Christopher J. Walker reflects on the everyday emergencies erupting in Myanmar because of military repression.
Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth 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.
Texting an attack | March 8, 2021
Early this morning I pinged Jerry, who lives abroad, to say hello. He was not immediately available, but when he pinged me back a little later all hell had broken loose here. We ended up texting in real time, as things unfolded. I was alone, afraid, and very worried because a close friend had just left for the morning market. It was the second time in a week that she had been trapped.
The texts below give an idea of what we face every day. There are two parts: the earlier texts and then an account of the aftermath. Because of my frazzled state of mind, it was a great comfort to me to be able to communicate with Jerry as the attack occurred.
|Jerry: I’m here now. Still there?|
|Me: Yes. Soldiers are INSIDE our quarter.|
Gunshots fired and friend trapped, hiding in a stranger’s apartment.
I’m so GD scared.
|Jerry: Very sorry.|
|Me: Our security volunteers are now awake and out. They’ll try to get to her.|
Shaking so much.
The security leader is trying to get to my friend and others.
|Jerry: I’m with you.|
|Me: I haven’t got my spectacles, but I don’t see soldiers on our street anymore.|
|Me: Security team is now on their walkie-talkies, trying to locate her.|
|Jerry: Your security or military?|
|Me: Our security.|
Just got a text. She’s OK, but still hiding and very scared.
She has a walkie-talkie with her, so security will find her.
|Jerry: Were soldiers looking for her? Specifically?|
|Me: No walkie-talkie with me, so I don’t know where the soldiers are.|
Another text. Soldiers are smashing things near where she’s hiding.
It’s not safe for her to turn on her walkie-talkie.
Soldiers keep approaching where she’s hiding, but don’t find her.
2 or 3 more gunshots. Another one.
|Jerry: Are they looking for her specifically?|
|Me: They’re not looking for anyone, just making arrests.|
They extort money from people, releasing them after a ransom is paid.
|Me: Our security found her but cannot get her out yet.|
They’re hiding about 100 metres away. I think she knows where they are.
Our street is empty now except for our security, who are moving forward behind cars.
Soon they’ll be where she and others are hiding.
Security came and told me that she’s OK, but now they’re all hiding.
|Jerry: Your security guys are brave to be helping like this. You must be brave too.|
|Me: I lost sight of our security, but I think they’re about 50 metres away.|
Why do people do this to each other?
|Jerry: Dukkha samsara. Ignorance rules, along with greed and hatred.|
Glib to say, I know, but don’t become prey to the same by succumbing to hatred.
|Me: Yes, I talked to our monk friend about this yesterday.|
Now I can see our people and can tell by their posture that the soldiers are still nearby.
No more gunshots. No tear gas, no stun grenades.
|Jerry: Why is your quarter a hot spot? Random? Are many quarters going through this terror? The media here are very slow to highlight Myanmar’s plight.|
I fear it’ll take many more deaths to get people to wake up.
|Me: We’re not being singled out. This kind of thing goes on every day. Last night soldiers invaded all the quarters around us, shooting at apartment windows, breaking into shops, and stealing food and money.|
Now the all clear has been given, so I’m waiting for her. No sign of her yet.
Here she comes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
|Jerry: Very good.|
Is there not a safer place for you to go? What about her family’s house? What about the Embassy? I’m sure you’ve considered all this. I don’t know what else to suggest, except to remind you that many people here are keeping you close in their thoughts.
Be safe, be calm, be peaceful. A tall order I know, but …
|Me: About 1 hour after the above. I am told that the soldiers will soon be back with reinforcements.|
Now, approximately 2 hours after the attack, pots and pans are starting to ring out again.
Stun grenades and gunfire, a lot of gunfire. However, the situation is different now because everyone is prepared. Most are safe inside, except for our security volunteers. More gunfire.
A lot of police and soldiers are on the ground, and more are coming in trucks and cars. They are less than 50 metres from my apartment.
Now the soldiers are charging and everyone is running. Another stun grenade.
They are trying to get through near my place. They cannot. Our security team has put up a lot of barbed wire.
The soldiers are backing off. They are not equipped to deal with the razor wire. They seem to be considering how to get through.
They are attempting to come another way.
Shots in the opposite direction from where there was shooting earlier. More gunshots from the other side of our quarter.
Something is going on near my apartment because people are trapped in the middle of the street, too afraid to move. This was obviously planned by the soldiers. My friend is monitoring the walkie-talkie, so I’m in the dark.
Now the soldiers are giving up. Too much razor wire.
Those caught in the middle of the street have now scattered. In these perilous times, the steel entrance gate to each apartment building is left unlocked so that people can escape and hide inside. Once they’re in they lock it. I suspect that’s where everyone has gone.
No shots now for about 5 minutes.
Our security leader has not yet given the all-clear signal, so we don’t know what’s happening.
