Christopher J. Walker shares the autobiography of a political activist who escaped to Thailand, and considers his current situation.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-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, 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. All names in the following account are pseudonyms.
Out of options | June 21, 2021Embed from Getty Images
My name is Kyaw Hla Htun. I was born near Bago in 1997. About 90 per cent of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist, but my family is Christian. I studied engineering at Mandalay University and upon graduation was hired by a company outside Bago. Soon afterward, on February 1, 2021, the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, seized power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy, in a coup orchestrated by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw are well known in Myanmar, but nothing could have prepared us for the suffering that we have endured since then.
Soldiers immediately began arresting members of parliament and senior government officials. Peaceful protests were organized across the country and I took part in and around Bago. Initially, I stayed close to my older cousin, the demonstration co-ordinator for our ward. My friends and I attended the daily demonstrations and marches throughout the area, including at the city hall and elsewhere in the downtown area, in which thousands of angry resisters took part.
In late February the tenor of the protests began to shift as the soldiers increased their level of violence, viciously beating peaceful protesters, and firing stun grenades, tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and live ammunition. As a result, fewer and fewer people attended the demonstrations—it became too dangerous. Everyone was in a state of disbelief that the security forces, those who had sworn to protect us, could be so brutal to their fellow countrymen. But, as we were soon to learn, it would get much worse.
March 12 was to be one of the saddest days of my life. By then the soldiers were using live ammunition almost exclusively. We were demonstrating in the downtown area when suddenly a tremendous volley of gunfire erupted. In the face of this unimaginable attack, all of the protesters fled. My friend, Zin Maung Naing, fell to the ground, shot in the chest. We were horrified but had no time to think. Terrified and acting on instinct amidst the onslaught of bullets, my cousin and I, along with two friends, picked up Ko Naing and carried him to his house in our ward. We sent for medical assistance and did what we could to ease his suffering, but he died soon after.
It was not long before two military trucks arrived at Ko Naing’s home where I and four others, including two adolescent boys, were arrested at gunpoint. We were handcuffed, forced inside one of the trucks, and driven to the local police station. Our crime? Providing life-saving assistance to a dying friend. It was difficult then, and still is today, to believe that we were arrested for a humanitarian act. However, since the very first day of the coup, every subsequent day became more and more otherworldly. We began to understand that we had embarked on a new normal.
Upon our arrival at the police station, I was ordered before the commanding officer who asked if I had helped to carry Zin Maung Naing away from the demonstration. When I answered yes, the soldiers pounced and began beating me with the stocks of their rifles and kicking me with their heavy boots. They punched my face and head, and beat my back and chest while I was still restrained by their handcuffs. The two other young men arrested with me were similarly beaten, but it was the boys who suffered the worst of it. Not only were they beaten, they were bludgeoned on their heads with rifle butts until they lost consciousness. While beating us, the soldiers threatened to exterminate the Christians for daring to oppose the Burmese regime.
After we had all been severely beaten and the two teenagers had regained consciousness, the soldiers pointed their rifles at our chests and threatened that if we were ever again to take part in a protest they would kill us without hesitation or any questions asked. Later that evening, around 8:00, our parents were brought to the police station. With them as witnesses, we were forced to swear and sign a pledge that we would never join another demonstration. After signing these agreements, we were released into the custody of our parents.
For some time afterward we had to refrain from protesting, partly out of fear of reprisals, especially to our parents, but also because we needed time to heal from our beatings. Each of us had been reduced to a bloody mess. But after recovering somewhat, I remained undeterred. In fact, after experiencing what the soldiers were capable of, I became more firmly committed to the resistance. I once again began attending the protests, but limited my activities to the early morning and nighttime, when it was somewhat safer.
On the evening of March 27, I was at a peaceful candlelit vigil with my cousin. An informant notified the military of our presence and two truckloads of soldiers soon appeared. All hell broke loose. Without warning, they opened fire on those at the vigil and randomly shot into neighbouring houses. While we were retreating, running and taking cover as best we could, my cousin was shot in the head. I immediately tried to pick him up and carry him to safety, but a friend pulled me away, shouting that, if I stayed with my cousin, I too would be shot. Against my every inclination, I understood that my friend was expressing the only sane option, and I learned later that it was what my cousin had wanted.
