Christopher J. Walker describes the bewildering conclusion of an alarming confrontation with Myanmar soldiers and police at his apartment door.
Editor’s Note: This post is the thirty-third 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.
Part 1 of this report can be found 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.
No knock knock, Part 2 – Resolution | November 14, 2021Embed from Getty Images
As this assemblage filed onto our balcony, what we did not know was that, while out on the street, the Mole had come up with a brilliant plan. After the military commanders responsible had conferred with the oakkahta at his administrative offices regarding their intended search, and had headed toward our apartment buildings with their men, the Mole had somehow found her old friend, the oakkahta, and explained to him that they needed to get to my apartment ahead of the soldiers.
The Mole told the oakkahta that I had someone living illegally in my apartment, and, for reasons that cannot be revealed here, if I were caught, this would present a grave and very expensive problem for the oakkahta. The oakkahta immediately grasped the gravity of the predicament that he now found himself in, so both he and the Mole hurried up to my apartment as soon as May had unlocked the main gate. We, however, knew nothing of the Mole’s clever machinations.
And now, as I nervously waited in my apartment, onto its tiny balcony strode the oakkahta followed by the Mole. They casually but quickly positioned themselves in front of the doorway that leads from the balcony into my apartment proper, blocking the way through. While they did so, I could see that the Mole was attempting to signal something to me with her eyes. I couldn’t comprehend her meaning but, seeing the breadth of her smile, it dawned on me that she was trying to let me know that everything was under control.
They were closely followed by the colonel, the three common soldiers and the police captain. River, the dog, instinctively knew that those men in uniform were not his friends, and as soon as he saw them on the balcony began to snarl in a most threatening manner. The colonel directed May to get him under control so that they could enter. May put a leash on River and stood with him about three metres back from the door.
While she did so, my attention was focused on the soldiers crammed on the balcony. Not only was I struck by how young they all were, but I was equally fixated on their ill-fitting and varied styles of uniform. It seemed as though they had purchased them from an Army-Navy Surplus store. Such a ragtag group they were.
I had always thought that when this confrontation eventually took place I would be frozen in fear, but nothing of the sort occurred, in part because of the broad smile on the face of the Mole, which the soldiers behind her could not see. Oddly, what I felt was compassion for them. My overriding sense was that they didn’t want to be in this situation any more than we did, with the possible exception of the police captain who seemed genuinely angry about the whole affair, particularly the refusal of the building’s occupants to unlock the gate. More than anything, I wanted to invite them in to have a cup of tea and some amiable conversation. Had I suggested as much while Zoo was hiding in the bathroom, May would no doubt have found a way to shoot me before the soldiers did.
Besides Zoo, there were other things in the apartment that were hiding in plain sight. About a month earlier, rumours were circulating that the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) and ethnic armed forces might show up in our area in the near future, so our volunteer security group thought it prudent, for everyone’s benefit, to accumulate food, medical supplies, solar equipment, electrical generators, fuel, and a number of other items. All these purchases had been secretly stored for safekeeping, until needed, in a dozen or so locations in our ward. Some of them were also stored in my apartment, including 750 kilos of rice, boxes of other nonperishable foods, and medicines. Stockpiling such large quantities of supplies is a serious crime: the Tatmadaw perceives them as provisions for the PDF. Thus our fear of soldiers entering my apartment was not solely due to Zoo living there illegally.
We now found ourselves in a standoff with the soldiers who clearly wanted more space than what was afforded them on the unlit balcony. The colonel pointed to the balcony light and asked us to turn it on. We explained that it didn’t work—one of the few truths that we uttered during the entire encounter. We failed to realize that when he had looked up to the light, he must have seen the bells hanging next to it, as well as the red National League for Democracy ribbon, a reminder of an earlier street demonstration. He could not have possibly missed this detail, yet no one commented upon it and, with our nerves already frayed, it was best that at the time we had forgotten its presence.