It’s now 3:15 in the afternoon.
More gunfire, but a bit further away.
Our quarter and others share the expense of a drone. I just received some photos. The drone is small but capable of taking great pictures.
Stun grenades, but probably two quarters distant.
The all-clear is given. Things are quiet again. People are heading out.
The security team has decided to barricade the two roads that lead into our quarter.
My friend told me that the soldiers knew that she and others were hiding in that apartment building earlier today, but they were unable to open the steel entrance gate. Instead, they cursed them from below and threw rocks through the windows.
I was also shocked to learn that I had been completely oblivious to what was happening at the end of our street. Our quarter security does its best to record everything, so late this afternoon, after the attack, I was able to see a video of what had occurred.
Here, the buildings and streets are arranged in such a way that when the wind blows in a certain direction it carries sounds with it. Apparently, today was such a day, because I couldn’t hear what was going on elsewhere. In the recording it looked like a battle nearby: tear gas, stun grenades, rifle shots, and many soldiers and police. I was completely unaware of this.
Worse than the tear gas, grenades and shooting, were the horrendous beatings that the soldiers repeatedly meted out. One recording showed an old man walking down the street, getting caught up in the chaos and attacked by three soldiers who beat the heck out of him with their truncheons. Afterward, as they walked away, one of the soldiers broke off, went back, and thrashed him some more. In another incident, five or six soldiers battered a guy who was already on the ground. They clubbed and beat him relentlessly, until finally a police captain tried to stop them. The soldiers were unmoved and callously pushed the policeman away.
But today was an important day for shopping because the government-in-exile, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), has called for a ten-day “holiday,” beginning tomorrow. Therefore many shops will remain closed. The CRPH is doing this because the coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, has announced that starting tomorrow all striking government employees must return to their jobs. By calling for a holiday, the CRPH knows that anyone going to work can be more easily identified as unsupportive of the civil disobedience movement (CDM). There have been many instances of such compliant people informing on their neighbours.
By attacking earlier today the soldiers were trying to prevent shoppers from stocking up on food beforehand. But they clearly underestimate the resolve of the people who, if they can’t have a curry dish with their rice for the next ten days, will eat only rice. And if they cannot get rice, they will just drink water. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the people will ever back down.
Many supporters of the military have already moved to Naypyidaw, the capital. In the past two days I have seen five families pack up and leave before daybreak. A lot of shopkeepers in our area and elsewhere refuse to sell to those who are against the CDM, and have even posted signs to that effect. I have mixed feelings about this and, while I might not agree, I do understand.
There have been numerous caravans of army trucks headed toward Karen State. I am told, but have not yet confirmed, that in their attempts to protect people the Karen National Union’s troops have been in combat with the junta’s soldiers. If true, this might provide some relief to us, as it will pull military resources from our area. We are all so very exhausted.
I’ve also been hearing that many women who have been arrested are being raped. In the past they avoided discussing this because of the great shame that it brings to them and their families. I don’t doubt that it is happening, because we’ve witnessed the brutality that the police and soldiers have perpetrated. One policeman posted on social media that he wants to arrest only women so that he can rape them. Utterly disgusting.
Tears and turmoil | March 19, 2021
If I were able to explain, where would I possibly begin? My writing, or even talking, about these things cannot begin to portray the reality. I can offer nothing more than a superficial description. I cannot tell you in mere words what it feels like to have a dozen soldiers below my balcony, cursing, throwing rocks through windows, trying to break into apartments and firing guns simply to create havoc. I cannot express what it feels like to crawl on my hands and knees through my apartment to avoid being shot by a sniper. Or the fear of “the knock” on the door at any time of the day or night. It goes so much deeper than words.
What’s happening now is typical. My walkie-talkie is squawking. Two hundred metres from me people are being arrested while walking along the main road. I begin to worry that the soldiers will be heading into our quarter next. Even more chilling, our local volunteer security team leader has just asked his members to check in and, out of 75 or so of them, only one did. This is all the more terrifying because, since internet access has mostly been cut, communications have been severely limited. Soldiers can now enter our quarter almost unnoticed. Yesterday they penetrated quite far in before our security team became aware of the incursion.
Yesterday, for the first time since the turmoil began, I realized that they hadn’t come. That in itself was of great concern because it made me wonder whether I was becoming desensitized to the horrific events that I keep witnessing. Was I beginning to lose my humanity? Perhaps it seems strange, but when the tears first begin to well up I feel a sense of overwhelming sadness, followed by an awareness of their warmth as they gather in my eyes. For some reason, that feeling of warmth helps to console me.
I have to stop. The soldiers on the main road are preparing to come into our quarter.
It’s now hours later. Another day of soldiers rampaging through the area, although so far they have not come onto our street. Of course, they could very well show up tonight. Many more local people were arrested and some were ordered at gunpoint to remove the barricades on the main road.
