Christopher J. Walker describes the sudden, ominous arrival of Myanmar soldiers and police at his apartment door.
Editor’s Note: This post is the thirty-second 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 2 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 1 – Trepidation | November 14, 2021Embed from Getty Images
These events are particularly difficult to describe, in large measure because my emotional connection to them has come uncoupled. I was there, I was involved, but I’ve lost any feelings that, at one time, might have been associated with them. And so the story is no longer my story. It’s merely a story.
Over the past eight months, I’ve witnessed, experienced and felt some of the horrors humans can inflict on one another. I’ve watched as an egomaniac, a megalomaniac, laid waste a country that, a few months before, had so much promise; a country in which more than 83 per cent of the voters vehemently opposed a military establishment that has now stolen their current lives and their future dreams. The suffering of the citizens continues to mount, permeated with acute feelings of helplessness, as the international community mumbles hollow words of sympathy but otherwise merely looks on, bemused and ineffective.
It becomes numb to the corrosive realities it has experienced and, after struggling and failing to adapt and convince itself of the new normal, slumps into a sort of dormancy. The past is then exiled to the other side of a diaphanous curtain that separates yesterday’s atrocities from today. When I attempt to peer through that curtain, I can only glimpse blurred outlines of shapes that once were, faint shadows absent of recognizable features and devoid of any connection to me.
Sometimes I’d like to pass through to the other side, but am hobbled by a mind that is too weary, too weak, and too numb to recognize, much less feel, anything that might lie there. Standing here on the “today” side of the curtain, trying to glimpse something of the yesterdays beyond, through eyes that no longer remember, I recognize all too well the precariousness of my situation. The only thing that I can think to do now is try to tell this story. Unfortunately, I must disguise or omit certain details to protect those who, at considerable risk to themselves, protected me and others.
For more than eight months I have known that the time would inevitably come when soldiers would suddenly arrive at my apartment, and last night was that night. At about 9 pm I was fortunate to receive a hurried phone call from an informer, the Mole, a government official clandestinely working against the military junta. With only seconds to speak, and at great personal peril, she warned me that soldiers were heading into our quarter to check the guest registrations. Having delivered her message, she immediately ended the call.
For many years, under previous military regimes too, everyone has been subject to a monitoring mechanism euphemistically called “guest registration.” Its actual purpose is far more sinister than the name implies: it’s used as a way of controlling the populace with Big Brother efficiency. At least once a month every homeowner or tenant must register at the local ward office, producing a proof of address as well as a list of all others living under the same roof. An ominous adjunct is the requirement that a family tree also be provided, a veiled threat that if anyone steps out of line the authorities not only know about you, but your extended family as well. Should the soldiers or police be unable to find someone, they have a long list of family members to choose from and hold hostage, for as long as they wish, until the offender surrenders.
As we have witnessed on multiple occasions, this has become standard practice, an everyday occurrence here in Myanmar. Neither a five-year-old child nor an eighty-year-old grandfather is off limits or beyond the regime’s reach. And, as we have also seen on a daily basis, guest registration gives soldiers and police unfettered authorization—anytime, day or night, and without cause—to search anyone’s home and property.
And, so it was last night. Under the guise of a guest registration check, soldiers and police swarmed our street and invaded our families—another attempt by the military junta to flex its muscles, to impose its will, to strike terror into the hearts and minds of the people, and to reinforce its intention to remain in power at whatever cost. I thought I knew what to expect—intimidation, threats, curses, and pounding at the doors—however, I was only partially correct.
At the very moment that I received the call from the Mole, I happened to be in the middle of a phone meeting with our quarter’s underground security team. Upon hearing the warning, I at once asked my housemate, May, to check on the street. She darted out onto the balcony and was shocked to see that soldiers were already inside our quarter and had closed off both ends of our street to prevent anyone from escaping. I alerted others on the call to what she had seen. In less than a minute the leader of our security volunteers reminded them what they needed to do for their personal safety, and with that the meeting abruptly ended.
