Chronicle of a Coup: May 19, 20, 23 & 25, 2021

Christopher J. Walker reflects on urgent safety concerns amidst the military repression in Myanmar.

Editor’s Note: This post is the fifteenth 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.

On the run | May 19, 2021

Another day and another emergency. Someone we have worked with almost since this nightmare began contacted us this morning. He needs a safe house quickly. He is the leader of one of the defence groups in our general area and is on the junta’s wanted list. In the middle of our conversation the internet goes down before we can get all the information we need. We now have to try to help him without the safety of our encrypted messaging.

Although the phone is working, it’s not safe. Conversations have to be succinct, in an ad hoc code, and different SIM cards used. Meanwhile we’re waiting for a single-ring / two-rings signal from him. We’ll then send someone to give him money and collect the rest of the information that we couldn’t get earlier.

As is the case every day, there is so much we need to accomplish, but calls like his always get our immediate attention.

We already know that taking care of this will likely consume most of the day. Other tasks, though also important, are put on hold. For now, there is nothing to do but sit tight and await his call.

In the interim I call a contact in Thailand who might be able to help in case our friend prefers a refugee camp there instead of remaining here in the city. While I am thus engaged I notice our runner leaving, but think nothing of it. As I finally finish the call the runner returns having delivered the pocket money, but he forgot to get the rest of the information we need! No matter what we take on, this kind of hiccup seems bound to happen.

Now the internet is back up and we’re still waiting for our guy to call. At the moment he is driving an advance car for another crew that is delivering food and supplies to a doctors’ and teachers’ collective. And so we wait some more. If only our runner had gotten the remaining information, we could have continued to work on a safe house from our end. I now have nearly 20 years of experience with this kind of maddening thing, so it rolls off much easier than it used to. Maybe in another 20 years I won’t even think about it, just accept it as part of the process. The internet again cuts out, so I go to lie down. 

While I’m resting the internet comes back and our man receives our five best options for refuge: a safe house where he can come and go, which is not what I would consider safe but is the most common; a safe house where he would not be permitted to go out and where all necessities would be supplied; a jungle camp in the border area of Karen State where he could assist with humanitarian efforts; a safe house in Thailand; and another choice that I strenuously oppose but, by agreement with others, is also offered.

By the time I get up, the internet is down again. We wait some more and when it returns he responds by saying that he would like to ask some questions about his options. A conversation like that, however, needs to be done via an encrypted messaging app. We are just about to call him when the internet fails again. It’s now 5 pm. It’s getting late and unlikely that we shall be able to finalize the necessary arrangements today. While we wait we do some thinking and searching around to see whether we can find a place for him for tonight.

As I mentioned, we met this man just after the coup and have continued to be impressed by him. He never stops trying to help others. But in the two conversations we had today, it’s clear that he’s exhausted. Every night he has to change houses, sometimes twice in the same night. He’s weary of living in fear and having to do everything covertly. During the day he works with his defence group providing security for guerrilla demonstrations, or otherwise helping wherever needed. He also mentioned how much he misses his mother’s cooking. We shall see, as a surprise, what we can do about that.

At 10 pm, after the internet has been off and on most of the day, we are finally able to reach him once again. We discuss the five different safe house possibilities that we can pursue to avoid his arrest. He asks whether he can postpone his decision until next Monday when some friends will arrive. Their arrival coincides with a meeting of the junta and ASEAN envoys to be held in Myanmar on that day. I sincerely doubt that this is happenstance, and I have even less doubt that after the meeting we shall be hearing from our friend about needing immediate assistance to get away. We’ll have to wait and see.

Run and run | May 20, 2021

The stress on these poor people who have been forced into hiding! Even after all that I’ve seen, I cannot fully appreciate what they must go through.

About a week ago we were able to find a safe house for a group of four, two women and two young children. On that day my housemate, May, accompanied them most of the way, but could not go with them on the final leg of their journey. For security reasons, we have had no idea where their refuge is.

Last night we heard about a bomb that exploded. When police and soldiers arrived to investigate, a second bomb was detonated by remote control, which wounded four of them. What we didn’t know was that these bombs exploded on the next street over from the safe house where those four people were hiding. Subsequently, the entire neighbourhood was cordoned off and now they’re trapped.

