Christopher J. Walker reflects on the urgent security and financial concerns amidst the military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the fourteenth 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.
Shot Dead | May 17, 2021Embed from Getty Images
This morning in a neighbouring township, a small bomb went off in the offices of the oakkahta. In a previous report I mentioned that the okkahta is the highest-ranking government official in every ward or quarter, ordinarily an elected position with a five-year term. Following the coup, all such officials who would not support the military regime were thrown out and, in most cases, replaced by retired military officers.
It turns out that the bomb was merely a diversion. When the new oakkahta left his home to check on the situation, he was gunned down by a shot to the head and died immediately in the street. Although no group has claimed responsibility, I have heard on many occasions that those who accepted such appointed positions would be dealt with severely. I already know that something similar is being planned for our quarter’s oakkahta, but I have no idea what it might be and no desire whatsoever to find out.
These newly installed oakkahtas are primarily informers for the junta and do little else. In the past the elected oakkahtas had many local responsibilities, but these days, as a show of resistance, nobody goes to their offices anymore. If anyone does, his or her name is circulated within the quarter.
Many will be very happy that this military-appointed oakkahta was killed today, but I don’t understand why he had to die. There are other deterrents short of murder that could have been employed to send a grim message of admonition to all such oakkahtas. Then again, he could have been killed by the secret police for being a double agent, which would explain the execution-style murder. It’s hard to say, but head shots are the regime’s modus operandi.
There is one upside to this tragedy. A squad of 15 soldiers has now been assigned to protect the oakkahta in our quarter, and I’m sure that the same has been done in many others. If nothing else, the execution will have resulted in the redeployment of hundreds of soldiers who have been responsible for arresting, beating, torturing and shooting innocent civilians, from patrolling the streets to guard duty.
Held hostage by money | May 17, 2021
In my experience the Burmese have long distrusted banks, which is quite understandable. As the country’s experiment with quasi-democracy evolved, I once or twice broached the topic of banking with employees at my office, explaining the benefits of developing a relationship with an accredited lender in case at some future point they wanted to make a major purchase like a car or a home. I always had reservations about suggesting this, not because there might have been a coup in the future, but rather on account of my own distaste for any institution operated by the exceedingly wealthy. But to explain all of that in translation would have been an impossible task. Fortunately, no one took my advice and so none of them have money now stranded in a Burmese bank.
But there are millions of ordinary citizens who do, and consequently the wealthy few have, in a sense, become the unsuspecting adversaries of the many. Wealthy Burmese tend to diversify their savings by keeping money in both private and government accounts. Over the last five years, as the troubled democracy project unfolded, many of them leaned toward government banks because of the greater options they offered and better investment returns. These are the people who have the most money to lose.
Therefore, it is these same people who most want some semblance of government stability, believing that will give them easier access to their money. Currently there is a severe limit on how much anyone can withdraw each month, the equivalent of about US$450. We have heard that government banks will not permit greater withdrawals until at least June. Even then, online applications are required, and, if approved, customers are given an appointment and have to go into the bank to withdraw their money.
The reality is a sad one. Generation Z is not about to back down. But a return to stability will require the wealthy to surrender to the military regime. With the capitulation and compliance of the upper classes, there is a chance that some kind of stability can be restored, although at a very great cost—namely, the loss of personal freedoms and the most basic human rights. However the Generals try to package “stability,” we now know very clearly the depths of depravity to which they are quite willing to sink in order to get their way.
Unfortunately, with their money in mind, many in the upper-middle and wealthy classes will consciously or subconsciously accept whatever rosy picture the junta will attempt to paint. And once the wealthier classes join in, the poorer classes will be forced to follow because they need to eat. Generation Z will be left out on a limb.
As with so many things in this life, it all comes down to the money, which is, ultimately, the reason we are in the midst of this ghastly coup to begin with. We pray before the altar of money. Many have sold their hearts and minds for it.
All for $34 | May 18, 2021
A good friend and neighbour stopped by today for a visit. He was on his way home after trying unsuccessfully to withdraw money from an ATM at the nearby Ayeyarwady (AYA) Bank, the only one that from the earliest days of the coup actively tried to help people.
One of the problems people face with ATMs is that they never know which machines will have money, because the amount that a bank can dispense in a day is limited by the junta. In some instances, we have heard, there is a daily limit on the number of people that an ATM can serve. It’s common these days that when someone notices a machine being filled, calls go out or posts will appear on Facebook, followed by a stampede to that particular branch. And because so few machines are filled with money, there are always very long queues.
