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Five Myanmar voices on a year in turmoil

Insights into life under the military regime

A man holds a National League for Democracy flag during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon on March 27. The democratically elected NLD was ousted in the Feb. 1 putsch.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Since Myanmar's military seized power on Feb. 1, the country has been in turmoil and economic decline. Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated, while government and private sector workers have joined a civil disobedience movement seeking to strangle the military's economic and infrastructural base.

The military regime, which calls itself the State Administration Council, is acting swiftly to erase a decade of reforms and drag society back toward a brutal dictatorship like that under which the country languished from 1962 to 2011. Hot spots of resistance have been placed under martial law, regular curfews and internet blackouts have been imposed, and mobile data networks and broadband Wi-Fi have been intermittently blocked.

More recently the regime moved to establish a "whitelist" of websites, mainly commercial, in what analysts warn is part of an effort to build a highly restricted national intranet. Surveillance -- both electronic and physical -- has soared. People must register overnight guests, and security forces have the authority to search, seize and arrest people without warrants.

Soldiers and police have also unleashed waves of extreme violence, killing more than 870 civilians, while more than 6,230 have been arrested, according to a local rights group. Scores of people have died in detention, some bearing signs of savage torture.

As the violence has intensified, so, too, has the will of the people to resist. While the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, public calls have grown for an armed revolution. In recent months civilians have begun to organize a "People's Defense Force" which has been backed by the shadow government in exile, or their own resistance groups. Meanwhile, fighting has reignited along the country's borders, as the national resistance movement merges with decadeslong struggles by ethnic armed groups for political autonomy.

We spoke with five people about life under the military regime. Here are their accounts, in their own words, edited for length and clarity. Given the deteriorating security situation, and the risk of arrest for speaking out against the military regime, we have used pseudonyms and removed certain identifying details.

Seng Lu, businesswoman-turned-activist, 31, Kachin State

"I had never participated in any activism before the coup. First, I joined the protests because everyone from my ward was protesting. Later, I continued every day. I protested because I don't like military dictatorship.

Protesters in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, on March 3. (Courtesy of PR Ram)

In my protest group, many people faced challenges to get their daily food. Even to go to protests, they didn't have money to fill their motorbikes with gasoline or top up their phone bills, so I often filled their tanks and topped up their phone bills as a donation. I am not well-off, but sharing 1,000 or 2,000 kyats ($0.60 or $1.20) isn't a problem for me. Eventually, I became the leader of this protest group.

Sometimes, we needed to avoid the police. Later, we didn't dare to call the media, because when the media followed us, they took livestream, and the police knew our location and came to crack down. So we just took photos by ourselves and sent them to the media to show that some youth were still protesting.

When members from my protest group got arrested, one of them mentioned that I was the leader. More than 30 police with seven military trucks came to my house to search for me and asked my family members where I was hiding. After they threatened my family members, my family pressured me not to participate in protests. The police watched my house from a nearby teashop.

I don't feel safe at all. [In March] I felt so depressed that I wanted to give up. I got angry and I told myself that I wouldn't hide or run anymore. My life was not worth either living or dying. I posted on Facebook that I put my life in God's hands. Then, some of my friends wrote me encouraging messages and said not to give up.

To those people who say negative things about my revolution against the military regime and that I should stay quiet, that I am involved in politics even though my family is in danger, I would like to say: After we win this revolution, don't praise me."

Aye Win, wife of a man in custody, 32, in a village in central Myanmar

"[My husband] was arrested on March 14. I heard that he was shot in the thigh.

I got an update from a messenger that he was in Obo prison [in Mandalay], that he was doing well and not seriously injured, and that he told me not to worry about him. I got this update two days after his detention. I haven't heard anything further since then.

Protesters in Mandalay on March 3. (Photo supplied)

I am not sure if he got treated for his injury, but I think that no one would treat him like at home.

My main worry is that he is not home. I can't keep calm. I will be able to live in peace after his release. But now, I can't see him and he can't see me and I can't even call him. I only heard from others and I don't know whether it's true or not.

I have two children, a 6-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. I told my son that his dad got arrested. He asks if his dad is coming back, and he prays for him.

I have felt depressed, but I just consider my two children. If this lasts for years, I will have to sell our property in order to survive.

For now, my parents are providing for us. I usually depend on my husband's job, buying iron and reselling it.

I tried to stop him from joining the protests, but I couldn't, so I just told him to take care of himself. My son reminded him to wear a bulletproof vest."

Linn Htet, photojournalist, 29, in Mandalay

"I became a journalist under the democratically elected government. As soon as the military coup happened, I knew that we lost our freedom. In Mandalay, security forces cracked down with water cannons and rubber bullets beginning on Feb. 9.

When security forces began shooting at the protesters, we were also there. They targeted journalists by beating and shooting at us. I was so scared. To tell you the truth, we don't have any experience with gunfire. We are not conflict reporters. We were running everywhere. But if we didn't do our jobs as journalists in this situation, I feel like we wouldn't be fulfilling our duties.