Arrangements have already been made to get them out of there, but nothing can be done until morning. As I mentioned when I first reported on finding that safe house, the group of people whom we worked with was by far the most professional yet. And while I have great confidence in them, there is no way that I shall be able to sleep tonight. I have asked them to call me every hour, but that does little to reduce my anxiety.

What drives me crazy about this is that they didn’t call as soon as the first bomb went off, even though they told me that it was “very loud.” The reason they didn’t phone is that they felt ana. Ana is a Burmese social and cultural sensibility that has no English equivalent. It is manifested by very strong inhibitions (hesitation, reluctance, restraint, avoidance) against asserting oneself, in case it might offend or cause someone to be inconvenienced, embarrassed or to lose face.

Ana is a word that I am now beginning to seriously dislike.

Had I known right away, I could have reacted earlier and perhaps already gotten them out of there. Now it’s too late. All that I can do is continue to check on them throughout the night.

Thinking of you  |  May 23, 2021

Feelings of such intense helplessness eat away at me. Sometimes it takes every last bit of my strength to refrain from going out and screaming in the middle of the road, in a display of defiance. I often wish, my friends, that I could trade places with you. Don’t worry, we continue to stand in for you, continue your fight for you—for you and the thousands of others who have had to escape, who are wounded, in prison, dead.

I have not heard a word from you, or from them. I wonder where you are now. Sadly, I think I know. I’ll do my best to find you, but we are facing a formidable, implacable foe.

Tears flood my eyes as they do nearly every day since you’ve been gone. I think of you, your wives, your husbands, your sons and daughters, your parents. I desperately want to connect with all of them, to offer support, but you understand how impossible that is. Nonetheless, I will do whatever I can to watch over them.

Today the sky has blessed us with a light shower. In better times it would reach down like a cooling balm. I wonder if, where you are, you can feel the raindrops.

The power of one  |  May 25, 2021

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In our quarter tonight, we prepared as usual to bang on pots and pans at eight o’clock, to demonstrate our opposition to the coup. It was easy to notice, though, that a sense of foreboding, a tentativeness, permeated the atmosphere, because we knew that the soldiers would attempt to silence us. And they do so with a disproportionate vengeance—firing live ammunition, tossing stun grenades, damaging parked cars, randomly arresting residents—all specifically designed to force us to submit. While for the most part they’ve been unsuccessful, it’s true that their methods have forced many of us to bang on our pots from inside our apartments rather than on the balconies.

We depend on our quarter’s security team to keep us from being surprised by soldiers and caught in the act. Tonight these volunteers located a military truck full of them less than 400 metres away. Word went out among those who share the security communications, but nonetheless, just before 8 pm, the countdown began. When it reached zero the banging started and the racket of our indignation resonated throughout the quarter. At the 15-minute mark a whistle sounded and the banging ceased. The soldiers, we were told, had not moved.

Next should be the singing of a protest song, but there was silence. We waited a minute, then two. Not a sound. Throughout the quarter fear and hesitancy hung thick in the air. I nudged the woman next to me and asked her to start the song in hopes that others would join in, but she remained silent. I checked the secure communications channel to see whether any recent warning had been given. There was none. I nodded to the woman. With obvious concern in her eyes, and with a throat constricted by fear, she started, softly at first, to sing. Slowly the song caught on and, within a minute, up and down our street and on those adjacent, others joined in.

It was beautiful to behold! What began with trepidation grew into determined resistance, and we were all warmed and encouraged by casting aside our fear and demonstrating our solidarity. 

The voices became so strong that when the song finished someone not far away started shouting a common protest slogan, which others quickly seized upon and fervently answered.

When the slogans of defiance ended, all went quiet. I believe that everyone was feeling as I did: that once again we found the strength and commitment to signal our contempt for the coup. But were it not for that one woman who broke the silence, the evening could have been very different. I am reminded that the power of one person can be extremely potent. It takes only one.

Then a warning came on the security channel that the soldiers were heading our way, so we got ready to be punished. Come what may, we have that power of one.

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.