Christopher J. Walker describes the everyday crises triggered by military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the eleventh 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.
Standing guard | May 1, 2021
As I have briefly touched upon before, about a week into the coup our quarter—probably like most others throughout the country—assembled a local volunteer security force to warn of, and distract, approaching soldiers and police. Ours consisted of approximately 75 brave men and women who were stationed in, around, and well outside our quarter.
About six weeks ago our security team had to be disbanded mainly because its leader, along with numerous others, was placed on the regime’s wanted list. Many were arrested and those who remained free had to go into hiding. For most of the past month that has left us pretty much unprotected. This has not worked out well when we are banging pots and pans each night and singing protest songs. Without knowing the movements of the soldiers and police, and given that many of them are now billeted in our quarter, we were too easily caught in the act performing our nightly concert, and liable to be arrested.
So, during the last couple of weeks we have tried to patch together another small security team to guard our quarter, and once again we now have at least a modicum of protection. Sadly, we are not that well organized. A week ago we were caught unawares and three neighbours across the street, all men, were arrested for banging pots. Actually it was the grandmother and wife of one of the men who were doing the banging. I know this because at times I have seen the grandmother on the balcony outside her apartment beating a 55-gallon drum in defiance of the military regime.
Some time ago, however, I broke my spectacles and have not wanted to spend the money to buy new ones. Also, those available here are all made in China, whose products we are actively boycotting, so I would rather remain half blind. Still, I can see movement in the distance well enough to know that, at night, it would be attributable to police or soldiers, since according to the martial law curfew no one else is allowed outside at that time.
While the banging of pots and pans goes on, I can watch from my balcony with little risk of being seen. Other spotters are stationed with all lights out just inside the doorway to our building. We are also monitoring the few communications that we receive from others both within and outside our quarter, though these messages are often spotty and not always accurate enough to be of much help.
From one end of my balcony I can see right to the end of our street. I have a pretty clear view of a primary approach that I can keep an eye on. At the corner, where a side street intersects, is a tree, and within the foliage there’s a gap in the leaves through which I can see the feet of approaching soldiers. It takes them three more steps before they are out from behind this screen and only then can they possibly see me. So before they take those steps I have to shout “lar bee,” which warns my neighbours that troops are on the way. Immediately all pots and pans are silenced, and just as quickly I have to hit the deck before being seen. When the banging stops on our end of the street, those in apartments beyond the reach of my voice also know it’s time to stop. Then we all wait.
After calling out the warning, I crawl on my hands and knees back inside my apartment to take up my second position. We have to try to keep close track of the number of advancing soldiers because sometimes one or two will unobtrusively peel off from the group and hide behind a tree or parked car. Directly across the street is a long glass window and, with a streetlight providing some illumination, from inside my apartment I can see just enough of a reflection to be able to count the soldiers as they pass.
My count might not always be accurate, since immediately after crossing the intersection one of them might hide. However they seem to lack the courage to be alone; ordinarily they work in pairs. I could miss the first one who drops out but feel certain, given the short time before I see them in the reflection of the window, that I can spot the second one before he hides. But there’s no guarantee, and that tests my nerves later on. I relay the number of soldiers that I count to another person inside my apartment who texts off that number. If I first see ten soldiers at our end of the street but only eight show up at the other, I know that two are hiding somewhere. At least that’s the theory.
After I think they have passed by, I crawl back onto the balcony and, from behind a longyi hanging on the railing, I peek out to make sure that they have all completely moved on. If so, I then recheck the direction from which they came to ensure that none are in their favourite hiding places. If the street is clear both ways, then I slowly stand up at the end of the balcony. And this is the part I hate the most—I have to crane my head out far enough to see to the very end of the street to determine where the soldiers have gone.
Unless they are out chasing protesters, rarely do they pass through without shouting, breaking windows, throwing rocks at the fronts of the apartments, damaging cars or attempting to break in somewhere to make an arrest. Once they have gone all the way to the end of our street and out onto the main road, I will then start to hear someone clapping to a beat that is immediately taken up by others until everyone is clapping. Next they break into the first of two protest songs that we sing every night. That is also a time when it’s important for me to continue to remain alert. If, before they get too far, the soldiers hear us singing, we can be sure that they will come back with a vengeance.
Last night in the quarter next to ours, soldiers returned to a street where, from upper-floor apartments at one end, residents were swearing at them and shouting all sorts of names. When the soldiers arrived at where the shouting was, it stopped. But then the other end of the street started cursing, drawing the soldiers back to whence they had come. Back and forth the soldiers went, threatening residents and throwing bricks and pieces of concrete through windows. (Apparently, they were recently ordered not to shoot or use stun grenades, but that in no way means they won’t.)
What was unusual about last night was that the residents were especially angry and would not stop their cursing and name-calling. For the first time that I am aware of the soldiers retreated before quietening the street. However, later, in a video recording, I could hear the soldiers threatening that they would be back tonight. No doubt they will.
