Christopher J. Walker reflects on the lives of Myanmar political activists, fleeing for their lives from the Tatmadaw.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twentieth 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.
The forgotten ones, Part 1 – Myanmar | June 16, 2021Embed from Getty Images
We rarely hear about them and are unlikely ever to meet them. The vast majority of people never give them a second thought or are completely unaware of them. They are the forgotten ones.
They are not the civil servants who have gone on strike and bravely abandoned their jobs, refusing to work for an illegitimate military regime. Nor did they necessarily join the ranks of the civil disobedience movement (CDM) along with the doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, a few principled policemen and soldiers, and a host of other government employees. We often hear about these brave resisters, informally, from our friends and neighbours.
Nor are they the democratically elected parliamentarians, ousted from their rightful positions in the days following the February 1, 2021 coup, many immediately arrested. Neither are they members of the National Unity Government (NUG), the only true people’s government, albeit in exile. Having avoided capture, most of them now live somewhat safely in other countries. They too have been painted with the regime’s broad brush and falsely labelled terrorists. But we know of their efforts to serve the people.
Equally well known are members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party once led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested and imprisoned in the early morning hours on the first day of the coup. Nearly every week that passes brings news that another member of the NLD has been arrested as an enemy of the state, or had a previous sentence extended on new trumped-up charges.
Best known, and in the front lines of the fight against the military, the Tatmadaw, is the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which is engaged in ongoing armed confrontations with the junta’s soldiers. Given its shortage of weaponry, the PDF specializes in hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, compensating for its lack of arms and ammunition by relying upon innovation, audacity and cunning, and the critical support of the local people. The PDF has been largely trained by, and frequently fights alongside, Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO). It is upon the successes of these two groups that people’s hopes and dreams are chiefly pinned. Their exploits are followed daily. In the eyes of the coup’s Generals, these fighters too are all terrorists.
Also figuring prominently in the local disorder are internally displaced persons (IDPs); that is, those who have been forced to flee as the Tatmadaw’s soldiers lay waste their remote villages, torch their homes, and indiscriminately rob, rape and murder the harmless inhabitants. These poor innocents are also targets of strafing and bombing by the regime’s fighter jets and attack helicopters. We constantly hear about the IDPs as more and more of them are forced to flee from marauding soldiers, their only refuge the jungle or migration to a city. The IDPs beg for our attention. Calls frequently circulate for humanitarian aid for them.
They have neither the visibility nor the support that these groups attract, and few people are aware of their plight. The forgotten ones are also men and women who refused to be cowed by the Generals, who did whatever they could to reclaim their country’s stolen freedoms, but who are now hunted persistently by soldiers and organized informers.
They are the unnamed heroes, the ones who dared to speak out against the coup plotters, who knelt outside the homes of those too frightened to speak, pleading with them for support. They are the ones who in the early days of the resistance stood boldly in the streets, unarmed, behind feeble and hastily assembled barricades. The ones who faced down scores of brutal, well-equipped soldiers and police, risking their lives to prevent them from occupying wards and villages. But they have been identified and are on the run, hunted to this day by a relentlessly ruthless regime. With no choice but to slip away from their families, friends, homes and possessions—the very lives they once knew—they have disappeared. They are the ones whom few of us know, who hide not in the shadows, but deeper, in the shadows’ recesses. They are the forgotten ones who have been forced to forsake their cause and flee abroad.
These freedom fighters now spend their lives travelling along a twenty-first century version of the Underground Railroad, often alone, constantly on guard, forever watching over their shoulders, trying to stay one step ahead of the junta’s bounty hunters. Initially they move frequently from place to place, hiding in a shed or holed up in a stuffy attic, in search of a trustworthy and sympathetic face, someone caring and daring enough to provide assistance.
Some make it to safety, others are not so fortunate. Many are forced to surrender because their family members are held hostage. Any hopes and dreams they might have had for the future become a forever unfulfilled dream. Concealed in a clandestine Burmese existence, crossing a border into a neighbouring country is their last resort.