Obviously, we had been caught with our pants down and almost bra-less. (Prior to setting up our quarter’s security team, we were frequently surprised by soldiers barging in at all hours of the night, and the women complained vociferously about the lack of a respectable interval in which to put on their bras!) Because most of our local security personnel were at the meeting, we had had too few eyes on the streets. Was the timing of the military’s incursion a coincidence, or had someone given us up? But there was no time for worry. With no idea how much time we would have, we began to prepare.
The routine of “sanitizing” my apartment after a day’s work on a multitude of tasks is never easy. It takes considerable time and a calm and focused mind to ensure that every device is wiped clean of its contents and every paper note destroyed. Before May set to work, she once again dashed to the balcony to further assess the situation outside, while from where I sat I could hear the soldiers shouting, ordering the residents to remain in their apartments. When May returned, her face was pale. There were soooo many soldiers in front of our building. Shit! How much time did we have before they began pounding at our door? Would we have enough time? Would they even knock?
I didn’t bother to look outside but urgently began the sanitization process. I could hear soldiers in the street demanding that people open the steel gates to their buildings, and others pounding on the wooden apartment doors in the buildings they had already entered. We had planned many times for this type of invasion, and had agreed that we would resist as long as possible by refusing to come down to unlock the main gates—resistance, we were all but certain, that would result in a beating by the soldiers when they eventually gained access. And surely they would.
Judging by the sounds emanating from the street below, as soldiers continued to shout orders to open the gates, I could tell that people were, in fact, resisting. So far, we didn’t hear them at our building, but I doubted whether I would have sufficient time before their arrival. The odds that I would make it were slim: I had too many devices to clean and the soldiers were too close. On any given day, there is ample evidence in my apartment of the numerous laws that I’ve broken, and time would be needed to wade through it all. In such a situation, calmness and clarity of mind are imperative, as panic would likely lead to mistakes that could result in arrest, torture and even death. To buy some time and deter the entry of soldiers into the apartment, I turned off most of the lights, hoping that they might somehow believe that no one was home.
My computers and cell phones are always the first and most time-consuming things to wipe clean, as over the course of a day they tend to accumulate the greatest amount of potentially incriminating, if not lethal, information. These devices are also the weakest link in my overall security, because they contain numerous digital nooks and crannies where data are automatically and covertly stored, unbeknownst to the user. More than eight months into this coup, I still find new places in my computers where information is stored clandestinely, thanks to our so-called “friends” at Microsoft who, no doubt, arrange it thus largely for their own financial benefit.
As I concentrated on my devices, from the corner of my eye I saw May and Zoo, my temporary boarder, doing the same with theirs. When I finished, I began gathering every scrap of paper in the apartment, checking notes that I had written throughout the day, mindful that even the smallest scrap of paper might contain a hastily written name or phone number that could easily incriminate someone. Typically, I’m the one who generates and accumulates the most debris. Most of what I write is noted in my own coded fashion, but none of it could be ignored. I checked my desk and notebooks, and then looked around in other places where I, or anyone, might have inadvertently left a scrap of paper.
After all these bits had been gathered, I checked with May and Zoo to see what they had collected for burning, brought everything to the kitchen sink, and set the pile on fire. I always hesitated when doing so, fearful that soldiers might have entered the rear of the building and would spot the glow from the fire or smell the smoke. But as the papers crumpled in the flames, I saw no sign of anyone out back.
Every time we went through this process I thought how alien it was, and how I could never have imagined myself in a situation, usually found only in spy novels or movies, having to do such a thing. The thought was always depressing.
Fifteen or twenty minutes had now passed and it seemed that we had almost finished, perhaps in record time. As I sat down and began to rummage through my mental checklist, from outside I heard the sound of metal scraping on metal, and instinctively knew the source. From the back of a truck soldiers were sliding out an enormous bolt cutter. Unlike any cutter that I had ever seen, this one was enormous, about two metres in length, and obviously heavy. Clearly, building gates that had not been opened were about to be cut. In one respect this was welcome; there have been instances when hand grenades were used instead.
I continued to listen, and could hear soldiers trying to gain entry to the adjacent building where one of our volunteer security leaders resides. I went to the balcony door and peered furtively below and to the buildings across the street. Soldiers had not only entered them, but were in the individual apartments. Three of them were standing on an upper-floor balcony gazing intently toward our deputy security leader’s apartment, probably checking for any indication of an escape attempt or anything that could be a threat to them.
