Christopher J. Walker recounts the risks that he, his friends, and his neighbours face in the aftermath of Myanmar’s military coup.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twelfth 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.
Heartless | May 9, 2021
Last night, a well known 39-year-old Burmese poet, U Khet Thi, was arrested by scores of the regime’s soldiers in Monywa, Sagaing Division. Today, his wife was told to come and fetch his body. According to reports, one side of his head was badly cut open, apparently from being bludgeoned, and his body bore signs of torture. What’s more, his internal organs had been removed.
As most people know, many of those who have been murdered during demonstrations have died from gunshots to the head. Khet Thi’s crime? He recently wrote a poem about this, saying that the soldiers just didn’t get it. “The revolution” he explained “is not in our heads but in our hearts.” Along with other organs, U Khet Thi’s heart was missing.
Finding a safe house | May 12, 2021
It’s not quite 6 in the morning and the phone rings. Never, ever, a good sign at this hour. May, my housemate, takes the call and right away I can tell that it’s an emergency situation. The only thing I can glean from one side of the conversation is that a safe house is needed, urgently, for people whom we know, two women with two children, ages eight and six years. They must leave where they are as soon as absolutely possible and find a safe place for now, and maybe for tonight as well.
While May continues to talk, I think. With so many people currently being hunted by the military, it could take time to find someone with available space, especially for two adults with two children. While she’s still on the phone we make the decision to bring them to our apartment, at least until we can find something safer for tonight. May prepares herself, makes sure she has a “clean” phone with her, and is quickly out the door to find a taxi. I stay behind to work on the communication side of things.
I don’t like it one bit. This early hour is no time to arrange an advance lookout car to check for police roadblocks. Surprisingly though, I find someone willing to go. It will take May only 15 to 20 minutes to reach the women and a bit longer for the return. Even though she would never say so, I know that she too is frightened. As always, she will check in with me after she has passed the two most hazardous areas where there could be checkpoints, but the last half of her trip is in an unfamiliar quarter.
I am working the phone, summoning my resources. The first thing I do is have someone go immediately by bicycle to check potentially dangerous areas nearby that they will have to pass through on their return trip. I get some leads on a couple of safe houses, but it’s too early for most people to be awake and on line. We actually have a safe house that we rent, well situated and very close to us, but a month ago police and soldiers began billeting down the street hardly 25 metres away, so it’s no longer very safe and not at all safe for overnight use. We have another place a bit outside the city that is now unusable for either the short or long term because that locality is crawling with soldiers.
May phones to let me know that she is with our guests and is now heading back. I call the advance lookout guy in the car and he assures me that the first hazardous area is clear—no checkpoint. He is now heading to the second. I’ve been given two possible options for safe houses, but still cannot reach anyone concerning either place. Then the advance car calls back to let me know that the second dangerous area is also clear of police. I phone May to let her know.
Five minutes later she calls back to get confirmation that the plan to bring them to our apartment is still on. I let her know that, for now, it’s the only option. It’s not safe for them to be here, but at this early hour I think we’ll be OK; we have to take the risk. In any case, I will need to meet them in person to get some necessary information. To do so in a public setting would be far too dangerous. When she’s five minutes away May calls to let me know and I go to the balcony to check the situation on the street and in the adjacent apartments. Everything appears normal, so I go down to meet them.
The taxi parks and May and I talk about getting our guests into the apartment. While she discusses this with them another driver whom we trust pulls up. I didn’t even know that he was helping out, but someone obviously contacted him. He tells me that the soldiers just closed the road that May passed through not five minutes ago and are searching all cars.
I go back up to our apartment and a few minutes later May follows with the two children and the younger woman. The other is too frightened to follow, so she stays in the car with the new driver where we think that, for now, she will be safe behind his heavily tinted windows. It’s painful under these circumstances to see this young woman whom I have known since she was a teenager. Had I passed her on the street I’m not sure that I would have recognized her with all that fear etched into her eyes and written on her face. The two children—oohhh, it’s heartbreaking to look at their innocent faces. They are so frightened that I can almost feel it. But no time for that, we have to move quickly.
I get their full story. Soldiers entered their quarter at 9 last night searching for them. Their names were on a list. At 11 the soldiers appeared in front of their house but didn’t realize it—amazing because although they had searched the neighbourhood for two hours, no one had given the women up! Then the soldiers stopped a young guy who lives directly across the street and asked him if he knew where they lived. They told him that they already knew that he was going to claim ignorance, but if he did they would arrest him. He didn’t betray anything so, as promised, they took him, threw him in their truck, and drove off, completely unaware that they had been within a few feet of their quarry!
In the early hours of the morning the ladies received a visit from the young man’s mother, who had learned that her son had been beaten while in custody and had no choice but to reveal the women’s whereabouts. She instructed them to leave immediately. But with the martial law curfew in place they couldn’t go anywhere outside, so they hid in the back of their home and phoned around trying to find a safe house. Unsuccessful, they called us.
Most important in finding a safe haven for people is knowing why they are being hunted. I hate to ask the question, but for the safety of those offering shelter they need to know how “hot” their guests are. Understandably. Before I even ask the question I make it clear to the young woman that the information she provides about them must be absolutely accurate. She cannot lie to me. People know why this question is asked and so they can be tempted to minimize the level of risk.