I returned home and informed my parents about my cousin. Knowing that the military would come looking for me, I fled to the home of a former teacher who welcomed me with great courage and kindness. His doing so probably saved my life. The following day I learned that, besides my cousin, four others were shot that night, including a woman who was hit by a stray bullet inside her home.
My cousin survived the gunshot wound to his head, but was immediately arrested, interrogated, tortured and subsequently sent to prison, where he remains to this day. While being tortured he was forced to reveal my name as one of the protest participants. (I’m sometimes asked whether I harbour any ill will toward my cousin for having given me up. This is a stupid question posed by ignorant people. While undergoing torture, especially the kind of torture meted out by the Tatmadaw, everyone talks. If anything, my love and respect for my cousin has grown enormously following these events.)
Consequently, the next morning, on March 28, a military truck and police car pulled up at my parents’ home. The soldiers informed them that my name was on their infamous 505(a) list, a Tatmadaw tally of those to be arrested. My parents steadfastly claimed not to have seen me the previous evening, but the soldiers did not believe them. In a rage, they began smashing my parents’ furniture and other possessions. Unwavering in their silence, and despite the damage and intimidation, my 62-year-old mother and 65-year-old father did not disclose my whereabouts. The soldiers reiterated that there was a warrant out for me, and, if they failed to notify the authorities the next time that I came home, they would return and kill everyone in our family.
After leaving my parents’ house, the soldiers went hunting for me at the homes of each of my relatives. Unsuccessful, they temporarily abandoned their search, but continued to keep a close watch over their homes. Not wanting to jeopardize the safety or my parents, relatives and teacher, in whose home I now sheltered, I moved further away to the home of my friend Win Htay Aung, where it was safer.
Still determined to help overthrow the junta, but now much more cautious, I continued to do what I could to defy the military by participating in both small local and large, multi-township demonstrations. To better elude the security forces, we frequently demonstrated on motorbikes, riding through villages and handing out information, with the hope of encouraging everyone to join the fight.
On May 12 my luck ran out at a demonstration on the outskirts of Bago. I was passing out leaflets when we were taken by surprise by four military trucks that appeared out of nowhere. Right away the soldiers began tossing stun grenades and shooting tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The demonstrators fled every which way, some taking refuge in the homes and shops of courageous neighbours who shielded them at great risk to themselves. While most people were able to escape, some were not so fortunate. Four people were hit by rubber bullets: three men and a woman who was hit in the head. Another woman was shot in the back, and a man wounded in the arm, both by live rounds. Many others were arrested and later tortured while being interrogated.
As I was known to some of those who had been arrested, I had no doubt that someone being tortured would be forced to give up my name. I decided that, once again, I had to flee. That decision proved to be prescient. As I had anticipated, my name came up and was found on a 505(a) list. I retreated to the home of a distant uncle who bravely hid me for a number of weeks. Eventually I received a message from my parents saying that demonstrations in their area had pretty much stopped, and that perhaps it was safe for me to return home. While I had doubts about the wisdom of their suggestion, I missed my parents terribly so decided to take the risk, which in retrospect was a horrible mistake.
Returning home, I decided to err on the side of caution. Instead of going directly to my parents’ house, I went instead to the home of a friend. But a few days later an informant spotted me and tipped off the military that I was back in the ward. Soldiers immediately went to my parents’ house. Unable to find me there, they took their frustration out on my father who had failed to inform them that I had returned. They beat him with batons, kicked him, and punched his face, tearing both his lips. With grim conviction, he revealed nothing. Eventually the soldiers left, taking my parents’ cell phones and telling them that, when eventually they found me, they would kill me. Immediately afterward, they searched the homes of my relatives and friends.