With River still growling but under control, the oakkahta began explaining to the colonel that May was his niece and therefore there was no need for them to enter and search the apartment. I was flabbergasted! He and May were not related in any way. Why then was this retired general, appointed by the junta a few weeks after the coup to be our ward administrator, suddenly trying to protect us with such a blatant lie? I looked to our Mole for any indication, and there it was again, that glint in her eyes.
Slowly it all started to come into focus. The oakkahta knew, likely from the Mole, that I had someone hidden in my apartment, and, for a reason that, regrettably, I cannot reveal, he now had as much incentive as we did for keeping the soldiers out on the balcony. As I began to adjust to this unfolding reality, I looked again at our Mole and realized that it was she who had engineered this intervention by the oakkahta in order to protect us, and therefore had every reason to be pleased with her shrewd and nimble stratagem.
Better aware of the dynamics of the situation, I pulled the chair away from my desk, further narrowing the entryway into the apartment. We all listened as the oakkahta repeated his bogus claim that he was May’s uncle. Had I the opportunity to look into his face, I must surely have seen beads of perspiration. By lying to the soldiers and police captain, the oakkahta had, no doubt to his dismay, become our co-conspirator, creating a risky partnership for all of us. As he continued to compromise himself with his extravagant lies, it became a toss-up who was in the more exposed position—we or the oakkahta. While I was not without sympathy for his new, self-created vulnerability, I was also becoming very much aware of the leverage over him that his lies would afford us, both now and in the future, should ever it be needed.
But, by no means were we out of the woods. Now came the question of jurisdiction. Who—the oakkahta, the army colonel, or the police captain—would decide whether or not our apartment was to be searched? As the oakkahta continued to market his fable about his beloved “niece,” the police captain requested our identification. I handed him May’s national identity card along with my passport and other associated documents, which, after a quick glance, he passed to the colonel who asked where the foreigner was! Clearly they had mistaken me for a local, something that has happened a few times during my years here. This was understandable, given that they had all probably been recruited from rural villages and lived most of their adult lives within the confines of a military base, with few, if any, opportunities for contact with actual foreigners.
I rashly decided to use his bewilderment to inject a little levity into our fragile situation. I explained that, in fact, I was the foreigner, and went on to add that River, his teeth bared behind me, was also a foreigner who, as far as I knew, had no passport. This had the desired effect and brought smiles to the faces of the soldiers. I knew that we were still in danger, but at least felt slightly heartened.
As the colonel began examining my passport and other documents, I could tell by his eyes that he had no familiarity with what he was scrutinizing. He passed the papers to his subordinates, hoping that one of them would understand what he was holding. While this was going on, the oakkahta pressed on with his yarn by continuing to repeat that May was his niece and therefore there was no need for any search of the premises. The Mole, seeing the soldiers’ obvious inability to read my documents, seized the opportunity, took them from the soldiers, and explained to them the import of each one. On a less fraught occasion, I would have been disabled by laughter, for I knew full well that the Mole, also, could not read a stitch of English. But as she pushed ahead with her bluff, I could only think of how desperately I wanted them all out of my apartment.
Apparently unwilling to rely on the Mole’s translation, the police captain stepped in and declared that he would call for someone from immigration to ensure that my papers were in order. With this pronouncement, my hope of being able to navigate our way through this nightmare any time soon was instantly obliterated. We knew that it would take at least 30 minutes for someone from immigration to arrive, and there seemed no possible way that the soldiers would be content to pass their time confined to our tiny balcony rather than search the apartment.
After the captain left to summon an immigration officer, the oakkahta began to spin another desperate iteration of his tale about his “niece,” and how she would never be involved in anti-coup activities. Whether or not the soldiers were persuaded by his story, I couldn’t say. But for some reason they seemed to be held in check, perhaps influenced by the presence of an irate, snarling, 25-kilo dog less than three metres away. But this stalemate would never hold, and I began to consider what had brought us to this point. I felt that if I had not been here on February 1, the day of the coup, then May and Zoo would not be in this situation. I felt responsible, overwhelmed, and sick to my stomach.