I am stunned by her answer. She has been helping an important national figure who went into hiding shortly after the February 1 coup, and who remains on the junta’s most-wanted list. This young woman’s husband also disappeared some time ago. He is someone whom I continue to talk with from time to time, but for his safety and mine I have never asked the reason why he is hiding. Now I know. The other woman in the car has, since 2015, been this prominent individual’s assistant. I also learn that they don’t need safe shelter for just one night, but rather for an indefinite period.
After I get that necessary personal information I continue to search for a place for them to stay, but given how “hot” they are and the length of time that they need to be hidden, it’s bound to be difficult. Eventually though, I make contact with a prominent member of the first group that I was introduced to. He cannot say immediately whether they have space available, and at the moment he is about to attend a meeting. He promises to get back as soon as it’s over, and in the meantime I shall send him the pertinent information about our guests. I instantly feel comfortable with this guy because he conducts himself in a very professional manner. I am left with the solid hope that he will be able to assist us. As a backup, I continue to try the other contact I have, but still no luck.
I begin to feel very nervous about the woman waiting out front in the car. We know that the soldiers billeted nearby have already had their shift change, and so the new contingent will be out on their rounds for at least a few hours. Then we learn that just now there was a flash-mob demonstration on the edge of our quarter, and on account of that soldiers will be thoroughly searching every street trying to arrest the participants. We decide that May and our guests need to clear out of the area immediately, and so with our guy on the bicycle serving as advance security for them, they head over to a busy eatery where they can blend in with the crowd.
I finally reach my second contact who will be a backup in case the first doesn’t have space. But suddenly I am plagued with problems on my encrypting app and our connection gets really weak. I try my best to discover whether she has space available, but in the middle of our conversation the call drops. Did she lose the connection or, after I named the individual connected to the women, did she hang up not wanting to take the risk? (I found out later that in fact she lost her connection and her vanishing had nothing to do with the sensitive status of our guests.)
At around 1 pm I get a return call from my first contact. He and his group have reviewed the information I sent earlier and are willing to help us out, but want to know the degree of urgency. I tell him that we need a place right now. He says he will get back to me shortly. I remain very impressed by their efficiency and this helps considerably to reduce my own stress level.
I phone May and explain the situation to her. At 2 pm she returns to the apartment with the younger woman so that I can lay out the rules for the four of them. I explain that there has been no agreement with my contact about how long they can stay with his group, therefore I assume that it must be open-ended. I have no idea where they will be going, nor about the conditions under which they will be living, nor how they will be able to get food. I ask if they need money. Her answer is not reassuring. We might have to deal with that later, but now is not the time. We need to move them as quickly as possible. She happily agrees to everything as long as they will be safe, which is precisely the answer that I want to hear. While I continue making arrangements, she and May discuss what food and supplies they will need to buy to last them for the next three or four weeks, then they head out to the nearby shops.
My contact calls back with assurances that everything has been worked out. He gives me the encrypted name and password for the next person, who will take care of arrangements for transferring our guests to their safe house. I thank him and he’s gone. I immediately text the encrypted name with the password and then I wait. After 15 minutes I receive the password back from him. We iron out the “delivery” details. They will need to park on a busy road during rush hour and wait for a driver who will call with another password.
May comes back upstairs after picking up the food and our guests wait in the car out front. I explain the arrangements and give her the password. Now comes the risky part—getting them out of our quarter safely. We call our advance guy and he and a friend, a taxi driver, head off to scope out the roads and the usual police checkpoints. As he travels along he calls letting us know that May and our guests can proceed while he heads toward the next potential checkpoint. It is now out of my hands. All communications will have to go through May.
Soon afterward, May phones to let me know that they have arrived at the rendezvous point 15 minutes early. I can tell that she is nervous about the prospect of remaining where they are for too long in a parked car. Minutes after we hang up she receives a call from someone who is obviously nearby watching to make sure that they have not been followed. They are on an unsecured call, so he gives May a new password and tells her to wait in the car. Not two minutes later another car pulls up in front of them and she gets another call with the correct password. As previously arranged, May steps out of the car. Our guests are now solely in the hands of the group. Their car leaves following the one in front.
May hails a taxi and calls to let me know that everything worked out perfectly. The only difficult moments occurred when they were initially parked on the road. Two trucks filled with soldiers stopped immediately opposite them and the children were really frightened. I can tell from her voice that she is feeling heartsick about it. We are again on an unsecured call so we cut it short and she turns off her phone. I sit and wait as she heads back.
About 45 minutes later May returns. It is obvious that she is completely spent. She has not had anything to eat the whole day. Even when they stopped at the eatery earlier in the morning she didn’t have anything because she was too busy making sure that the children were taken care of. A friend has already prepared a meal, so we sit down to eat and await a call from our erstwhile guests to let us know that they have reached their destination safely.
We are delighted to receive this news, however our work is not quite finished. Next, we sanitize the phones and computers that were used during the day to remove any incriminating evidence. Some of the phones go back into their hiding places. Then we gather up written notes and burn them in the sink. That all takes 20 minutes and now it’s 8 pm, time to bang our pots and pans. We finish 15 minutes later. After a clandestine operation that took 14 hours, everyone crashes and is asleep by 8:30. This is the earliest that we have been to bed in more than three months, since we usually stay up and watch for soldiers until 11. All in all a very successful day. I am very impressed and happy with the professionalism of the group that helped us, and hope that in future we might be able to join forces in one way or another.
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.