Soul-Crushing Experience: A Reflection on One Year After the Return to Military Rule in Myanmar/Burma

To understand the generational pain and grief, Htar Nwe (pseudonym) writes about the process of finding herself.

How do we heal millions of souls that were brutally crushed? … What if we will never be able to achieve justice but carry the pain, loss, and grief until we die?

When everything around you seems to make no more sense, life itself becomes an absurd entity and the whole process of you breathing in and out becomes an absurdity. Life is precious and we must embrace every minute of it by living in the present (as some say). But how can you live in the present when your past is haunting you, and comes back every moment you try to live? Fleeing, but where to? To a safe place, a better world (as some say), or to a place where you constantly feel vulnerable because it is where you lost yourself, where you lost your purpose as a human being, where you lost all meaning of your existence?

You try to escape from one place to another, hoping that you will find at least some peace. But peace itself is contested and cannot be created without surrender. Every moment there is no immediate threat to you, there is your family that lives in terror, your friends who are in jail, your comrades who are in the jungle taking up whatever weapons they can find, resisting to the end to have a dignified life, to protect the people they love, to fight back for the freedom that never existed. 

Born and raised in Yangon, I did not know about the war, but I knew all about police intimidation, military intelligence surveillance, and social punishment for those who were relatives of former political prisoners. When I was about four years old, I remember vividly how they came and took my grandpa at night. My grandma cried, and, while I did not quite understand what was going on, I had the feeling they would not return my grandpa the next day. He was an MP-elect in the 1990 election.

I was not yet born when my father got arrested in 1988. My mother struggled as she was fired from her job, and at that time, she was pregnant with her second child. The baby died after five days. My elder sister witnessed all of this, as she spent most of her childhood with the 88 political activists. She grew up in an environment surrounded by state repression; I am sure there are many other kids like her who grew up with enormous trauma and pain.

I spent much of my childhood listening to political debates among family and friends. I did not play much with other kids, and I did not know how to make friends. What I enjoyed most was the adults’ conversations about politics and society. Later, I realised that I have a strong political opinion on most issues as I understood everything that surrounded me through a political lens. I believe that has to do with the political activity in my family’s history.

Nights were worrisome for us as we were afraid of the MI (military intelligence) coming to knock on our doors. Sometimes, when we heard the news about friends being arrested, we worried that they would come after us one day. When I think back to that moment, it seemed surprisingly normal for us kids— maybe I did not yet know what it meant to worry.

When I was in school, I proudly told everyone my parents were close to Aung San Suu Kyi and the resistance movement. We were not rich, and I was not from a higher middle-class family like the other kids in school—but we were a family of dissidents. As a child, I would have liked to go to a private English school, live in a better house, or have my own room, like some of my friends. I told myself it was better to be a family of dissidents, a family of resistance. But what I did not realize at the time was that I would carry my parents’ pain and embody it myself. On the first day of the coup, the past quickly came for me and crushed my soul. The future of more than fifty million people has been suspended for an uncertain duration of time. We are in the dark yet again. 

As I write this, it has already been a year since the military coup in February 2021. A year of terror, a year of trauma, a year of memories of haunted pasts flash up every single day. During these years of “so-called” democratic transition, we forget, or ignored the importance of healing, looking out for each other, and caring for one another. 

This is a departure from before when we did not care when the military committed genocide against the Rohingya; when we did not stand with the Karen people when they fought for their liberation for more than 70 years; when we did not speak out after two volunteer teachers in Kachin state were brutally raped and murdered in 2016—we kept our mouths shut when it came to all the other atrocities that the Burmese army committed over the last few decades.

We were too ignorant as it was convenient to believe an authoritarian regime could provide us freedom. When a fifteen-year-old Karen boy asked me if I was a spy for the Burmese army, I could not answer with a clear “No.” Of course, I am not a spy, but I saw the pain in his eyes and understood that it was a fair question for a person like me: an ethnic Bamar from the city, who had taken refuge in an ethnic-army-controlled area only when it was convenient (not “convenient” in that sense, but necessary).

A normal teenager of his age elsewhere in the world would have had a conversation with their friends about which college they want to go, who they fell in love with, which party to attend, or what music albums to listen to.

But as a teenager in Burma, they harbor the pain they inherited from their parents. The recurrent, haunting pasts only leave them with one choice: to take up arms and fight against the Burmese army. The day we met on the bank of the Salween River ten months ago, he told me that “Tharamu[1], I go back to become a soldier so that I can protect my people.” That evening, we had coconut water together on the bank of the Salween River, as many others fled the airstrikes in Mutraw, Karen State.  

Now, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing their homes and land because of atrocious airstrikes and other horrendous attacks by the Burmese military. Death has become a part of our daily lives. I watched a press conference where a 13-year-old boy described how he lost his father to the brutal killings by soldiers in Chin state, realizing that we will soon be talking about deaths in numbers, hiding our losses as we do not even have time to grief because we need to keep running for our own lives.

Reading a letter written by a local defense member—likely a student, musician, artist, or teacher—to his mother broke my already broken heart into pieces yet again. Who will heal our pain and who will listen to our grief?

As a country, we have never had closure from our unfinished haunting pasts. These become part of the present, and even when (and if) we win, these pasts will remain. How do we heal the millions of souls that were brutally crushed?

Channeling our pain into the resistance might seem like a promising path for Myanmar at the moment, but what if it is not the way to achieve justice? What if we will never be able to achieve justice, but only carry the pain, loss, and grief until we die?

Feeling empty inside, although alive in being, is even worse than actual death. We mourn our lives because hope itself becomes an exchange commodity in the revolution you exchange with your daughter, son, parents, or friends. Sometimes, you may not even get a chance to say goodbye. 

We do not talk enough about the pain, trauma, loss, and grief of the revolution. If we do not talk about these aspects of resistance, we cannot talk about justice. If we cannot talk about justice, then we cannot become complete human beings with dignity and respect.

I’d like to highlight the importance of pain, being able to mourn and grief by quoting bell hooks, “True resistance begins with people confronting pain… and wanting to do something to change it.”

There is always going to be a piece missing in us. But at the end of the day, pain is what makes us revolutionaries in the first place:  pain is what makes us resist oppression. It is what makes us human, and what allows us to care for and love one another. Pain drives our daily resistance to fight for what we have lost, mourn, and grieve in the midst of the revolution. 

(Featured image courtesy of the author)

Htar Nwe (pseudonym) is a feminist activist originally from Yangon. 

[1] Tharamu is a Karen term for Sa-Yar-Ma in Burmese which means teacher.