unheeded, to the top floor, which, given the many stairs and lack of elevators, always has the cheapest apartments.
It had been four months since I last saw my friend. As he opened the door I was immediately distressed to see how much weight he had lost—he was as thin as a rail. However, his mind was clear and he seemed to be in good spirits. I hadn’t much time, but it was great to share a tea with him, his wife and two daughters, to catch up, reminisce, and to see some old photos of their relatives, now long gone. After only an hour, it was time to leave.
I wound my way back down through the crowded stairwell and once inside the car felt relieved that no one seemed to have given any particular attention to my coming and going. But I was left with the sad vision of my emaciated friend. I’ll have to see what I can do about his situation. He’s probably hardly eating so that his family doesn’t go hungry. This, I know, would be his nature.
Back at our base of operations, the cleaning of the rice continued apace. Soon it would be finished. It was repacked in quantities sufficient for a family of three for a week.
Once the cleaning and repacking was done, half of the rice was loaded onto the original truck, which had now returned. Everyone would go along separately to help unload it at the drop-off point, which, regrettably, was very near a military encampment. However, the driver assured us that he knew a safe route on which his truck would not draw the attention of the soldiers. We placed our trust in him, but, just to be sure, as someone more noticeable, I elected to stay behind. Off they went.
After an hour and a half the crew returned to tell me that everything had gone according to plan. The little group from our quarter decided to take the rice-cleaning volunteers out for lunch, which brought bright smiles to their faces. Afterward, back at the building, into two smaller vehicles we loaded the remaining rice that was then delivered to two more distribution points. Once again everything went off without a hitch. Those of us who remained behind discussed how we could ramp up our operation, and concluded that, if donations were sufficient, we could double the number of families we serve. At least that was the hope. Eventually, those from our quarter got in the car and we headed home. I felt so relieved at how seamlessly everything had unfolded that I must have slept the whole way back, for I have no recollection of the return trip.
This evening I began to think about international aid organizations and what they do—and don’t do—about getting much-needed humanitarian assistance into the country and efficiently distributed. They seem well-meaning but inflexible, unable to think outside their conventional boxes. They want permission for this, a licence for that, every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. But no one here cares about such bureaucratic details. Do they imagine that they’re going to get receipts for what they deliver?
While they consider their data points and who should qualify for assistance, people are going hungry. While they play their abstract administrative games, a few generous foreign donors and local volunteers, who know how to successfully navigate the financial and on-road challenges, can safely deliver food to more than 325 families that now don’t have to wonder whether they’ll eat tomorrow. Granted, it’s only one drop in a very big bucket, but it’s a timely and entirely edible drop.
Why does it have to be so difficult? If they gave us their donations, we could do an even better job.
For further discussion on this topic, see Humanitarian Considerations in Myanmar (Part 1), and specifically David Mathieson’s thoughts on “a lack of flexibility, a lack of originality, a lack of daring, and risk avoidance on the part of Western donors.”
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.