Like everyone else, I find myself exhausted throughout much of the day, making it difficult to get anything done. The adrenaline is probably running so freely that it completely wipes me out whenever it starts to drain away. Under the present conditions every task takes so much longer to accomplish. A good night’s sleep is, of course, hard to come by. Rest comes only sporadically.
As I wrote at the outset, I cannot come close to explaining adequately what we are all going through. As a child, I often wondered why my father never, ever, talked about his experiences during WWII. Now I know. I too might never be able to talk about any of this again.
What mostly keeps me going is the strength and unbelievable courage of both the students and our local security team members. Every day these young people face stun grenades, tear gas, bullets and death with little more than umbrellas, slingshots, a few sticks and wholly inadequate construction helmets. Every time they walk past my apartment on their way to a demonstration, I am in awe and so, so grateful, always wondering when and if they will return. And without our security volunteers we would never be able to sleep a wink. When this is over, if I do have any stories to tell, they will be about these brave and resolute people who want their stolen dreams back.
It’s 9 pm and the soldiers are coming again. Gotta go.
Now it’s midnight.
The soldiers returned to our quarter and others nearby throwing stun grenades and firing weapons. And they didn’t hesitate to shoot into apartments. It was really alarming. This is what they often do when they turn up to arrest people. So I spent a lot of my time sitting on the floor, not alone in thinking, “Are we on their list tonight?” It’s frightening to contemplate.
After lingering around on our street, the soldiers eventually went back to the main road and started shooting toward the tops of the electric poles, probably taking out the CCTV cameras. But I shall not be able to confirm that until daybreak. Then they went further down the road to their billet, where I think they installed new CCTV cameras, but I cannot confirm that either.
As I finish, the sun is not quite up but there is more traffic than usual. People are getting into cars and driving off. Our quarter, and I expect most others, has become like a stop on an Underground Railroad. Because of the uncertainty and violence, people are leaving their jobs and homes and trying to return to their ancestral villages. Groups originally from the same rural area pool their money and hire a car to take them away.
Armed Forces Day | March 27, 2021
7:00 am: Police and soldiers are already on the main road. Many older people are milling about on our street, presumably to serve as a cover and early warning for the students who are scheduled to begin demonstrating at 8:00. The air is thick.
8:00 am: The students are starting their protest, unfurling banners and singing and chanting slogans.
8:20 am: A warning is sounded and the students are running for cover knowing that police and soldiers are on their way. By the time they arrive everyone has vanished. Scores of police and soldiers have come into our quarter and five people have been arrested. For the next 90 minutes soldiers scour the area. Finally they leave and things quieten down, but we hear stun grenades and automatic weapons in nearby quarters.
12:30 pm: We are getting numerous reports from many areas of the country that are under heavy attack. Six children have been shot and killed, but it is difficult to confirm since mobile data services have been shut down, which means that 90 percent of people have no internet.
1:00 pm: All is quiet in our quarter. I pour myself a cup of coffee and casually head for my balcony. I take a half step out and “pop, pop, pop.” The three shots are so close that I can feel them flit past. I would like to say that I had the presence of mind to drop to the floor for cover, but it happened so quickly, in a split second, that I stood frozen in place, and the only thing that I said was, “What the hell?”
Only when my housemate appears do I have the good sense to budge. We take cover behind the wall of our balcony. After a minute or so the neighbours are out on their balconies wondering where the shots came from. There has to be a sniper at the top of our street. Among the things that we’ve learned to distinguish are the sounds of the various guns. The long snipers’ rifles are higher-pitched than the more commonly issued infantry rifles.
1:30 pm: We get a call from an adjacent quarter requesting assistance. Students are trapped and need a safe house. We are unable to respond because we cannot venture out. The visual recordings that we receive on our phones are so horrific that we can’t keep watching.
2:00 pm: Students are again being chased through our quarter. Our neighbour below took in two, a few seconds before soldiers arrived hunting for them. They questioned a street vendor who directed them away from where the students were hiding. The soldiers ran off, conducted a search, and after finding nothing returned and again grilled the vendor. She repeated her story. After ten minutes the soldiers gave up. For the next 45 minutes everyone on our street tried to find the students a safer place. Eventually, after some harrowing moments, they were able to escape.
2:15 pm: A phone call. Some fires have started.
3:00 pm: Another call. The American Center adjacent to the U.S. Embassy has been fired upon. There are no details, but it could only be 5,000-kyat men attempting to sow suspicion and apprehension.
4:00 pm: We receive confirmation that four shots were fired at the American Center from an unmarked car. There were no injuries. Numerous calls are coming in reporting that many people were shot and killed this afternoon in Mandalay.
We hear continuous gunfire nearby and receive reports that soldiers are now hurling hand grenades. Later, this was confirmed.
More than 100 people lost their lives today. My faith in humanity had never been lower.
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.