In the weeks immediately following the coup we probably could have travelled safely to a neighbouring country, but chose not to. Then in the months that followed it became more and more difficult to leave. As the junta’s atrocities escalated, we felt that to slink away would be to abandon not only our known family and friends, but all the unknown resisters and demonstrators. Or was that only my thinking? Was it I alone who made that choice? Now, our chances of getting to safety abroad had greatly diminished. May and Zoo might still be able to get out, but my chances were close to nonexistent. A foreign hostage can be a valuable asset. I had little doubt that that would be my fate, given that no act, no matter how atrocious or inhumane, was beyond the capabilities of this murderous regime. Short of escape, my only hope was that there would be a counter-coup, which, as more and more pressure is exerted upon the financial resources of the regime by international players, remains, in my opinion, a distinct possibility.
I began instead to reassess the situation to ascertain how far out on a limb we were. Had we taken care of everything we needed to do to sanitize our devices and thoroughly clean the apartment? If Zoo were found, there’s no doubt that we would all be arrested and escorted out with all our computers and phones. The loss or confiscation of these devices has always been one of our gravest concerns. Did any incriminating data remain in them? And then, would we be able to stand up to an aggressive interrogation or torture? I had, rather naïvely, always answered that question in the affirmative, but under the present circumstances I was increasingly unsure. In any case, all these mental gymnastics were of little use. The soldiers on the balcony were getting restless. Time was running out.
And then, as if the goddess Soteria herself had manifested for our salvation, out on the balcony the police captain suddenly reappeared trailing an immigration officer. The détente between ourselves and the soldiers had so far held. So extreme was my relief that, if I hadn’t been sitting on the desk, my legs would surely have buckled beneath me. Although it had seemed like an eternity, it couldn’t have been more than five minutes since the captain had left. We learned later that the immigration officer, who now joined us, had been with the cordon-and-search operation the entire time, but had elected to remain hidden in one of the army trucks out front for fear that, on the street, a local resident might secretly take his photo and post it on Facebook. His discretion was understandable: the PDF has targeted for assassination those who assist the military.
After only a few seconds it became obvious, evidenced by the smell of whisky on his breath, that our saviour had not only taken refuge in a truck, but also in a bottle. Gathering up my passport and other documents from the soldiers, he studied each item. I could tell that, even through the fog of intoxication, he actually understood what he was looking at. After another minute or so, with all eyes upon him, he noted, and asked for, my missing Form C. As a foreigner, each time that I return from a trip abroad, I am required to report to the local township offices and complete this form, which essentially confirms the address at which I shall reside.
The Burmese conversation soon went over my head, so I removed myself and May took over. However, I was extremely concerned by the immigration officer’s request, for two reasons: 1) after so many years, who the hell even knew what the current regulations were concerning Form C, and 2), would I currently be in compliance. May politely explained to the officer that I did in fact have a Form C, but for safekeeping I had left it at her father’s apartment, which she delicately but evasively explained, was in an adjacent quarter. Unsatisfied, the officer continued to insist that he had to actually see the form. As quickly as I grasped the ramifications of this request, so too did the oakkahta, who ventured off into another agitated explanation about why none of this was necessary. He knew as well as we that if someone had to retrieve the form from May’s father, there would once again be an opportunity for the soldiers to search our apartment.
Then the Mole jumped in and offered a solution. She explained that as soon as they left my apartment, they would be heading right past May’s father’s place and could verify the form there. The immigration officer didn’t seem inclined toward this option, and so the oakkahta began to extol the simple virtues of the idea. While they continued to cajole the officer, I began to wonder where we would be spending the night—at home, in a jail cell, in prison, or even worse, at the dreaded interrogation centre? Concerned that my body might betray a sign of guilt or anxiety, I looked down at my hands and was surprised to see, despite my growing trepidation over how much longer Zoo would be able to hold out in the bathroom, that they were steady and didn’t seem to indicate what I was feeling inside.
