YANGON, Myanmar — When the military seized power in a coup on the morning of Feb. 1, 2021, I grabbed some clothes and other essentials and stumbled out onto the streets of Yangon. I haven’t returned home since.
I lead a group of activists opposed to military rule of Myanmar, and I knew then that the soldiers would soon be coming for me. Since the coup, my colleagues and I have played cat-and-mouse with security forces in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. We organize nonviolent protests — small, quick demonstrations to remind the military that it is not in complete control and to give hope to our citizens.
It’s a dangerous, lonely life.
Nearly all of my time is spent hiding in safe houses — six of them so far. I’m 27 years old and have left my current apartment only a few brief times since July. It’s as if an impenetrable wall has been built, separating me from the world. I can’t go out to see the night sky or go to the market or visit friends. I spend much of my time in Zoom meetings planning street protests with colleagues in my organization, the University Students’ Unions Alumni Force, and other activists. To stay sane, I’ve taken up playing the guitar and force myself to walk around my tiny apartment for 20 minutes each day.
Whenever I feel the urge to go outside and enjoy life, I think about how long it would be before I am arrested, how my arrest would affect the other men and women fighting alongside me and how I would no longer be of any use to the resistance. This apartment is both sanctuary and prison.
When friends and comrades are arrested, I grieve. But I have to quickly turn my attention to whether their arrest puts me at risk. I change my cellphone’s SIM card and review interactions with those friends for any incriminating information that military interrogators might squeeze out of them. We have protocols in place for this, useless information that can be given up to divert authorities or buy time. But what if they break my comrade?
The eyes of military intelligence are everywhere, sometimes disguised as fruit sellers or trishaw drivers. So only five people know where I am hiding, people who have either hidden with me or who supply me with groceries, cigarettes and books. I view this not as fate but as my own choice — it feels less depressing that way — and I am consoled by my belief in what I’m doing.
Myanmar’s people have been held captive for too long, first by the British and then, after a period of democracy following the country’s independence in 1948, by a succession of military regimes since 1962.
In 2015, a democratic government won power in elections after a military-led reform process. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, retained significant influence, but it seemed like a new era had dawned. Until the 2021 coup.
I’m resolved to fight, but I still miss the normal life I once enjoyed in Yangon, my home city. I’m here, and yet I’m not. I yearn for the simple pleasure of a cup of milk tea in a tea shop. Tea shops are part of Myanmar’s DNA, where people catch up with each other, share news or simply contemplate life. My parents, who worked hard to send me to university, used to run a tea shop and I loved working there. But in 2015, while a college student, I was arrested for protesting the military’s retention of significant powers that stood in the way of democratic development. By the time I was released the next year, my parents had closed the shop. They couldn’t continue without my help.
After the coup, my parents also went into hiding, fearing that the military would arrest them to get at me. It was the right move; some of my friends’ parents have been arrested for their children’s stance against the coup. I know where my parents are, but I can’t visit or tell them where I am. In Myanmar, the price for political activism is paid by the entire family.
Resisting the regime gets more difficult every week. Right after the coup, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest. But the junta waged a brutal crackdown. So far, the military has killed nearly 3,000 people, arrested more than 17,000 and committed appalling human rights abuses. The real numbers are probably much higher. Thousands have taken up arms against the military, which has responded by massacring civilians and conducting airstrikes that have killed children.
Deadly force, including driving vehicles into crowds, has been used against nonviolent protesters. As a result, what started as hundreds of people joining our flash protests in the months after the coup has dwindled to merely dozens.
But we carry on. Our scouts identify good locations — bustling public places with ample escape routes to safe houses. We carry banners and march, chanting against the junta. Many street vendors and other bystanders voice their support, but they must be careful or risk having their market stalls destroyed or looted, or be punished in other ways by security forces. It’s all over in minutes, and our activists melt away.
Last year I boarded a bus in Yangon and asked passengers to follow me in reciting a pledge to seek justice for prominent activists whom the military had recently executed and to fight for justice and equality in Myanmar. They did, raising their hands in the three-fingered opposition salute. Video of the scene was posted online. I had to change safe houses twice soon after.
The risks are enormous. A colleague was arrested en route to one of our meetings. Soon after, the military forced him to call us, trying to bait me and others into showing up to a phony meeting. Through code words, my colleague made us aware that he was in custody. We went immediately to his safe house and destroyed anything sensitive: his laptop, phone, camera, memory cards and documents. The military raided the apartment shortly after.
He was soon forced to call us again. This time we put his girlfriend on the phone, thinking it might be her last chance to hear his voice. He pleaded with her: “Honey, please show up this time,” but we knew he didn’t mean it. He had planned to ask her to marry him a few days later. Instead, he was headed into the hell of military custody and interrogation.
On the day of the coup two years ago, I saw anger, fear, sorrow and uncertainty on people’s faces as they struggled to comprehend what it meant for them and their country. Today, people barely recognize their lives; severe economic hardship, sky-high inflation, increasing crime and other suffering touches countless families. But we have internalized the shock and are determined to write a happy ending to this dark episode.
Now, in our darkest hour, we must be courageous. We cannot lose hope.
We won’t go back to the old Myanmar. We will create a free and equal society for all, including the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities who have suffered for far too long — a Myanmar based on a federal constitution, equality, compassion and whose values inspire the world.
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