They travel in private cars and in buses, hidden within the cargo on the back of a truck, or under a load of straw in a bullock cart, or they walk. They are frequently stopped and searched at military checkpoints, their fake identities scrutinized. They often spend nights in a field or on the jungle floor. Many are too ill to carry on, but afraid to ask for help for fear of encountering a dulan, an informer, or a policeman in civilian clothes. They are continuously weary and continuously vigilant.
For those who succeed in reaching the border of Thailand, the most common country of refuge, what lies beyond is not a land of freedom, but merely an unknown territory with untried contacts or perhaps some former associates. There is only one way to enter this foreign nation, where they cannot understand the language and whose culture is alien, and that is illegally.
On the eastern border of Burma, refugees might stare across the Moei river, a tributary of the mighty and better known Salween, into Thailand. Here, likely somewhere near the Myanmar town of Myawaddy, they must find a ticket agent who will arrange their transit across the river on the Underground Railroad. On the opposite bank, Thai police constantly patrol. Refugees caught illegally entering Thailand face arrest and possible extradition back to Myanmar. Currently, and at this stage of their journey, deportation across the border is not a common occurrence, but coercion and extortion are.
Refugees, once on Thai soil, are frequently seen as a source of revenue by Thai security forces. Thai police will insist that refugees, once caught, must pay a “passage fee,” typically about US$30, but sometimes as high as $100. If unable to pay, they will likely be arrested and detained until someone can be located who will pay the “fine” for their release. Should no one do so, they face the very real threat of extended detention or deportation.
Any hesitation a refugee might feel in crossing the river is tempered by the alternative, which is to return from whence they came and expect to be constantly hunted by Myanmar authorities. If captured, they are almost certain to be beaten, tortured, imprisoned, or forced by soldiers to be porters, human shields, or minesweepers advancing ahead of military assaults on villages. Later, having served their purpose, many a time they will simply be executed, disposable. In light of this stark reality, there is really no choice for those fleeing the Tatmadaw. The only question is how to cross the Moei.
People smugglers at the border need to be familiar with each of the possible crossings points, whose status is always fluid, constantly changing. These agents of misfortune invariably have in their pockets a few border guards who, for a price, will be willing to look away at the time of the crossing. If the smugglers are also able to make arrangements for the safety of their passengers when they arrive on the opposite bank, so much the better—but at extra cost.
Fortunately, such well connected “facilitators” are not difficult to find in Myawaddy, nor across the river in Mae Sot. Some are expats from Burma, others are amenable Thais. Nonetheless, caution must be exercised at all times because not every agent is trustworthy. Some will talk the talk, pocket the client’s money, and never be seen again.
There are two ways to get across the Moei: by road over one of the few bridges in the area, or by water over the river. Crossing a bridge that leads into Thailand, like crossing the water, involves unknown and potentially grave risks. At some of the smaller border posts where there are few, if any, immigration or customs personnel, a smuggler will be able to pay somebody in uniform to ensure the safe passage of his clients. In such cases, most refugees will be able to ride openly as passengers in a vehicle. If not, they might be secreted among a load of goods, such as construction materials bound for Thailand, with the hope that not too much attention will be paid at either end of the bridge.
For water crossings, there are numerous launch and landing sites. Which one will be used on any given day depends largely on the location of the border patrols on either side of the river. Some of the crossings involve a ten-minute walk, some an hours-long trek up steep hillsides and through swampy terrain, and still others might require an overnight in the jungle. Once at the water’s edge, refugees might cross by swimming, in a small boat or raft, or on a large inflated inner tube. During the dry season, certain stretches of the river can be forded by wading. Whichever route is chosen, there are never any guarantees.
Having successfully crossed by road or by water, a refugee is faced with the question of what to do next. Wherever they end up, Burmese refugees in Thailand quickly understand that they are not viewed as such by the Thai government and, generally, are not welcome. Rather, they are received as unwanted visitors in a country that grudgingly tolerates them. The best they can hope for is to be ignored. This is not the freedom they seek; it’s only the next station on the Underground Railroad. Having crossed the border they are again forced into the shadows, into a life of safe houses or camps, which are merely another form of house arrest, for to wander outside is to risk being detained as an illegal alien.
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.