Somehow we had to keep these guys from crossing the threshold into the apartment. It had now been at least 30 minutes since they arrived on my balcony. How much longer they would be willing to stay there was the great unknown. This was all playing out against a clamorous backdrop of rattling gates, pounding on doors, and soldiers shouting orders elsewhere. Our neighbours across the street, some with great concern, were most assuredly peeking out their windows as the drama continued to play out at my apartment. They had no way of knowing that we were waiting for the immigration officer to render a decision on my Form C.
After much coaxing by the oakkahta and the Mole, the officer finally relented and agreed that as he left the area he would check the form at May’s father’s apartment. At last the impasse seemed to have been resolved. But then, attempting to stand more erect, he wanted to take a picture of my passport. Immediately our Mole had it open and at the ready. The officer took the picture on his phone, and next asked for a photo of me. I quickly obliged. And with that he was out the balcony door and down the stairs.
We surmised later that his concession probably had more to do with a desire to return to the safety of an army truck and his liquor bottle than it did with any bogus reasoning that the oakkahta and the Mole had presented. We found out the next day that he never did stop to inspect my Form C, but, not wanting to be reprimanded by his superiors, no doubt told them that he had.
The soldiers and police captain, however, remained on the balcony showing no signs of imminent departure. I started to think, Oh shit, here we go. Then the colonel straightened up and, as the colour drained from my face, he smiled, and asked whether he too could take my photo. I took a deep breath and joked about needing to brush my hair. They all chuckled. The photo taken, another soldier asked if he also might take my photo. I quickly agreed, and the same request now came from a third soldier. May reminded me to smile and furtively pleaded that we needed to get them out of here … now!
Of course, the fourth soldier wanted a photo too. Then to our surprise, the police captain smiled and also asked for a photo. As he concentrated on his shot, just outside his line of sight the Mole reached around to my side of the door and flashed the three-fingered salute of resistance and solidarity that has become synonymous with the Burmese civil disobedience movement.
It was hardly a Kodak moment, and it took an inordinate amount of restraint not to burst out laughing over the Mole’s stunt. But with that, the four soldiers and the police captain exited our balcony and headed up the stairs to another apartment, while the oakkahta and our Mole headed down and out onto the street. There is little doubt that at some remote barracks in the countryside, where the families of soldiers reside, my photo is being circulated among them. They will be pleased to have as a souvenir the photo of a real-life foreigner whom they had encountered while carrying out their duties.
We hardly had a minute to acknowledge our relief when we heard the soldiers pounding on a door upstairs, shouting something about the PDF. We were shocked. We knew nothing about PDF people living above us. However, having narrowly escaped our own harrowing ordeal, we thought it advisable to close our door and steer clear of whatever was occurring elsewhere. We couldn’t have done anything anyway.
As May walked across the balcony to lock the steel gate and apartment door, she glanced out onto the street. Once inside, she told me that many people had been arrested. Sobered by her report of the ongoing events on the street, and by what we could hear from upstairs, we nonetheless thought it safe to release Zoo from the bathroom, with the admonition that she stay close to it, in case. I was deeply moved and saddened by her appearance. The whole time that the soldiers were here, she had remained huddled in the bathroom without an inkling of what was transpiring on the other side of the door, nor any idea of how her night might end. She was badly shaken. Although Zoo has been staying here of her own accord, I doubt if she ever thought she’d be involved in anything like last night’s confrontation. For sure, I’ll have to speak with her to assess her commitment in light of the attendant hazards.
With nothing more to do other than sit and wait for the turmoil out on the street to subside, we huddled together for a while in shocked silence. Afterward, in hushed tones, we discussed what had occurred. Ignoring the soldiers’ prior orders to remain inside, I eventually ventured cautiously onto the balcony. No one below seemed to notice or pay me any mind. At first I stayed somewhat hidden, but eventually I risked being spotted so that I might have a better look onto the street and maybe learn something about our adversary’s tactics. I was appalled by the magnitude of the operation that was taking place before me.
