Christopher J. Walker reflects on the everyday emergencies erupting in Myanmar because of military repression.
Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth 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 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.
Chaos and confusion | March 31, 2021
I have done the best I can with the following report. Each time the soldiers come through our quarter, for reasons of safety I have to scrub my communications, close everything down, and hide my notes and devices. In the recent past our local security volunteers were able to give us a five- to ten-minute warning of troop arrivals. Unfortunately, the ranks of our security team have been decimated; almost all of its members have fled or are in hiding. This is partly because of the loss of the ability to use our walkie-talkies, but to a greater extent it’s due to the sad reality that the soldiers and police have identified many of our security people and are actively searching for them in our quarter.
A day or two ago soldiers appeared without warning and, in my rush to sanitize works in progress, I accidentally deleted my notes. I will have to reconstruct them as best I can. Hence, the events described below are accurate, but the same cannot be said with certainty for the dates and times.
On the night of March 27 a nearby quarter came under a great deal of pressure from the soldiers but, perversely, that ward has one big advantage. It contains a lot of housing for poor workers, most of whom live in bamboo cottages lacking dependable electricity, which at night generally makes for a dark neighbourhood. People there have no internet, but among them we have very good contacts.
In that impoverished quarter, a truckload of about 16 soldiers chased a large group of demonstrators down a side street. I don’t know the specifics, but the unarmed protesters somehow trapped the soldiers on a road in the pitch-black darkness. Apparently the soldiers were surrounded and in a real jam. A tremendous amount of gunfire and stun grenades ensued, but no one was hurt because it was too dark for the soldiers to see their targets. Then, several flares went up adjacent to the single army truck—a call for reinforcements, who arrived soon after. As several truckloads drove up the demonstrators vanished into the night.
Damn! Perfect example. As I was writing the above, police and soldiers arrived in our quarter and everyone started to beat pots and pans. We continued banging away for quite some time, but our unwanted visitors didn’t respond as usual by shouting, cursing, breaking windows, throwing stun grenades, and rifle fire. We were not too surprised by this, and in fact were not expecting a reaction. I apologize that I can’t say why, because to do so would give away my location. Anyway, back to where I left off.
Around midnight on March 29 someone posted a desperate plea for help, asking for people to go immediately to that same poor quarter, and to inform all the embassies about the tragedy unfolding there. While we had heard similar pleas before, this one was much more frantic and urgent. I’m sure that others tried to get there to help, but I cannot confirm this. I can say that, from about midnight to 1 am, people from all over this area furiously banged pots and pans in hopes of drawing soldiers out of that quarter.
A minimum of 22 people have died there in the last three days; other sources suggest the number is greater than 30. Those arrested were forced to kneel before the soldiers and, using a bullhorn, one of them told the demonstrators that if any more slingshot stones came their way the soldiers would be ordered to shoot those who had been detained. An armoured vehicle with a tank turret was also brought in, but there were no reports of its use.
We were told that, in addition to the hand grenades that soldiers hurled in the past week, they are now launching rocket-propelled grenades. We heard exactly the same thing from another township a couple of days earlier. We received some before-and-after photos of a barricade that had reportedly been fired upon with an RPG. While, clearly, a huge hole had been blown through the barrier, I cannot confirm that it was caused by an RPG. It could have been some other type of munition, but it does appear to my untrained eye that it had to have been something more powerful than a hand grenade.
We also saw a photo of a body that had been thrown onto a burning barricade, of what seemed to be tires, and received numerous reports of soldiers breaking into homes, stealing anything of value and throwing food into a nearby drainage canal. They are continuing even today, two days later, to try and arrest anyone in that quarter associated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Shit!! Gunshots and stun grenades going off. I have to shut down.
OK, trying again. Earlier tonight the police chased some students down our street. They stopped in front of one of our safe houses and my heart sank as the policemen shouldered their rifles. Then, amazingly, they looked in a different direction and departed a few minutes later. After we got the all-clear, one of my housemates decided to walk to the nearby market. We have a standing joke that she is like a magnet: whenever she goes out we can be sure that soldiers will soon be drawn toward her. She has already twice been forced into hiding when soldiers suddenly appeared to conduct raids and random arrests.
Anytime friends leave my apartment, I am on what I call “balcony watch,” since from my balcony I have a clear view of the route that they must take. True to form, in the time that it took her to reach the market the situation on the street changed completely. I phoned and told her not to return. Minutes later, people in the street below suddenly scattered in all directions. I called her again and said to stay put. After the all-clear was given I called once more and told her to run back. She got halfway down the empty street when three policemen began to approach from the opposite direction, but a quick-thinking trishaw driver persuaded them into his vehicle and drove them away.
Damn it again!!! Pots and pans are sounding. Scrub and hide. I have no information about what is happening and I can’t see anything on the road. But I hear, “bang, bang, bang”!
A little later, out of curiosity, I decided to go out to a place a short distance away from my apartment to see what was going on. While there, I spotted an unknown group of protesters that has begun operating in the area. Because of my particular view through the trees, I could see what others probably could not. This group was in action and I had a pretty good idea what they were up to, but for their safety I can say no more. I realized that I was exhausted so I headed back home.
I guess it’s evident from what I’ve written above that most days, what with the constant interruptions, it’s difficult to get anything done. Given the hour, I shall not be able to finish this today or maybe even tomorrow, but I should mention that today Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, is in the country. As most people know, all mobile data services have already been shut down, meaning that probably 90 per cent of people have no internet access. Apparently, the military elected to keep the WiFi operational in Ms. Ward’s honour but decided to cut the electricity, so there’s no internet at all!
