Chronicle of a Coup: June 3 & 5, 2021

Christopher J. Walker describes resistance to the military repression in Myanmar, in demonstrations, and in education.

Editor’s Note: This post is the eighteenth 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.

Protest logistics  |  June 3, 2021

Today, like so many days before, I find myself in tears. If asked why, I would be unable to provide a reason. They just come, suddenly and without warning, conjured forth by things I have seen and those, no doubt, yet to come. How can one megalomaniac inflict such immense suffering on so many millions, while the international community looks on, now and then mumbling a few words of concern, but nonetheless permitting his atrocities to continue? Then again, the tears might also be attributed to the constant sleep deprivation that we all experience. Even when we do sleep, we awaken feeling debilitated, depleted, exhausted, empty—as though we haven’t slept at all.

But, for now, I push all that aside and get on with my day. Every morning begins with meetings, both to strategize and about immediate concerns. Then I catch up on the news. Others who use Facebook and similar sources apprise me of whatever fails to make it into the major media. Apparently, all round the country today anti-coup demonstrators are already out, not in their tens of thousands as in weeks prior, but still enough to let their collective indignation be known. All of them are well aware of the extreme danger in which they put themselves by protesting, even greater now than before. Labelled by the junta as terrorists, they can be shot dead at any time. 

Nonetheless, everywhere, whenever and wherever possible, they raise their voices in the sweltering city streets and in dusty village lanes.

Currently, these spectacles usually take the form of so-called flash mobs or guerrilla demonstrations, instantaneously appearing and just as quickly vanishing. They are by no means easy to execute safely, requiring as they do all the careful planning and choreography of a magic act or grand illusion. What’s more, they necessitate an exceptionally high degree of co-ordination and trust: the life of each participant is in the hands of the others.

A few days ago, in one of the cities in the country’s heartland, such a demonstration occurred, one whose operational details were explained to me afterward. To protect the security of the organizers, I’ll confine myself to information that is already generally known to the police and the military. One should also note that these demonstrations are constantly evolving, always in flux, reviewed, tailored and improved upon according to circumstances on the ground.

Planning for a guerrilla demonstration begins long before it is carried out, and requires the commitment of many people. First up is the choice of location. This decision is based primarily upon safety concerns. Of late, the military has attempted to out-think the demonstrators by stationing soldiers and police, often dressed as civilians and with weapons concealed beneath their clothing or in a backpack, in places presumed likely for a protest. At times snipers are hidden on rooftops or in upper-floor apartments.

One potential primary site is chosen, along with three or four alternates, in case on the day of the protest the location has to be changed on the spur of the moment. Each site is given a code name—a number, a colour or some catchy word. To reduce the risk of information leaking out to the military, that name is not released to participants until the day, or even mere hours, before the demonstration.

Once the primary and backup sites have been selected, significant surveillance is undertaken by local volunteer security teams in each locale. It is their responsibility to get a feel for the “rhythm” of the area, to identify the usual military routes and, crucially, all the possible ways of escape. Because mistakes can result in the arrest or death of one’s companions, many hours are consumed carefully assessing each location.

After the final site has been determined, additional surveillance is carried out in the days just before the demonstration to ensure that no changes have occurred in the immediate neighbourhood. Choices for the various routes and means of transport leading into the area are mapped out for the individual participants, so that soldiers and police will not be tipped off by small groups of people travelling together.

While the organizers fine-tune these arrangements, the protesters are busy preparing personal placards, large vinyl banners, masks, disguises and other items that they’ll need. All these things are carefully packed in small bags in such a way that they will not draw anyone’s attention along the way to their destination, but can be rapidly deployed once the protest begins.

Early on the day of the demonstration, the first to be positioned are the scouts, whose job it is to watch all the perimeter roads for any indication of soldiers in the area, and to stay in constant contact by phone with the lead organizers. Should the scouts identify any unexplained changes or circumstances that might render the site too precarious, the leaders will quickly choose an alternate location where other scouts have already been stationed.

If the site is judged to be safe, the participants are notified. They then begin to travel alone or in pairs toward the area via the predetermined routes. Timing is critical, so that everyone arrives on site at more or less the same moment. As the kickoff call goes out from the leaders, everyone rushes forward simultaneously while extracting their placards, banners, flags, megaphones, cameras and other vital equipment. They head off down the preselected road shouting slogans and singing songs of protest.

It is not uncommon for passersby to join in, while the residents of adjacent apartments express their gratitude and admiration by applauding the marchers’ bravery and encouraging them onward. Observers well above street level keep an eye out for soldiers entering the area. Typically, at the front of the demonstration are two or three photographers whose job it is to shoot photos and videos that will be uploaded later to social media sites. Because of the brevity of the marches, sharing the videos is of great importance: they give others the courage to join future demonstrations or to organize their own protests.

