Christopher J. Walker reflects on the everyday emergencies erupting in Myanmar because of military repression.
Editor’s Note: This post is the 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 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.
Children and tear gas | March 2, 2021
I was settling in to watch an ASEAN meeting online when suddenly I heard a lot of frantic screaming outside. At this time of day, women and a few couples are usually going to or coming from the market at the top of our street. When I looked outside, women and children were running away in absolute terror. I was instantly reminded of that iconic image from the Vietnam War of children fleeing down a road as their village is showered with napalm.
The terror that I saw in the eyes of the local children was, I now know, caused by the sting of tear gas. Soon hundreds of people started pouring down the street. In the distance, I heard shots being fired and the sound of stun grenades. Nine truckloads of soldiers, along with many police, had arrived on the main road at the edge of our quarter. How they got that close without our volunteer security team sounding the alarm is inexplicable.
People in our quarter soon reacted and, instead of retreating as they had during the first few weeks of the coup, now ran toward the pandemonium. Tear gas canisters and stun grenades were being fired and, from around the corner, gunshots could be heard. Right now I cannot explain everything that transpired, but around 4 pm, I received a call from a friend who had gotten caught in the middle of it and had taken refuge in a shop and then an apartment building on the main road.
For the next hour or so, amid the tear gas, stun grenades and gunfire, we texted back and forth. Huge crowds of people gathered from all directions. It seems that the soldiers and police eventually became frightened because they retreated, took up defensive positions at a nearby pagoda, and waited for reinforcements.
Taking this opportunity to escape, my friend was able to return home safely, but badly frightened. The police and soldiers eventually acquired their reinforcements and returned. It went on from there. There’s far too much to tell in the time that I have. At dusk, the police and soldiers fell back and are now stationed in three groups along the main road. There will surely be hell to pay. Already several residents from our quarter have been arrested. People are returning home. Some are lying completely exhausted in the street. There’s another sleepless night ahead.
A typical night | March 4, 2021
Nights are some of the most psychologically difficult times. Here I’ll limit myself to the events of last night, as it is representative of most others.
Every evening at 8 pm we commence the banging of pots and pans, followed by the singing of two or three resistance songs, and ending with shouts of the protest slogans that we hear throughout the day. This routine began, as best I can recall, from the very first night of the coup, and it happens every night without fail.
In fact, the banging of pots and pans is a traditional Burmese way of driving away malevolent forces. It has also turned out to be one of our greatest “weapons,” as it is now used as an alarm when there is any emergency.
This routine typically lasts about 30 minutes. We have a tiny entrance balcony in front of our apartment, and that is where we engage. This ritual has also resulted in the enactment of the military regime’s first new law, which explained that the banging of pots and pans was now forbidden because it could kill old people! Happily, no deaths have been reported, although there have been numerous complaints of headaches.
Our quarter is composed almost entirely of tall concrete apartment buildings separated by less than a metre of space. Streets roughly 11 metres wide run through the quarter. Thus, when the pots and pans are being banged, the sound reverberates off the buildings and through these, as it were, urban canyons, and can be nearly deafening.
Every nearby quarter is protected by volunteer security personnel who previously patrolled their quarters from 8 pm until 4 am. This has changed somewhat, and security is now deployed or close at hand throughout the entire day. Our quarter is not that large, but is covered by more than 100 security staff composed entirely of men and a few women who are residents of our quarter. They communicate among themselves and with other quarters using walkie-talkies, which I’m told are more secure, or by smartphones with walkie-talkie apps.
Many security people are outside at night, hidden and watching our quarter’s streets. When police or soldiers approach, they are usually first spotted about 500 metres away. Wherever the security personnel are posted, they are quite close to the arriving troop carriers because they easily relay details right down to what the police are wearing, including the colour of their sandals! The transport trucks usually contain soldiers, police and 5,000-kyat men, who are oftentimes dropped off along the way to act as a diversion, pulling our security volunteers away, or, later in the night, to create havoc of some sort, such as starting fires.