People used to be very much afraid of the soldiers, however as time goes by they are getting angrier and angrier and more and more willing to take the kind of chances that they would never have contemplated three months ago. But of course, as we have already seen, such bravery can have deadly consequences.
This is what we do and what we face every night. We bang our pots and pans and sing our songs of protest. What is so very important about this exercise is that people feel they at least have a voice, and when others up and down the street join in it reminds each of us that we are not alone and, in fact, are in a vast majority.
Reaching out for blood | May 4, 2021
The first call that came in this morning on one of my secure lines was regarding an issue that I hadn’t faced before: blood was urgently needed. I knew just enough to ask the type and amount, but that was it. They wanted four pints of A-positive, which, reaching back to my high school biology classes, is, or so I believe, one of the more common blood types. Four pints didn’t seem like a huge amount.
The group that made the request had people willing to donate but none were sure of their blood type. And they needed to find a place where the blood could be drawn and tested. This was further complicated because they were all activists wanted by the police, and venturing outside of their safe house would be at enormous risk. I started working the internet and the phones, which was also difficult because it all had to be done on secure lines.
I finally decided to give up on security and make an overseas call, something a lot more dangerous because it is the most easily traced. The person whom I reached was here a month or so ago setting up a blood bank run by volunteers for anyone seriously injured in the civil disobedience movement. The reply was not helpful. All the blood supplies that they were able to acquire had been confiscated and the volunteers forced into hiding.
Then I got a second desperate call: “We need the blood now.” I continued to phone others to see whether they knew their blood type, but came up empty. My efforts were probably futile because, even had I found someone with the correct type, I had no idea where the blood could be drawn. And even if that had been done I would have had to get it safely to the person in need, who was likely at a safe house or small ad hoc clinic hidden from the regime’s troops. Still, I kept trying.
By the third hour of the crisis I had found a number of people with type A blood and every one of them was very eager to help, but none knew whether they were Rh positive or negative. And then my contact with the group was cut off, either because their batteries were dead or for security reasons they had to shut off their phones.
What angers me most is that about ten days ago, on April 24, at an emergency session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held in Jakarta, their leaders reached a consensus on five points that General Min Aung Hlaing agreed to, the fourth being that he would accept ASEAN humanitarian aid. But after the junta leader returned to Myanmar he issued a statement saying that he would “consider” those five points required by ASEAN only after stability and peace had been restored. This of course will never happen as long as his regime remains in power.
One more sad day in hell | May 5, 2021
Today was one of those days when I felt completely ineffective and helpless. I woke up feeling exhausted as I do every morning. As usual, I had slept for about five hours, but felt as though I’d barely nodded off. This morning there was an obvious reason: at 2 am I was awakened by a very loud explosion, the largest I had ever heard, and of course everyone rushed to the apartment balconies. We still have no idea where or why, but we have been told that it was more than a kilometre away. Even at that distance the sound of the blast was enormous.
Like every other morning, on this one too, while having coffee I had to pull myself together and find the strength to face another day of horrors. Then came the most difficult part of the day, when I am updated on the events of the previous afternoon and night. It is always so depressing. Ever since mobile data were shut down, these meetings are shorter but no less gruesome. I hate it, but I have to listen and ask questions.
When that was over I headed out for a brief walk, something that I try to do every morning. Today’s walk was more difficult than usual for one notable reason: the police and soldiers are employing new tactics. Now many, if not most, are wearing civilian clothes and just milling about or driving unmarked cars and motorbikes. It is extremely unnerving because I no longer have any idea who is who. Those on foot no doubt pack concealed sidearms. Those in cars have rifles, while those on motorbikes carry guns slung at their backs, so as they approach they appear to be ordinary civilians. This is the regime’s new form of rapid deployment. They can appear out of anywhere and rapidly descend on their unsuspecting prey. We have heard many instances of younger people being arrested for no reason other than that they might be protesters.
Being distrustful of everyone I passed had a profound effect on my psyche. I usually try to remain extremely vigilant while out walking, but this morning I gave up. I just didn’t care anymore and began to sob as I trudged along. Typically, for reasons of safety, I no longer stop and rest while out for a walk, but today I threw caution aside and went all the way to the railway tracks, where I sat down. I could no longer control my tears. People passing by seemed concerned, but of course no one dared to stop and ask whether I needed help.
As I sat there I noticed that a demonstration was about to begin. People wearing black were almost simultaneously emptying out of apartments and heading for the main road. I have such profound admiration for each and every one of them, but I didn’t dare cheer them on because my clapping would have only brought them unwanted attention. And I myself was not at all in a safe location: I was sitting beside the very same tracks that soldiers frequently use to get from one quarter to another, and on the edge of what was likely going to erupt into a guerrilla-style protest. I quickly pulled myself together and headed home.
Along the way and just in front of me was a two- or three-year-old girl being carried by her father. To me she seemed to be holding on for dear life. The thought brought me to tears once more, but I was now near my apartment. Before I went inside I dried my eyes and put on a smile so that my sadness would not spread to those who awaited my return.
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.