AYA is a private bank and takes a more humane approach. On its Facebook page it posts the branches throughout the city where its ATMs will be filled. Knowing this, our friend went early to the nearby branch listed. When he arrived he learned that the ATM had not yet been filled, so he went to wait in a nearby tea shop. When he returned at 9 am a long queue had already formed. He was to be customer #85. The assignment of numbers is handled by the customers themselves; bank staff do not bother. Having assigned numbers is helpful because people can wait in a shady spot until theirs is up.
There is an unspoken rule that, if you get in line with two or more debit cards, they must be for your accounts and not those of another person. Previously a group of people would hire a professional “squatter” who would wait in line with five or ten cards from different account holders. When someone’s number neared the ATM he would call the account holder who would then, essentially, jump the queue, infuriating those who had been waiting, sometimes for hours.
More than 120 people were in line. Our friend waited and waited and finally #84 was at the ATM. But his hopes were dashed when the man announced that he couldn’t get any money. The machine was empty. So, tomorrow, our friend will have to try his luck again.
He could have gone inside the bank for his money, but doing so would have required him first to complete an online application and then, if his application were approved—meaning the bank was satisfied that he was not in any way supporting the civil disobedience movement—he might have been given an appointment to come to the bank to withdraw his money. The process typically takes some days, usually at least a week. If his application is not approved, he would not be informed.
Before the coup, customers were permitted to take from an ATM an amount equivalent to US$700-800 per day. Now? They’re allowed to withdraw from any one account a maximum of $115 per week, up to four times a month.
When my neighbour had finished relating his story I couldn’t resist asking him how much he was trying to withdraw. His answer: US$34, which was all that remained in that account. He does have other money in a government bank, but no corresponding ATM card. To withdraw his money from that bank he will have to fill out an application, but at the moment the bank is not accepting any until “sometime in June.”
Dāna | May 18, 2021
The junta is obviously, and for myriad reasons, desperate for funds, which has created havoc within the financial system. And there’s been an unforeseen cultural consequence of this.
The military regime is determined to smash all resistance. We see it in the daily upsurge in arrests, beatings, torture and murder. While much of this is an ideological battle, what has become patently clear is that it is also a struggle between those who want to provide humanitarian aid to their brothers and sisters, and those trying to put a stop to it at all costs. As I have previously noted, the simple act of handing someone a cup of rice can result in arrest, and the person receiving the gift might also be detained. Discretion, therefore, has become of utmost importance.
While it is struggling to obtain money for itself, the junta is also conducting an equally dedicated campaign to keep it out of people’s hands by, for instance, rationing withdrawals from banks and ATMs. The regime is well aware that money is changing hands between ordinary citizens and those involved in the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Sums, both large and small—some even less than US$1.00—are being donated to the CDM every day. These small amounts carry great meaning and are a joy to behold. Of course there are those who have no money to spare, but they find other ways to help.
I recently chatted with someone about raising funds to help the Burmese cause, which is, of course, essential and very much appreciated. However, because of the inherent danger, it is not only critical that every link along the chain of support remains absolutely anonymous, but any help provided must now remain unmentioned and unacknowledged—no recognition and rarely a thank-you.
Owing to the generosity of our supporters, we can direct most of our financial assistance to others, often to people whom we don’t know except by aliases and reputations; and we in turn are frequently helped by strangers who selflessly put themselves at great risk. This requisite anonymity in giving has now become the norm, although it is somewhat at odds with how the traditional culture of dāna has manifested in the past.
Giving, or dāna, has for centuries been an integral element of Burmese society. Dāna is a Pali word that connotes, especially, the virtue of giving, of unattached and unconditional generosity or charity, in which right volition plays a key role. When the volition is most pure, one gives expecting nothing in return, not even a thank-you. Dāna can be offered both materially and immaterially, as with a donation of time or participation, and is widely practised not only in support of monastic institutions, but of countless nonprofits and other good causes as well.
The public display of donors’ names is a common phenomenon in Myanmar. Years ago when I first toured the country and made donations to an organization or a monastery, someone would always insist that I have my photo taken handing over the money. To my astonishment and chagrin, when next I visited I would find that photo or my name on a plaque hanging on a wall. This left me feeling exceedingly uncomfortable, and at times I withheld donations because of it. Fortunately, over the years I have learned ways to work around such awkward situations.
In the present circumstances all of this is changing. Instead of public recognition, strict anonymity has now become the established donation practice. Still, sometimes we witness smiles or tears of gratitude. At other times we might see a cellphone video of young people at a demonstration wearing donated protective headgear and running shoes instead of flip-flops, or of doctors applying complimentary bandages to a wounded body. Or maybe thanks comes by way of a glass of sugarcane juice. Occasionally, I get a phone call in the middle of the night merely to say thank you for finding this safe place to sleep. People helping people—that is the noblest dāna of all.
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.