Last night, sometime after 9 pm, an alarm came over the walkie-talkie app to warn that trucks containing both soldiers and bootless 5,000-kyat men were heading our way. They stopped about 150 metres from our quarter to survey the way ahead for barricades and other obstacles such as nails that residents spread on the pavement. When the all-clear was given they drove up to the main road that borders our quarter. Word then went out to sound our general alarm, the banging of pots and pans. The alarm lasted only a few minutes, just long enough to ensure that everyone was alerted to the coming trouble. By then, about 50 soldiers and some 5,000-kyat guys had disembarked and were being watched by our security volunteers and those of the neighbouring quarters.
Oddly, the police were carrying extension ladders. We were later informed that they were installing CCTV cameras. For years now, the main road has been equipped with CCTV, but it is largely controlled by the individual quarters and can be switched on or off at the will of the residents. I doubt whether these new cameras will be very effective because by tomorrow their lenses will be painted black.
Having descended from the trucks, the soldiers walked along the main road and headed to a nearby building where guards are posted around the clock. Our quarter security began to instruct residents to extinguish their lights, and once that was done, all the streetlights were turned off. That is still possible because the residents currently have control of the oakkahta’s offices, which they once again reoccupied several days ago and where all the switches are located.
The army officer-in-charge was seen conferring with three informers who were apparently explaining to him the various ways in which the residents had barricaded the roads, some unknown even to many of the locals. At one point, they stepped under a streetlight and our security people were able to take clear photographs of them. All three were quickly identified as men from our area. Nothing will happen to them in the immediate future; however, they will be shunned and their photos and addresses posted to Facebook.
The soldiers then started to cut open and empty the hundreds of sandbags that had been used to block the roads. Nobody was particularly concerned because in the morning the residents will fill new bags and block the roads again. The soldiers also tore down some small makeshift shops on the sidewalk where various items are sold during the day.
After slashing the sandbags and partially dismantling the barricades, all of the soldiers met at the top of the road, turned the corner and began to head down our street. The alarm was given by a sudden deafening chorus of pots and pans that made communication among the soldiers difficult, and honestly is rather frightening. The soldiers thought better of it, turned around, went back and climbed into their trucks. We heard through the walkie-talkies that they had headed to another quarter a few blocks away. Our neighbourhood security next went up and down the streets of the quarter shouting the all-clear and the streetlights were turned back on.
About an hour later the soldiers returned to our quarter, this time with reinforcements, and again disembarked at the top of our street. Again the pots and pans sounded and again people were told to turn off their lights. This time, however, the streetlights were left on.
The soldiers must have spotted a few of our security people, for in a split second eight or nine of them were running down our street pursuing the fleeing security. But when they had gone about 50 metres a signal was given, all the streetlights were extinguished, and suddenly the area was plunged into complete blackness. Just as quickly, the soldiers stopped their chase, turned, and ran like the devil out of our quarter and back onto the main road.
During the pursuit, our lead security guard, the guy who coordinates responses and monitors all the walkie-talkie activity, gave a shout, but not over the walkie-talkie. Everyone listening thought for sure that he had been captured. We all breathed a happy sigh of relief when, several minutes later, he came back on the air.
After thirty minutes the soldiers once again drove off, and for the next couple of hours they were kept under surveillance. They made no further attempts to return to our quarter, but we continued to monitor the walkie-talkie traffic. It was all incredibly frightening. As usual, at the end of it most of our security team gathered together to debrief, to discuss what they had done right and what could be improved upon. Then they all began clapping, not so much because they were pleased with their performance, but rather out of a sense of depleted relief. For all of us, the stress is so intense that it is hard to imagine how the security volunteers are able to do what they do.
This was a fairly typical night. Some are better and some worse, but it is one of the reasons we are all so utterly exhausted. It is now 7:30 in the morning and the walkie-talkies are still broadcasting, which is highly unusual at this hour. We are monitoring the reports, but I’m ignoring most of them so that I can get through writing this. Starting from 9 am, all the residents will be back out to refill the sandbags, re-establish the barriers and clean up the main road.
Dote ayae. Our cause.
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.