Commentary

A Day Under Military Dictatorship in Myanmar

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 19 February 2021

Every morning, the whole of Myanmar wakes with a sickening feeling, consumed by worry and uncertainty over the possibility of arrests and crackdowns, full of rage and struggling to hold on to hope. We’ve been living this nightmare since the military staged a coup and seized power on Feb. 1.

It has now been 19 days, but every citizen here feels they have been in hell for ages. When I say “every citizen”, the phrase obviously excludes the coup leaders, their associates and supporters. But they are just a handful among the country’s 54 million people.

I repeat: Everyone wakes with a feeling of dread, not knowing what will happen to them in the next 24 hours, let alone for their foreseeable future—much less their children’s future.

This is a moment of tremendous loss for our country. It’s not the first time the military has seized power—it did so on two previous occasions, in 1962 and 1988—but the blow feels harsher this time, as our short-lived democratic era of 2011 to early 2021, and the exhilaration it brought us, has been suddenly, deliberately and brutally snatched away by the coup leaders.

The Peaceful Musicians group performs for anti-military regime protesters in Yangon on Feb. 19. / The Irrawaddy

Before long, however, those negative feelings tend to turn into a positive energy that sustains us for the rest of the day.

Soon after the sun rises, hundreds of thousands of protesters leave their homes and take to the streets in every part of the country. They are young, middle-aged and older; they are students, workers, professionals and retirees. Despite their diversity, they share the same will to fight to restore justice, and their rights.

It’s an eternal energy that appears, along with courage and determination, whenever Myanmar is oppressed. But the protesters know the risks they are facing.

Soon after they hit the streets, launching various types of anti-coup protests, the reports of crackdowns and arrests begin to emerge.

This morning it was in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, where riot police and military personnel violently cracked down on anti-coup protesters, including civil servants and young students. Of course, the protesters fled when the police beat them with batons. At least 12  protesters were arrested during the crackdown. Earlier, two teachers from the Myitkyina Education Degree College were arrested by police while they were preparing to join the protest. Fourteen people were released on Friday evening after being forced to sign a paper saying they would not participate in future protests against the military regime.

In Yangon, the biggest city in the country, police barricaded the Sule intersection, where tens of thousands of protesters have gathered for the past two weeks. But thousands of protesters started to gather outside the barricades, full of energy, as they did in previous days. Other groups of protesters took up positions in front of various embassies, as in previous days. One group, the Peaceful Musicians, performed on a variety of instruments outside those embassies. Some ambassadors came out to talk to the young protesters about their anti-coup demonstrations and listen to the music.

People beat cooking utensils in Yangon on Feb. 4 to show their opposition to the military coup. / The Irrawaddy

At the Myaynigone intersection, just a few miles from Sule, protesters helped pick up onions and gains of rice from the asphalt road, where someone had “dropped” them. Dozens of protesters picked up each onion and grain of rice, one at a time, while police watched over them. The purpose was to stop the traffic—as they had during the “car breakdown protest” and the “slow-motion drive protest” to create traffic jams in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which is aimed at preventing government staff from going to work. These creative and responsive protests have given the public something to smile and even laugh about, as well as the protesters themselves, even as they risk violent crackdowns.

Just before noon, however, tragic news came from Naypyitaw, the capital. Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, a 20-year-old student who was shot by police more than a week ago, died in hospital. Among the peaceful protesters, she was the first to be fatally shot since the coup. Video footage showed her collapsing abruptly after a police officer’s bullet struck her in the head.

Meanwhile, protests continued across the country on Friday afternoon.

Our reporters have been gathering information and writing up the news, working overtime. I was just told that at least 45 civil servants who joined the CDM have been arrested to date in Mandalay, Naypyitaw and some other cities. They include doctors, teachers, aviation officers, railway workers and more from other departments. These numbers will definitely increase as time passes. And the number of arrested political activists and members of the National League for Democracy reached more than 521 today, up from about 500 yesterday.

It’s been only 19 days since the coup. All these things are likely to worsen daily as long as this mass movement against the military regime goes on. The nation is under the military’s boot; the entire country is in revolt and citizens are under attack.

I am sure everyone is afraid of being killed, like Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, amid violent crackdowns and arbitrary arrests by the regime’s troops. But this time, all anti-coup protesters, political activists and members of the NLD seem determined to permanently rid our soil of military dictatorship. That’s what we’ve been hearing whenever we journalists interview them or read their statements.

Protesters hold a picture of Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine in Naypyitaw. The 20-year-old died on Friday, 10 days after she was shot by police while attending a peaceful anti-coup protest in the city. / The Irrawaddy

They believe the truth will prevail in the end, through the strength of people power. As I wrote in my last column, combining the mighty power of the gun with evil spirits, the dictators always seem to have the upper hand. It’s a miserable but bitter truth of our country’s history. But with all of these anti-coup protesters and other Myanmar people refusing to give up, there is always hope as long as there is struggle.

Every day under the military regime is a long one, filled with different, difficult and heartbreaking experiences. Before calling it a day, however, the people have one more task to complete—to bang on pots and pans at 8:00 p.m., in order to drive “the military regime” out of the country, in keeping with this particular tradition’s customary aim: to drive evil out of the village or house.

It is the last activity of the day for Myanmar people before going to bed. (For most people, at least; some able men have to spend their nights patrolling their neighborhoods to protect against thugs.) After the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew descends, it’s difficult to sleep soundly, as police and troops tend to start their arrests at this time. As the people go to bed, their fear, concern and uncertainty return; they know that tomorrow they will wake once again with a heavy heart.

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