‘It is strange to write about joy amid the daily killings’
It started with people nervously waiting outside a KFC for the first brave activists to shout “let the junta fall” before fleeing police down alleyways. Within days, almost everyone was on the street chanting for democracy in a show of unity rarely seen in Myanmar. Now the gnawing dread hanging over those mass demonstrations has materialised – headshots from snipers, ransacked newsrooms, squads of soldiers inflicting terror in the night. The country’s future has never been darker and, once again, it has come down to the bravest to lead the fight against the military coup.
It is strange to write about joy amid the daily killings, but about a week after the power grab on 1 February, the mood in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, was celebratory. Hundreds of thousands coming together provided psychological relief from the long-feared military, or Tatmadaw, through songs and speeches. Street vendors sold caps with TikTok logos Gen Z demonstrators, the homeless enjoyed free noodles, and topless bodybuilders paraded down thoroughfares demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
One young demonstrator told me she worried that people were “coming out just to have fun”. “We need to focus on what’s happening,” she said.
Her words came after the Tatmadaw had already blocked the internet for 24 hours. I had to report the first major protest by texting a friend whose SIM worked. She then called editors abroad, describing the tens of thousands marching defiantly against a brutal institution that had previously cut them off from the world for decades.
While at the protests, I would carry the usual essentials in my rucksack – water, a power bank, a charger, hand sanitiser. But the list has grown to include my passport, a change of clothes and more cash in the event that I can’t return home.
These days living in Yangon can be as dangerous as reporting from here. All that peaceful energy summoned to support an elected government was met with bullets and now the protests have dwindled. At night, lights flicking off in densely stacked streets mean the soldiers have arrived, then flashlights crawl across balconies, and rows of cars may be smashed. The troops wear red armbands with a white star and between their surgical masks and netted helmets their eyes are visible. Wielding truncheons and guns, they fire shots at homes, break in and take civilians away. They have become the bogeymen of this occupied city and they revel in it.
Children have nightmares about the men in green, but during the day they play protester games between the apartment blocks, building mini versions of the makeshift barricades that disrupt police movement at intersections. Everyone asks what Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have been saying for decades: why should a country have an army if all it does is beat and murder its own people?
Despite risking torture and jail, residents are quick to shelter protesters hiding from security forces. As the regime has introduced a series of ridiculous laws, an understanding has developed that people can be jailed for anything. As the British author Christopher Hitchens wrote, tyranny is defined not by its regularity but by its unpredictability and caprice. Following the rules doesn’t mean you can relax – you can always be found to be in the wrong.
Rumours are constant, the most recent one concerning a mass exodus of military-connected families from the city to the military nucleus of Naypyidaw because parts of Yangon “would be bombed”. Sometimes you feel like laughing at these rumours, but the thought that wild talk can sometimes be true (although not in this case) stops you.
People depend on reporters to debunk these rumours, but they have become the military’s next target. Dozens of journalists have been detained and three newsrooms have been raided in just two days. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested; their fate is unknown.
That is not to say the battle for democracy is over. A growing nationwide strike that includes civil servants is crippling the military’s administration, while the people of Myanmar continue to show a resilience that has captured the world’s admiration.
They do not think the country needs another diminutive general with a pudgy face who thinks he knows how to run things. The face of General Min Aung Hlaing was taped to the asphalt for children and adults to stamp on, and soon his face covered roads everywhere. Troops picked off the paper, so people brought out stencils. Now you can be jailed for such shows of defiance but his face, underneath an oversized hat, is still being trodden on.
Guardian reporter in Yangon
‘Foreign reporters are relying on the bravery of those on the ground’
Visiting Myanmar as a foreign journalist isn’t an option at the moment. Even before the coup, the Covid pandemic had made travel virtually impossible.
Instead, foreign reporters are relying on the bravery of journalists and local people on the ground, who are taking unimaginable risks to document the terror and violence being inflicted by the military.
Every day, more and more disturbing videos emerge. Shaky livestreams show panicked protesters running away from security forces, which are now routinely opening fire. After dark, videos taken by terrified residents as they hide on balconies or next to apartment windows, show troops swarming the streets. What sounds like stun grenades and gun fire can be heard. In one recent video, a journalist records from his balcony as his apartment is surrounded by officers, who can be heard opening fire. He calls out repeatedly for neighbours to help, but it is later confirmed he was detained.
The junta has tried its best to stop people from sharing information online. First, it blocked Facebook, then Twitter and Instagram, and it continues to shut down the internet every night. The public, though, have downloaded VPNs en masse so that they can defy such restrictions. Activists are also using encrypted apps to prevent the military from listening in to phone calls, while Telegram groups have been set up to spread updates.
Several independent media outlets have been banned, their offices raided, journalists detained and even beaten. Yet reporters, along with citizen journalists across the country, continue to livestream what is happening. They are doing so despite the risk that their phones could be seized, or online accounts searched, as officers conduct nightly raids.
On Wednesday, the state-backed The Global New Light of Myanmar reported that measures being taken by security forces were “even softer than the ones in other countries”. There is a wealth of evidence to contradict this.
Online footage not only shows the military’s brutality, but also the sheer determination of the people, who have refused to be cowed. Last week, I spoke to a protester as he was sitting on a roadside at night, ready to raise the alarm if he saw the military approach. That day several people had been shot in his neighbourhood for peacefully protesting, he said, but he would continue to oppose the coup. Whether it would succeed or not, he said, was 50:50.
Rebecca Ratcliffe, south-east Asia correspondent