Christopher J. Walker reflects on the ingenuity of efforts to resist military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the sixteenth 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.
A co-ordinated attack | May 28, 2021Embed from Getty Images
Nearly every day now we hear of bombings and drive-by shootings. Police, soldiers, informers, and government officials and facilities are common targets, but by no means the only ones. However regrettable, it is not surprising that these attacks are becoming more common and more widespread. When they occur they gain considerable attention, especially on social media. They are much less frequently, and far less accurately, reported in military-controlled newspapers and on TV. The authorities release few details to increase the chances of arresting the perpetrators—or so they would have people believe.
The attack took place in broad daylight on a busy downtown street. In front of the police station, two policemen were standing guard behind sandbag barriers. A man walking by dropped a small plastic bag containing betel nut, a popular substance in Southeast Asia similar to chewing tobacco, and paused to pick it up. As he bent over, a car with three occupants pulled up in front of the station. The man stood up, and in his hands was a pistol that had been concealed under his longyi, his sarong-like lower garment. He opened fire on the policemen, shooting one dead and seriously wounding the other.
Simultaneously, two people leapt from the car. One ran to the entrance of the police station and threw two grenades inside, one to the left and another to the right. The second man went to the downed policemen and took their weapons. All three immediately retreated to the car and it drove off. The entire operation was completed in seconds.
It is sad that it has come to this, but no surprise given the relentless brutality of the military during the past few months, and the almost complete lack of any meaningful intervention by the international community. Street demonstrations might have diminished, but violence is on the rise as some people look to other ways to fight back.
The lay of the land | May 30, 2021
Shortly after the coup, residents of our quarter established a security team of devoted volunteers to protect our streets. They served as lookouts and diversions when soldiers or police came to silence the banging of pots and pans or to apprehend those whose names appeared on their lengthy “wanted” lists. It was a great comfort to have these sentries, because they not only gave early warnings of approaching soldiers but provided extra time for those who needed to flee.
In the early days, the team consisted of between 75 and 100 men and women who were stationed on the upper floors of apartment buildings, on rooftops, on street corners, in shops and in vacant lots. Some were posted well outside the quarter along approach roads that the military was known to use. But in the latter part of March our security team began to shrink as the risks increased due to the growing numbers of soldiers and police and the greater presence of organized government informers. Some of the team had to go into hiding. For the next six weeks or so the quarter had almost no protection. More people were arrested and, understandably, residents became more fearful.
Over time it had become apparent that our security detail was larger than it needed to be. With greater numbers, the team ran the risk of being more easily infiltrated by an informer, which happened in one instance. Having so many people on one secure communication channel also meant that during an emergency people were often interrupting each other’s warnings and instructions, thereby creating confusion and losing valuable time. But perhaps the greatest weakness was that every security team member was known as such to others in the quarter, and thus readily identifiable by the military informers. Strange as it might seem, in the early days no one thought much about the need for anonymity. It was this lack of secrecy that led to the arrest of several volunteers.
Now, with the team scaled down to only 12 active members, it’s much better organized and more deftly responsive to the adversary’s tactics. While it lacks its former range beyond the quarter, having spotters posted no further than the quarter’s perimeter still gives adequate time to issue a warning for those who need to escape. And, most importantly, the volunteers involved take precautions to remain inconspicuous within the quarter. After ironing out the last-minute details, the new team finally became fully operational about a week ago. It seems to be working well. Yesterday was the first big test.
For the last month our ward seems to have become a frequent destination for the military. Just before 8 pm, when the banging of pots and pans was to commence, word came that a large contingent of soldiers had arrived in trucks outside our quarter. Minutes later, a second warning indicated that they were entering and heading onto the street adjacent and parallel to mine. Four activists are often in hiding on that street, but one man in particular seems to have been the focus of the hunt. In the past, one would usually see groups of five or six soldiers on a given street at any one time. But because of the recent upsurge in attacks on soldiers and police, they now appear in much larger numbers. Last night about 30 soldiers and 15 police officers arrived.
After commandeering the street, the entire group spread out in front of the apartment of their intended quarry. Buildings there have no more than 20 or 30 centimetres between them, so the only obvious place for the troops to assemble was in the street in front. Once deployed, they tried to enter the building through the steel ground-floor gate, which had already been locked by the security team. Frustrated, the soldiers begin shouting up to the apartment-dwellers for someone to come and unlock the gate. To the great credit of all of the residents, no one did. This kind of resistance is at one’s own peril, for it is not uncommon for the soldiers to start shooting randomly into the apartments above. Of course, once that happens, nobody will risk going to unlock the gate for fear of being shot.
When no one came, the soldiers cut the lock and swarmed the building. A few remained in front to prevent anyone from interfering or attempting to escape. Unable to locate their prey in the designated apartment, they continued to search each of the 13 other apartments in the building. But they were far too late. As they had entered the quarter, the alert went out and their man disappeared.
In urban warfare, the advantage is always with the defenders. Those who live in the area are invariably far more familiar with the territory. That certainly was the case last night. What the soldiers failed to realize was that, although the space between adjacent buildings is too narrow to allow access along their sides, in the back is a shared alleyway that gives entry to the rear of the buildings on the adjacent parallel street. Their target, as soon as he received word that soldiers were approaching, left his apartment, descended to the alley, and crossed into the building opposite. Had the soldiers known about its existence, they could have occupied the alley and perhaps captured him.
Frustrated at having once again missed their principal quarry, the soldiers began to search neighbouring apartment buildings in hopes of catching one of the other three activists. They didn’t persist however; it seemed they had neither the time nor stomach for it. Instead, they began shooting slingshot pellets through windows and tossing stun grenades—commonly here called “voice bombs.” Some soldiers came to the top of my street to toss a few. The only response they received from the residents was shouts of “Happy New Year,” which is commonly hurled back at soldiers who use them.
Our security team members immediately began to discuss whether, to divert the search party, those of us on adjacent streets should begin banging our pots and pans. Thinking that the soldiers were probably so annoyed that they might leave rather than continue a futile search, they decided to wait a few minutes. This turned out to be the correct call. Ten minutes later the police and soldiers left without their man, who, unbeknownst to them, had slipped into a building at the rear and, with the help of our volunteers and a clever disguise, had fled the area.
It wasn’t until today that we came to know the reason that the soldiers were so angry. Apparently their target stays only infrequently at that apartment, but does return every now and then to collect things or for a quick visit with his mother. On this occasion the police had been tipped off by an informer. They thought they finally had him. But they came up empty-handed, outwitted because of their ignorance of the lay of the land. In their lethal game of cat and mouse, the mouse got away again.
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.