No longer able to return to my uncle’s house, I sought refuge at the home of another friend. We soon learned, however, that soldiers were searching every location where they thought that I might have a connection. My friend called a neighbour who agreed to take me in for the night. With so many policemen and soldiers about, I couldn’t risk going out on the roads, and so arrived that evening at the neighbour’s house by scaling a fence at the rear. The next morning an old man who lived there kindly drove me to a nearby monastery where I remained for a brief time.
At that point it was difficult to think clearly, but with three or four charges against me, I knew that it was time to get out. I decided to head for Thailand, even though I had no identification papers with me and little money, and would have to cross the border illegally. I knew too that I could easily be picked up by the Thai police or military and deported to Myanmar, but I couldn’t see any other option. The next day a friend introduced me to a long-haul truck driver who agreed to take me to Hpa-An on the first leg of my journey.
During the past four or five months I have seen the worst in people—the brutal, unrestrained cruelties of the soldiers and police. But I have also seen the best, in those who repeatedly risked their lives to selflessly give me and others comfort and refuge. They saved many of us.
And so I left behind my dear mother and father, aunts and uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews. I left my close friends, and others whom I never knew well, the ones who had so generously sheltered me from danger. In my mind I bid them all farewell. What the future might hold for me I cannot foretell.
Not long after Kyaw Hla Htun boarded that cargo truck, I received a phone call asking whether I could help him reach Thailand. Only a few days earlier, I had assessed my overall situation and decided that, due to various other undertakings, I could no longer spare the time to work on the Underground Railroad. I needed to step away too to preserve my sanity, because the inevitable psychological toll can be overwhelming.
The Underground Railway passes through gullies and gorges lined with blurry mirrors where, for reasons of security, truths become lies and reality becomes fiction. Trusting others is compelled by the will to live and, not infrequently, requires throwing caution to the wind. But at times when help is desperately needed, everyone is unreachable or busy. Therefore anyone who works on the Railroad spends scores, probably hundreds, of hours on the phone with “passengers” who are mentally disintegrating. Some are so frayed that their ability to arrive at any sound decision is seriously compromised.
Ideally, one should avoid getting emotionally entwined with them, but it’s almost impossible. Outgoing phone calls and text messages go unanswered, leading to panic, to wondering if a passenger’s fate has been sealed by military bounty hunters. We do our best, but now and then a call comes in alerting us to a failure, and we learn that our best wasn’t good enough—maybe we could have done more. But then we get another call about someone needing help, such as the one that I received about Ko Hla Htun. What to do then? It’s not in me to say anything other than “How can I help?” Who would respond otherwise?
I recently came to know that Ko Hla Htun is in a safe house in Thailand, where he lives in a tight two-room space with three others who are also on the run. Privacy is scarce. His roommates are concerned about his emotional state. He spends most of his time in what he refers to as his “private space,” asking not to be disturbed. Alone to think his thoughts, which are difficult to imagine, he revisits the horrors that he’s witnessed and second-guesses his previous actions. There can be no shortage of memories to torment him.
For now, he and his thoughts remain in a continuously revolving holding pattern, while he waits and hopes to be accepted into a resettlement program that will likely take him onward to a third country. But due to his mental condition, the odds of making it through the next several months are not favourable. The delay will begin to seem interminable and unbearable. It is quite possible that he, like others before him, will eventually decide to return to Myanmar, despite the acute dangers that await him. He might risk it all rather than spend another day alone with his thoughts of the past.
I and others will do what little we can to help him, just as he did what he could do to make the world an ever-so-slightly better place. Ko Hla Htun dared to resist a cruel and callous military regime led by a greedy and brutal dictator. He fought for the people’s freedom to choose, the simple freedom to express an opinion.
What Kyaw Hla Htun cannot yet know is that he is only at the beginning of what will be a long, perilous and arduous journey. He has passed only the first few stops on the twenty-first-century version of the Underground Railroad. The very fact that it is still in operation is a denunciation of how we, as a civilization, have failed. Only when this Railroad is finally obsolete everywhere, and the tracks have been ripped up once and for all, can we claim our full humanity.
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.