Opinion | What I Saw During Myanmar’s Coup

YANGON, Myanmar — At 6 a.m. on Monday, my phone rang mercilessly. I ignored the first call, assuming that a Taiwanese friend had forgotten about the time difference. I was still struggling to sleep, and then I saw my mother’s name flash on the screen. My mother, who lives in Mandalay, in the middle of Myanmar, about 400 miles from Yangon, never calls that early in the morning.

A few hours later, Myanmar’s recently elected parliament was expected to convene its first session. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had won more than 80 percent of the vote in the November elections and was about to start its second term in government. The military, which is led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had been contesting the validity of the elections. Throughout the weekend, most of the conversations I had were with friends and family debating the probability of a coup.

When I saw my mother calling, I knew: There has been a coup.

“Go stay with your aunt,” my mother told me. Gather with your family and trust no one else. My paternal grandparents, who were from a vulnerable minority, hid in the home of various family members during the 1962 coup, when the military, led by Gen. Ne Win, replaced the civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu in a coup.

During the student-led uprising in 1988 against the dictatorship, my mother and her siblings alternated between marching in the streets and diving into sewers to avoid gunfire, facing the crackdown led by President Sein Lwin. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi formed the National League for Democracy in the aftermath of that brutal crackdown.

Despite winning the 1990 elections, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior N.L.D. officials were placed under house arrest, and the military rebranded its continued rule of the country after this coup. Another election would not be held for 20 years.

After speaking to my mother, I felt numb but slowly pulled myself together. I tried calling my aunt, but my phone wasn’t working. I was terrified. The authorities had blocked mobile phones and the internet but not completely.

Eventually, I realized that my broadband internet was working, and I began messaging friends who are journalists and activists. They told me what they knew. The military had already arrested Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, among other leaders of the N.L.D. We shared information, compared notes on rumors and consoled each other.

I feared the authorities might disconnect electricity or water after the internet and mobile phones. I pumped water into my apartment’s water tank and charged every electronic device and power bank I could find. Around 7 a.m., I stepped out of my apartment in the Chinatown district, about 20 minutes from City Hall. I wanted to speak to people. The streets seemed empty from my balcony, but I couldn’t see any soldiers, yet. I left food for my cats and stepped out.

I walked to one of the nearby wet markets, past tea shops, the traditional social networks, where you pick up the news of the neighborhood, the rumblings in the country. I walked past an old Chinese temple and some gold shops, and the banks and cafes that arrived after the quasi-democratic transition started in 2010.

Everything looks unnervingly normal. Monks and nuns were out collecting their morning alms, walking in neat rows and matching robes. Municipal officers were collecting bribes from the vendors. People bought chrysanthemums and jasmine for their shrines.

I started taking pictures. The camera brought out a certain nervousness. Some people angled their bodies away. Some put their hands over their faces. I noticed that the N.L.D. flags — bright red with a golden peacock reaching for a star — that recently adorned so many balconies, storefronts and car bumpers were missing. I saw a vendor fastidiously scraping an N.L.D. sticker off her betel nut cart.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, only one member of a family has been allowed to shop at the wet markets. Nobody seemed to heed those restrictions that day; entire households had converged on the market to shop. A woman selling taro and sweet potatoes told a shop owner, “I told you. We know them.”

As I passed the tea shop on the corner of my street, an old man who lives nearby and has refused to leave his spot at the tea shop despite the pandemic, told his companion, “It can’t be helped. There is nothing we can do.”

The streets were still quiet when I returned home an hour later. The reality of the coup sank in, and panic seemed to grow. Long lines formed outside banks and cash machines. People started rushing to gold shops to exchange currency for gold. Memories of earlier coups — the demonetization of currency by the military, the long crackdowns — started directing behavior.

And people began buying rice. You can survive a curfew, a long crackdown, if you have enough rice. Trishaw drivers on my street were ferrying 100-pound sacks of rice. I had less than 10 pounds.

Around 10 a.m. I locked up my apartment and left for my aunt’s house, which is around the corner. The frantic activity of the morning had given way to a subdued mood. Vendors were still out, but the banks and other shops had closed. I reached my aunt’s house to find four 100-pound sacks of rice stacked by the entrance.

Moments later, we heard music and chanting from the street. A procession of trucks flying the Myanmar flag rolled down the street, carrying young men dressed in military camouflage and carrying traditional swords. They chanted slogans supporting the military and General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander of the armed forces, now the ultimate authority.

People on balconies watched in silence and took photos. The trucks, accompanied by cars full of Buddhist monks, drove on to the Yangon City Hall to join a rally supporting the coup. My aunt, who lived through the 1988 crackdown and the coup in 1990, started cracking jokes. “Now we are North Korea,” she said with a giggle. “It is just like it was before. Such fun.”

We ate lunch around noon. Some of us got our mobile phone service back. Verified N.L.D. pages on Facebook started sending messages telling people to protest, despite the page administrators’ being under arrest. As I listened to my family talk, I felt a distinct sense of being transported back to the old, isolated Myanmar, when foreign travel was almost impossible and communication with the outside world was expensive and illegal.

“There was a coup in 1990, and now it is happening again,” my uncle, who is in his mid-60s and is living through his third coup, remarked. “We have been free for 10 years,” he added. “I don’t know how to live like that anymore.”

We sat around and talked about what Myanmar was bound to lose. We were just about to start railway projects with Japanese support that would update the aging Yangon to Mandalay line. We worried about the return of economic sanctions. We talked about our garment exports to the European Union. We wondered whether the coup would affect international cooperation on Covid vaccines.

The day passed in a blur of anxious conversations. We eventually collapsed into an uneasy sleep. The next day, the military’s supporters held a large rally at People’s Park, in the shadow of the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the holiest sites in the country. Students, medical workers, and lawyers began organizing a resistance movement online.

We are traumatized and exhausted, but by the time the 8 p.m. curfew came into effect on Tuesday, people in my neighborhood gathered on our balconies and started banging pots and pans, announcing that we won’t give up without a fight.

Aye Min Thant is a journalist from Yangon, Myanmar. She was part of the team of Reuters journalists, who won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

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