Heartbreaking | April 2, 2021
I’m awake at 4 am. I hear those same sounds outside. I go to the balcony and, sure enough, on our street people are packing their belongings into cars and trucks, preparing to head for safer abodes. It’s heartbreaking to see. I’m wondering if there will ever be an opportunity for them to return. A rough count indicates that about 30 percent of the apartments are now empty. Day by day and more and more, our quarter resembles a ghost town.
Most, if not all, of the children have left, but from time to time I still see that three-year-old girl who lives across the street on the same floor that I do. I like to joke with her across the way, making funny faces that she always finds amusing. And we blow kisses—here called “flying kisses”—to one another. I will certainly miss her when she, no doubt, eventually leaves for her grandparents’ village. It really breaks my heart. Be well, chit leh, my little love.
This morning my housemate acquiesced. I’ve been permitted to accompany her while she walks her dog in the neighbourhood. River is her three-year-old, flaxen-haired mutt, one of the many strays that she has adopted over the years. Like all of us, he is having a difficult time in the current stressful situation. As a puppy he was mauled by a larger dog and his belly had to be stitched up. The wound continues to open and get reinfected, requiring new stitches every three or four months. It reopened again soon after the coup, but no veterinarians are now available so there is little that can be done for him. He’s pretty tolerant, but doesn’t allow me to come too close. We fear that in another few weeks he might become another innocent casualty of this tragedy.
We left about 7:30 to take River for his walk. This was my first time out since March 27, the day that I came within centimetres of being hit by three sniper’s bullets as I stepped onto my balcony. Our stroll was uneventful, but no sooner had we turned around to head back than a police truck pulled up right beside us, and a dozen policemen with rifles in hand got out of the back. I have tried for two months to prepare myself psychologically for this moment. Strangely, I was neither afraid of them nor filled with animosity. My first thought was even stranger: I just wanted to have a chat with them. But, sensibly, I remained silent.
Their captain exited from the cab, walked around to the front of the truck, turned away from us and led his men to the other side of the street. We didn’t know what to do other than keep walking slowly away, and so with great relief we made it to the gate of our building and went up the stairs. I had previously been in two similar situations with soldiers, and the only nerve-wracking part was walking away wondering whether a bullet would slam into my back. But then, too, I made it home safely.
From my apartment I could see what caught their attention was a safehouse that people had been secretly preparing for a couple of weeks. From all appearances it looks like an uninhabited building. The police stood looking it over for a few minutes, but soon piled back into their truck and headed off.
We learned later that the police have changed their tactics. Instead of trying to chase dissidents down during the day or night when they are more likely be active, they are hoping for greater success by hunting around daybreak when people will probably be asleep. They have also introduced one other innovation: if the person they seek is not found at home, they take as hostage a family member who will supposedly be released when their quarry surrenders. Nuances like legalities don’t, of course, enter into it. The police and soldiers act with impunity, without any boundaries or decency.
By 9 am I was preparing for my WiFi service to be turned on, which it usually is at about this time. No sooner had service been restored than I received several calls and posts reporting that broadband would now be shut down indefinitely. With broadband and mobile data terminated, I estimate that only about two per cent of the population now has access to the internet.
There is little doubt that eventually WiFi too will stop, and when that happens we shall have only one other option, which I can’t mention for security reasons. We are not even completely sure that it will work. We only know of two occasions when technicians bravely reopened some slower mobile data bands, but those bands were quickly discovered and forcibly closed back down. Our access to news has largely disappeared; we now rely more on our phones than we do the internet.
Banks tend to remain closed, and success at ATMs requires a great deal of luck because they run dry rather quickly. After closing temporarily, Kanbawza Bank, one of the largest in the country, has been able to keep only five city branches open because most employees are on strike. Many of them are in hiding, fearful of being forced to return to work at gunpoint. I know of two who are sheltering in our neighbourhood, but am certain there are others. When Kanbawza reopened, patrons were shocked to learn that they could no longer walk in and expect to be served. They first have to submit an online application stating the service they require as well as other relevant information. Two days are then required to review the application. What outrages people most is that few have access to the internet and therefore no way to submit an application!
CNN’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, has been here for the past few days and is being escorted around by a convoy of police, soldiers and stooges. People have tried to determine where she is being taken every hour of the day, but with little internet access it has been almost impossible to discover her itinerary. In addition to her official convoy, she is preceded by a large advance party of plain-clothed soldiers and secret police who keep a close eye on her interactions with people. Today at a local market two women tried to speak with her surreptitiously, and succeeded for a few seconds. After Ms. Ward left, both women were arrested.
In the afternoon she was taken downtown and, in spite of whatever her minders intended her to see, her attention was captured by a line of people at an ATM who were subtly trying to give Ms. Ward the anti-coup, three-finger salute of solidarity and resistance. As the soldiers became aware of this, Ward discreetly signalled to those in the queue that she had gotten their message and that they should stop for their own safety. I have seen neither a visual recording nor a photo of this encounter, but someone posted about it later saying how he weeps when contemplating what has happened to his country. It was a moving yet ominous piece.
In all of this, I think the most distressing detail is once again to see people in public having to speak in whispers as their eyes dart about for potential snoops and informers. That was the thing that shocked me most when I first visited Myanmar many years ago. And here we are again. It’s heartbreaking.
Global morality | April 3, 2021
The new fashion is to talk about the global economy, but never do we speak of global morality. In Myanmar, people were hoodwinked into believing that they would benefit from joining the global economy. But the global economy does nothing, other than ensure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The global economy is a house of cards on a foundation of straw. A global morality would be a foundation on stable bedrock.
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.