"I must do this job for my country and for the revolution," a photojournalist in Mandalay told Nikkei Asia. (Photo supplied)

At that time, I deliberated: Should I leave my camera and join the protests, or should I continue as a journalist? I decided to continue because I think this job is the most effective for me.

We [journalists] bought helmets that are strong enough to withstand rubber bullets, like the helmets which firefighters use. Initially, we wore shirts with logos that said PRESS. But the situation has completely changed since February. Wearing press shirts became more dangerous, so we removed all the press logos.

If I go home, I am afraid I might get arrested and my family might be in danger. I went home three times but I didn't stay more than 15 minutes.

When my friend and I were off-duty, although we were not holding cameras, we were followed by some guys on motorbikes. It has happened to me three times. I feel angry that I was followed for doing my job. I am angry about the military coup. I am always angry at the military.

We, journalists who have to go to the field to get news, face the biggest risks. I saw someone shot in front of me and bleed to death. One of my fellow journalists was shot in the hand. If I quit my job, is there anyone who would replace me? I must do this job for my country and for the revolution."

 Thu Rain, unemployed youth, 25, in Yangon

"I moved to Yangon from my village in 2014. I felt like it was enough of the forest and village, and I wanted to be in a big city, to have a new life and different experience and explore a new world. My village is not even on Google Maps. It is very small.

I like living here in Yangon. I can taste the street and city things and have the experience of freedom.

Tires burn in the street in the aftermath of a protest against the military coup, in Yangon on March 27.    © AP

I was working at a hotel until COVID. When the hotel closed, at first I sold durian and seasonal fruit, but after the fruit season, I didn't know what to do. My former manager and I started a [fashion design] business and I put all my money into it.

But now, who is going to buy this stuff and where will they wear it? Just like that, everything stopped. Now, it is very risky and scary on the street. So we only stay home and we don't know until when it is going to be like this.

Before, for the young people, we didn't have many opportunities like other countries. Now, because of the coup, we are just stuck inside the house, doing the same thing every day. And living inside the house is so scary. Even at night, we turn off the lights, and we stay in the dark and we don't make any sounds and we don't even go out to the balcony. Because you don't know when they will come to knock on the door. You have fear in your heart.

If you go back to the countryside, you have the chance to stay with your family, but you don't have much to do there. I am already in love with city things. [In my village], there is no internet or phone.

Sometimes the depression is so bad. Sometimes I even want to kill myself. One time I wrote a letter for my family, and I felt alone, and the next morning I had a different feeling again and I stopped doing that.

I wish that I could get out of Myanmar. Not only me, I think most young people who have a big dream. The more you have a dream, the more you have hope, the more you suffer.

For now, I don't really have a future. I think I am just still alive because I am scared to die. It is like I am already dead, like a dead body is living in the house. I try to do anything that I can to get back my hope and dream, to have a reason why I am alive. I try to have fun, looking at TikTok. Some people just keep posting bloody and sad things every day, and sometimes I take a rest from social media.

I don't know if I will get more depression if I go back. At least with the internet I can talk with my friends. Maybe if I get there and I face depression, I will try to come back to Yangon.

We [youth] look fine physically but mentally, we are in big trouble. We don't get enough sleep and are always reading the news. Now everything is destroyed. I am not giving up but I just don't have hope for now, but after we win, we will feel alive again."

Zaw Zaw, public hospital surgeon, 54, in Yangon

When the civil disobedience movement started, all the junior doctors left and I was alone in my ward. I stopped admitting new patients and took care of those who were left. After discharging them, I joined the CDM around Feb. 7.

Our hospital was already exhausted from COVID-19. When we started joining the CDM, we faced a problem of where to treat patients. We started treating them at their homes, although they weren't ready to be discharged. There have been many new cases as well, including vehicle accidents and trauma. We asked many private hospitals if they could provide beds. For some patients who needed daily care, we arranged other places where we could treat them. We didn't take any money and sometimes we covered their costs from our own pockets.

Around two weeks after the coup, there was a mass prisoner amnesty. A lot of people came to us with injuries including from beatings and stabbings. We treated them every night. If not us, no one would.

Around that time, we heard that the military regime was trying to arrest doctors who joined the CDM, and that some had been charged. We heard that they were searching for people at their homes.

They have arrested, beaten and abused many doctors, and I heard that when they came to my colleagues' homes to arrest them, they destroyed many things. I have been in hiding since I joined the CDM; I haven't gone home since.

When we treat emergency cases who were injured during protests, we treat them secretly, because if the military regime knew, they would detain both patients and doctors. The doctors who didn't join the CDM gave lists of participating doctors, so they know our names. They would close any private clinic if they found out doctors participating in the CDM were working there.

They don't make us afraid so much as to make us hate them. The reason I joined the CDM is to fight injustice. I will not go back to work. If they try to fire me, I am ready to resign. They will definitely revoke my medical license, but I am not worried; I will just stop practicing medicine and work in another field. The main thing is that I cannot work under their control."

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