Repositioned, I could see a group of about a dozen soldiers and eight residents who were being detained in the middle of the street. Unlike others who have been arrested over the past many months, they were not being forced to kneel with their hands above their heads. After a while the detainees were marched down the street in my direction and loaded onto one of the army trucks parked directly below. At the same moment another group of prisoners was brought and loaded into a second truck. Because the lighting was dim, I couldn’t recognize anyone. What caught my attention was a couple in their mid forties. As the woman was made to climb, unassisted, into the back of the truck, ever mindful of her dignity, she managed to retie her skirt-like htamein.
It was soon obvious that the soldiers were through searching for the night. In a well-rehearsed manoeuvre, they began returning to their trucks while a lone sniper on the ground kept his eyes trained on adjacent buildings. May joined me on the balcony and together we watched as they made their final preparations before driving away. The sniper climbed up and assumed a position on the tailgate of the truck directly in front of us, and it was only then that we noticed a second sniper already seated in the rear of the truck who had apparently been keeping an eye on the overall operation.
As I watched the sniper squatting on the tailgate, I could see that the rifle he held had a long barrel, but to my untrained eye it seemed rather old. All of a sudden he loaded a long bullet into the breach, lifted the rifle horizontally and, looking through the scope, took aim at something further down the street. We abruptly found ourselves in another Oh Crap! moment as we steeled ourselves for the report from the rifle.
I checked May’s position and edged my chair a little closer, to be ready to knock her from her seat while simultaneously diving to the ground should the sniper turn in our direction. We kept absolutely still, thinking that any movement, however slight, might result in a shot being fired at us. We were clearly in violation of the earlier order not to come outside, and could therefore be perceived as a threat to their operation. Instead, the sniper adjusted his aim a little further to the left, away from us. As the truck started up and slowly pulled away, we remained motionless. My eyes were riveted on the barrel of that rifle, alert to any movement in our direction.
And with that, they were gone. Our sense of relief returned. The security team members’ phones began to ring as everyone checked in and shared what they had seen and experienced. As we had suspected they might, the soldiers had come pounding on the door of our deputy head of security while he was holed up inside refusing to open his door, when suddenly the banging stopped. Through the door he heard them saying that they were at the wrong apartment, and they quickly left. In fact, they were at the right apartment, but had failed to realize that shortly after the coup we had rearranged all the apartment numbers on our street. And so the numbers have remained to this day, much to the dismay of every delivery person who comes into our quarter.
Then we received a call from the Mole who reported that four people had been arrested in the apartment above us. We were dumbfounded. We had never laid eyes on these people and knew nothing about them. We did know about seven PDF people who lived on our street, but only because of the risky routine they followed. But the four people living above, at least to our knowledge, had never ventured outside. They probably had food delivered to them by their confederates. It amazed me that we never had a clue.
Just as puzzling was the fact that, although we had seen about 20 people being arrested, we could only identify a few of them. Who were the others? Two months into the coup, when things began to get dangerous in our quarter, many people had abandoned their apartments and, for safety, returned to their ancestral villages. In fact, we had commandeered one of those empty apartments to store food, medicines and other supplies. It seems that the people whom we were unable to identify might have surreptitiously taken up living in some of them.
And so, for a long time we sat, stupefied, trying to unwind from the night’s events. Soon the sun would come up. May, with her head down, told me once again how tired she was of living in fear, every day the fear, and all I could do was nod in assent. With luck, we had safely navigated through what has always been one of our greatest fears, but there was no congratulatory solace to be found in such thoughts. We had been deeply wounded once again. Soon another psychological scab would begin to form, paper-thin at first, but over time it would harden and grow thicker until it became part of our armour. Eventually it might fall away with hardly a trace, forgotten, and that remains my greatest fear—that tomorrow will arrive and today will become just one more shuttered yesterday, shrouded and buried.
I sat on the balcony until dawn, and at first light a young man and woman passed by dressed all in black, no doubt heading out to a “flash” demonstration on the main road. The absence of colour, black or white, has become symbolic of the revolution, and can easily result in their arrest. Their public acceptance of risk is so much greater than mine, their resistance more audacious, their courage more committed. It is in their spunky gallantry that I find the stamina to keep going.
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.