As the demonstration unfolds, the scouts on the perimeter roads are on the lookout for military or police vehicles, and for civilian vehicles that contain security forces either in or out of uniform—a challenging task. The soldiers will invariably arrive, and as soon as they are spotted a warning is passed to the on-site demonstration leaders who will put out an urgent alarm. The protesters instantly scatter, running to safety in all directions, some escaping into a waiting car, others ducking into a nearby shop or restaurant, or seeking shelter in an unlocked apartment building. Wherever they go, in less than 30 seconds they will have all disappeared, purposely abandoning their signs and other paraphernalia in the road as souvenirs for onlookers or to be gathered up and destroyed by the military.

Viewing videos of these demonstrations is almost as stressful as I imagine it would be to participate. Whenever I watch I’m transfixed, hoping that the protesters aren’t pushing their luck. Sometimes they can successfully march for many minutes before having to disperse. In my mind I’m telling them to run, shouting the same, while also knowing that they’ll continue onward until the word is given to flee. When they do, it’s as if they suddenly evaporate and, poof, they’re gone.

My day might begin with tears, but they too vanish when I see these protesters bravely marching, demanding the return of their freedom to speak, their freedom to choose. One cannot help but marvel at their resilience, their brazen courage, their refusal to be silent, their insistence on their rights—no matter the cost.

Empty schools  |  June 5, 2021

Embed from Getty Images

In an April 25 report, I mentioned that all pupils from kindergarten to high school were to resume classes at the beginning of June. The junta insisted that they would begin on Tuesday, June 1, and that parents had to enrol their children during the week before. There was much speculation about how many parents would do so and, of those, how many would actually send their kids to school.

This week the answer became clear: not many. The meagre numbers were thanks to the parents who did not want their children’s education to be regulated and supervised by the army. But it’s also significant that approximately half of the teachers are still on strike, demonstrating their support for the many other government employees who have vowed not to work for the military. Accordingly, many teachers have faced threats about their decision not return to their schools. Some have succumbed, but most have remained resolute.

The junta’s enrolment announcement was initially greeted with scorn. Parents declared that they would boycott the government schools when they opened. The junta took their assertion seriously and countered with an incentive: any students who returned to class would be credited for two years of study after completing only one. The manner in which the unpopular education minister, U Nyunt Pe, was going to implement this strategy, essentially permitting some students to skip a grade, was never mentioned. 

The ploy was seen for what it was, a further degradation of an already severely eroded education system badly mismanaged by the military and its minions.

The day after the schools reopened, two articles appeared in local journals reporting that, in a show of support for all those on strike, 90 per cent of students did not show up. It was gratifying to learn that there was such unwavering support for the civil disobedience movement among the parents. Nonetheless, I always try to confirm what I’ve read or been told, so I decided to check the neighbourhood primary school down the street. It only goes up to grade 6, and in normal times serves about 150 students per session.

Last week during the enrolment period, two armed soldiers were posted in front of the school to protect the students. From what or whom, I have no idea. Their presence can only be construed as being counterproductive, serving not as reassurance but rather as a reminder of just how fraught the current situation is. As I walked toward the school I was mindful of the need for caution. A grizzled stranger checking on the attendance of small children might be rightly looked upon with suspicion, not only by the soldiers but perhaps by the teachers as well.

But the doors and windows were wide open. From the street I could see precisely three students, three teachers and two soldiers. That was it. Later in the day a local parent informed me that there were actually seven children present. While the dearth of students certainly caught my attention, it was the presence of the soldiers with automatic rifles that defined the moment. What would these kids possibly make of two armed men sitting inside their classroom, especially having witnessed what some of their similarly uniformed colleagues had perpetrated in the streets?

There’s a similar school downtown that caters mostly to the children of active and retired military personnel who live in the centre of the city. A neighbour passing by noticed that, while the school was better attended than others in the area, it was obvious that the number of students was much lower than usual.

A friend’s mother resides in a small village outside the city. She reported that only one teacher was present to greet students on Tuesday, forced to do so by the local army commander. But not a single student showed up. Reacting to the attitude of the villagers, the local military administrator promptly proposed to close the school, and that the teacher, who had lived in the village her entire life, would be transferred elsewhere. Hearing of her plight, a few parents came to her rescue by agreeing to send their seven children to the school so that she would not have to relocate. The military decreed that the school could now remain open and the teacher was permitted to stay in her village.

Last year the public schools did not reopen in June on account of the COVID-19 epidemic. Students have already missed an entire year of schooling and are prepared to forgo another. Very sad indeed.

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.