We knew that he had no weapons and wouldn’t flee, leaving his family behind. But he has a connection to the young resisters who, in August, jumped to their deaths on 44th Street rather than surrender to police. Out of necessity, he’s been in hiding ever since. Only recently, and against our advice and wishes, did he return to his apartment to care for his family. I wondered whether he could be one of the primary targets of this invasion. In our volunteer security chain, he is the link next to me, and if he is caught and tortured during interrogation, I would be next. What was unfolding in front of me was therefore all the more troubling. If he were arrested, I and those in my apartment would have no option but immediately to go into hiding.
Having nearly finished what I needed to do, I took a minute to check how May and Zoo were coming along. They too were almost done, but on edge, searching for a document that they were having difficulty locating. I didn’t know what exactly they wanted it for or why, though clearly it was of some importance. However, I couldn’t help. I had one last critical task to perform. All my computer data are stored on a thumb drive that I keep hidden outside my apartment, since I’ve never found a safe place to store it inside. To stash it back there, I’d have to go onto the balcony and out through the door to the stairwell. The soldiers had already warned us to remain inside our apartments, so I had to leave hoping not to be noticed. Ordinarily I would crawl out on my hands and knees, but this evening I’d surely be spotted by the soldiers posted on the upper balconies across the street.
I decided instead to make a short, quick run for it. As I stepped out to the balcony, and before opening the exit door, I couldn’t help but sneak another fleeting look at the scene unfolding below. I was stunned. Never in past incursions had I seen so many soldiers, and they were all congregated at our end of the street, right in front of our building. No doubt something big was going on here tonight.
In that brief moment, to my surprise I also noticed among the soldiers our informer friend, the Mole, and next to her the oakkahta, the ward’s military-appointed administrative officer, as well as the administrator’s brother-in-law. The brother-in-law was assisting the soldiers, as he’s done in the past, which makes him the most despised person in our quarter. About a month ago I caught wind of a plan to assassinate him, but so far that hasn’t happened. I have little doubt, however, that his untimely demise will arrive rather sooner than later. Despite my personal dislike for him, I’ve often thought about warning him, but there’s no way that I can do that without bringing attention, and danger, to myself and my associates. So I’ve let it go.
Having crossed the balcony, apparently unnoticed, I went out the door and entered the pitch-black stairwell, which, given the unevenness of the risers on the steps, is dangerous to negotiate even during the day. A flashlight was out of the question as it would have been seen from outside, and I couldn’t be certain that soldiers weren’t already inside the building at the bottom of the stairwell. I descended with ears on ultrahigh alert, stealthily exited the rear of the building, and found my way to my hiding spot. Having deposited the thumb drive, I silently returned to the door at the top of the stairs. As I once again readied myself to dash across my balcony, I saw that soldiers were raking the buildings with the beams of their high-powered torch lights. Timing my reëntry to the beams, as if in a prison-escape movie, I dove safely back inside my apartment without being detected.
Relieved, I sat down at my desk and once again ran through the mental checklist of what needed to be done. It was then, for the first time that night, and after many fearful months waiting for just this kind of intrusion, that I noticed I was more composed than I had imagined I would be. That is not to suggest a complete absence of fear, but the terror I had always expected hadn’t arisen. I was OK; my anxiety remained at a manageable level. If I could push on with this mindset, a little of it might rub off on the others.
May let me know that while I was out the Mole had called to report that she was out on the street among the soldiers, and had noticed that they were continually referring to a list. Eventually she was able to position herself such that she could steal a look at it. The list contained the addresses of 13 or 14 buildings. Our building, containing 12 apartments, was among them. Therefore this was not a random search concerning guest registrations, but something more targeted. Given the number of soldiers and trucks that I had seen minutes ago, I was not surprised by this. May told me that a member of our security group had also phoned to tell her that a young man a few buildings away had been beaten for cursing the soldiers. He cursed them again as they were leaving his apartment and was beaten a second time. During my brief absence, May had managed to steal another glance out on the street and noticed that the soldiers had already arrested several people, but in the dark she was unable to identify any of them.
