Christopher J. Walker reflects on the ever-intensifying dangers of daily life under military rule in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the thirteenth 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.
Home by 4pm | May 13, 2021
Sadly, this is what it has come down to. Today I received a phone call from a prominent person in our township who is also on the front lines of the resistance movement. The message was short and precise: “Brother, starting tomorrow, and for the next couple of weeks, do not leave your home after 4 pm. Please listen to me, brother. I want to thank you for all that you have done for people, but I want to know that you are safe. Remember: 4 pm.” I did not ask for any details. I have learned over the past few months the importance of not asking questions. If someone does not offer up a detail then don’t ask.
Two weeks ago I was warned by a reliable person that before long there might be fighting in the streets. He could not say when, only soon. From these two warnings, and along with other “rumblings” that I’ve heard, it does seem quite possible that skirmishes in the streets and/or bombings can be expected.
Apparently, more and more weapons are being brought into the country, many of them through the border with India. Ideological reasons aside, this is a recipe for disaster. Two or three times a week I have an opportunity to speak with others and express my opinion on this. Sadly, the tide seems to be turning in that direction.
I believe it was the nonviolent nature of the resistance movement, more than anything, that for three months captured the attention and support of people—sadly, not governments—worldwide. I want to believe that people in general are growing weary of watching violent demonstrations and, at least subliminally, are looking for something different. I hoped that peaceful demonstrations by millions of Burmese would offer a ray of hope. I might be, and probably am, deluding myself, but I continue to hold on to that hope.
No one really wants to go out in the streets and be arrested, tortured, wounded or killed. I get it. But I believe that protesters have not yet fully deployed their most powerful weapon: the general strike. Since this nightmare began, on the three or four occasions when strikes have been called they have been very well supported, including by business owners.
Fundamentally, this is all about money for the top ranks of the military. It might appear to some that it is power they want, but power is merely the means by which they steal money. The Generals have no concern for their fellow citizens and there is no evidence that they have either an interest in or an aptitude for governing the country. They just don’t want to be bothered; they want the money. Efforts they make in trying to run a government are absolutely pathetic. Even their attempts at a successful coup make one scratch one’s head, wondering, What were they thinking? However did they come up with that idea?
At this moment the economy is on the brink of a precipice. Whether there is armed resistance or a nationwide strike, the result will be the same—total economic meltdown. The only way to avoid such an outcome is for everyone to submit completely and surrender to the junta, and the likelihood of that is about the same as snow falling in Yangon.
A general strike, complete nonparticipation, is the better option. People will go hungry, no doubt. But thousands will not be murdered and many more will not be tortured. It is also possible, even likely, that a prolonged and massive general strike will better capture the attention and imagination of the global community, which would hopefully result in meaningful responses from other countries.
I close once again with a feeling of utter helplessness, but shall remember to be home by 4 pm.
Strife, urban and rural | May 14, 2021
Yesterday I mentioned the warnings that I recently received about bombings and street-fighting in our area. Indeed, today I heard the loudest explosion so far, and only about 500 metres from my apartment. I asked a friend to go and assess the damage, but he could not get near the place. The streets were closed and everyone in the area was being stopped and searched. Later we were told that the blast shook the walls of buildings and broke a lot of windows.
I seriously doubt that this was the work of the People’s Defence Force (PDF). According to my knowledge of that area, the explosion took place next to a secondary school, and even though it was unoccupied I cannot imagine that the PDF would have done this. Rather, the magnitude of the explosion makes me think that the military staged it to further inflame the situation and divide the citizenry.
Also today, I received a very short visual clip taken in the Southern Sagaing region or Northern Chin State showing a convoy of six Tatmadaw troop carriers under attack by a unit of the PDF. The ambushed transports were carrying reinforcements heading to Mindat in Chin State where a considerable amount of fighting has flared up. According to the report, at least 35 soldiers were killed. The rest abandoned their vehicles and ran down an embankment on the opposite side of the road. We could see that the soldiers had forsaken their trucks and, given that none of them were present, it seems clear that they did in fact flee.
Although I don’t wish to see any soldiers killed, after what they’ve put us through for the last three months I do wish that I could have seen them running away. They have been terrorizing people who are fighting back with slingshots, Roman candles and the occasional Molotov cocktail, and taunting and cursing them for not being braver. But it seems when faced by a small guerrilla force equipped with real though still relatively rudimentary weapons, they run away. Unlike the citizens, their hearts aren’t in it. Were it not for the fact that their families are essentially held hostage in army compounds throughout the country, many, many soldiers would be defecting.
Lights out | May 15, 2021
Given how the regime is constantly trying to silence both our voices and our actions, I find myself constantly wondering how unified we still are. One way that I try to gauge the commitment of others is by the level of enthusiasm demonstrated nightly banging our pots and pans. I think that along our street we take a certain amount of pride in knowing that, to date, no matter what the regime has thrown at us, we have never missed a single day of banging pots and pans—now more than 100 and counting.