And then, Damn! I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to clean the cell phone that I leave turned off and hidden. This phone’s only function is to run one of the communication apps that I use. Despite being switched off, it accumulates all the text messages and phone logs from my computers and other cell phones. This phone has always been a security risk and, as much as I would prefer to eliminate it, it is impossible to use the application on my other devices without it.
After retrieving it, I was certain it would take too long to wipe clean. I stood there, the phone in my hand, considering my options. I came up with only two. I could throw it out the back window, but I wasn’t sure whether I could fling it far enough to clear the building behind. Should it fall short, there was a risk that the soldiers would find it and, if it hadn’t broken on impact, I’d be in serious trouble. Option two was to drop it into the water tank that we all have in our bathrooms, hoping submersion would be sufficient to destroy the data. But I had no idea whether that would work. I knew that the phone was water resistant, but was it waterproof?
I recalled an advertisement that I’d seen some years ago about a cell phone being immersed in a container of water, and as I stood there wondering what to do I explained my dilemma to May. She instructed me to delete all the offending apps, and assured me that, unlike the programs in my computer, phone apps were quick and easy to delete. I handed her the phone and in a minute or two she deleted the apps while I went through the apartment once again to ensure that everything else had been dealt with.
As I sat at my desk trying to calm myself, I could hear soldiers in front of the building calling out to command the attention of the residents. They wanted someone to come down and unlock the steel gate, but everyone remained out of sight without responding. Most apartments do not have doorbells. Instead, strings run from street level up to a bell attached to the balcony of each individual apartment. By pulling on the string, someone on the street can ring the bell and get the attention of those in that apartment. It was such bells that I now heard, but I ignored them and remained focused on what was in front of me.
I asked May and Zoo if they had reviewed their plan about what to do with Zoo should the soldiers enter. As part of my resistance to the military junta, I had decided months ago not to comply with the guest registration law. Neither May nor Zoo were legally permitted to live in my apartment. May has always had a plan to explain her presence, but for Zoo the only option was to keep hidden. Unfortunately, my apartment is small, essentially a single room, so there are no adequate hiding places other than the bathroom at the rear, which, other than permitting someone to remain out of sight, is no hiding place at all. Our hope had always been that May’s dog, River, who never fails to growl when he sees soldiers, would act as a deterrent and dissuade any soldiers from going as far as the rear of the apartment.
The phone rang again. It was May’s uncle who lives nearby. The oakkahta, who knew him, had called and asked him to go over and unlock the gate to our building so that the soldiers wouldn’t be forced to cut it open. Her uncle had explained that he didn’t have a key, whereupon the oakkahta suggested that he call his niece and ask her to do it. And so he phoned to tell May that we had resisted as much as was prudent; she now needed to open the gate. Rather than drag her uncle into it, we reluctantly decided to do so. In any case, we could hear the soldiers preparing the bolt cutter.
At that exact instant I experienced not merely a sinking feeling, but the agony of drowning. I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to wipe clean my e-mail account! Shit! While explaining my memory lapse to May, I quickly opened my computer. We could hear the sounds of the bells ringing on the balcony and the soldiers downstairs demanding that someone unlock the gate. I opened my e-mail page and feverishly began to delete everything as May shouted to the soldiers below that she was on her way down with the key. After another few minutes of delay, and when I had almost finished, I told her to go.
She began by unlocking the wooden door and steel gate to our apartment. I felt certain that by the time she had descended the stairwell I’d be able to erase the remaining sections of my account. As I heard the gate slide open below, I finished the deletions but did not have time to shut down the computer. Instead, I left it open and brought up a video of Greta Thunberg chastising and belittling a delegation of politicians over climate change issues. Then, as I listened to multiple footsteps on the stairs, all I could do was lean back in my chair. For eight months we had known this day would come, and now we were about to be tested. When they arrived, May was in the middle, followed by four soldiers, one of whom was a colonel, and a high-ranking police officer. But at the front of the procession was the quarter’s oakkahta and our Mole.
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.