Still, no one should be fooled by this. I think that I speak for almost everyone when I say that we have all along been in constant fear of how the soldiers will react. They have tried nearly everything to silence us—verbal threats, spray painting cars, breaking car windows, bricks through apartment windows, slingshots, stun grenades, gunfire, sniper fire and numerous arrests. But still we carry on.
For safety reasons, people have gone deeper into their apartments to bang away and consequently the racket has become slightly less clamorous than before. While we continue to bang our pots and pans night after night, we did have to stop three or four times after only five minutes instead of the usual 15. Previously we sang three protest songs, now we are limited to one or two. However we haven’t yet missed a single night.
There is little doubt that eventually the pots and pans will be heard no more. Therefore we have formulated a backup plan to show our resistance after they have been silenced. After announcing our plan on social media for two nights at the conclusion of the usual pots and pans performance, last night we tested it. Everyone was asked to turn off their lights for 15 minutes. Lo and behold, almost every light went out! It was a beautiful sight to see. From my balcony I can clearly distinguish 110 to 120 apartment fronts. I counted, and except for seven apartments all the lights were out. Of those seven, I know that five are supportive, but have elderly relatives at home or just didn’t get the message.
If we could have turned off the streetlights it would have been perfect. Immediately after the coup we still had control of the local administrative offices where the switches for those lights are located. During the first month we fought for control of that building, with possession going back and forth between local residents and the military. In the end the locals had to concede. Still, all in all, mutual support among people remains very strong, which keeps us resilient and resolute.
There go our suppliers! | May 16, 2021
At around noon I think I hear fire engine sirens, but when I mention it no one else seems to hear them. An old man’s auditory hallucinations? I go to lie down for some much-needed sleep and am awakened 15 minutes later by cries of “Fire! Fire!” I jump out of bed and join the others who are peering from their balconies. A large plume of smoke is rising from behind a tall building. At the moment there is no internet so all the phones are ringing.
I receive word that a big market is fully engulfed in flames, but because the building in front is blocking my view I cannot be sure. Later I learn that it’s the large, very familiar, multi-story indoor market, probably containing more than 100 different shops, that is my primary source of supply for all the odds and ends needed at my business. Before the coup I used to go there at least twice a month to pick up various things.
I can’t explain, but tears once again come to my eyes. Maybe I just can’t handle the sadness any longer. With the market destroyed, hundreds more people will be out of work and many will have lost their life’s savings. I continue to try and monitor what’s happening.
Yesterday another market burned to the ground in Shwebo. It was broken into after midnight by soldiers claiming to be looking for demonstrators. In fact, they ransacked the shops and stole whatever they wanted. The fire erupted as they left. When fire trucks arrived the soldiers prevented the firemen from extinguishing the flames. I’m told that the fire was set because the merchants had posted signs outside announcing that in their shops soldiers would not be served.
Muted memories | May 16, 2021
My father was born and spent his youth in rural Germany. He left the country before Hitler took over, but during WWII he parachuted back into his old neighbourhood as a spy. At some point he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in his former hometown, but was eventually able to escape with the help of some old neighbours. That’s nearly all that I’ve been able to learn about his wartime career.
As far as I know, after he returned, and after I was born, he never once made mention of any of this, nor did he ever speak of his other experiences while in the service during the war or afterward. As children, my friends and I used to play “army” with pretend guns. To us it was great fun. Although I can’t remember ever asking my dad about his wartime experiences, I’m sure that I must have learned early on that the topic was never to be broached. Somehow I abided by that throughout my life.
When I was in my forties, clearing out the attic in my childhood home in preparation for my mother’s move, I came across an old photo album that I had never known existed. Inside was a newspaper clipping discussing my father’s capture by the Nazis. I had never heard about this and was shocked to read the account. I carefully tucked the clipping back into the album and knew instinctively not to mention its discovery to my mother. Instead, I eventually visited an aunt to see what more I could learn. The only thing she would say was that my father’s experiences during the war were too painful for him to recall, much less discuss. Still, I could not understand why my father would so utterly keep such profound things from me.
Until this coup. Now I understand that my father wasn’t keeping anything from me, nor in some way trying to protect me from awful truths. There were simply things that he could not bring himself to talk about. To this day that clipping is almost all I know. And only now do I realize that I never mentioned it to any of my siblings. Anyway, most of them have passed away and so probably that is forever the end of the story.
How my father felt is probably much the same as I feel today. I am not prepared, at least at this time, to review my experiences during the past few months. It is something that I currently don’t have the ability to do. What things I’ve forgotten, I prefer to let them remain so; I have no wish to be reminded by recollecting them.
I hope that you will understand and remain willing to keep helping nonetheless. The 55 million people here extend their immense gratitude for your assistance. Be well, mes amis ….
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.