Mar 1, 2021 • 19M

Couchfish: “Oh shit this is real—there is a coup”

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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On the morning of February 1, 2021, Southeast Asia woke to the news that Burma was in the thralls of yet another coup.

Unlike past coups, this time around something was different. This time the revolution would be televised—if only on the small screens in our palms. My Twitter feed is awash in reports of increasing violence as the junta cracks down.

News and video reports broadcast by brave local and foreign journalists, along with everyday citizens. The coverage, both amateur and professional, has been staggering—and excellent.

Changing tides in Yangon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Almost four weeks in, what is the situation like for a person living in Yangon? A few days ago, I gave an old friend a call, and we chatted for over an hour. We talked about what that first day was like, and how events have played out since.

So what is it like waking up to discover a coup is playing out in your backyard?

“We heard rumours over the weekend there might be a coup. It seemed a bit ridiculous and we didn’t take it too seriously, but we were like, best to be prepared. Thanks to Covid we were already stocked up, with big pantries, lots of rice, water and so on. Still, it was a real punch to the gut to wake up and see the reports. We still had internet and reading through, I realised oh shit this is real. There is a coup.

I run a business here, and my first thought was the staff and their safety. I mean obviously my safety as well, but also the business. So it was a morning of phoning everyone to see if everything was ok. The team were absolutely devastated. I didn’t go in on the Monday, but I’d offered to give a team member a loan because their daughter was sick. When they came around to collect the money, they’d clearly been crying. When I went into work the next day, the team were teary eyed, blotchy faced, or absolutely furious.”

Sule Pagoda, Yangon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

When you see video of the protests on the news, it can be easy to overlook that the people on the streets, up until January 31, had normal lives, families and jobs. How do you and they manage these commitments?

“When we had reports about key days, we closed for people’s safety. Obviously the team want to go out and protest and I would never stop them from doing that. We have a big group chat, so I used that. I said: “You know I’m not from here, I’m not Myanmar, I will never understand this country in the way you do. All I will say is, stay safe.”

We have staff who were army linked, so we put them on compassionate leave. I don’t want them to come to any harm because there’s a risk of emotions running high. A few who lived upcountry went home straight away. Others didn’t want to be at work because they were too upset, so they took time off.

We worked through it with them, letting them guide us as to when we should open and when not. This was partly for their safety, but also to let them do what they wanted to do—to see this through as they wanted. If they’re on schedule and they’re going to pop off and do a little protest for an hour or so, that’s fine.

We’ve since reopened—but we know that can change at the drop of a hat. Guests have started to return and I think it is helping people gain a sense of normality. People want to be busy. If being busy is to go and have a beer with a friendly bartender then, that’s fine.”

No more bars please. 19th Street, Yangon. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

One of the most distinctive images of Burma is the longyi. It is a long fitted wrap–around skirt, worn both by men and women. George Orwell describes a woman dancing in one, in Burmese Days:

“Her hands, twisting like snakeheads with the fingers close together, could lie back until they were almost along her forearms. By degrees her movements quickened. She began to leap from side to side, flinging herself down in a kind of curtsy and springing up again with extraordinary agility, in spite of the long longyi that imprisoned her feet.”

Imprisoned feet and street protests are not a good fit.

“I try to operate on a “what I don’t need to know, don’t tell me” basis. We have a very mixed team, male and female, and quite young overall, so I was concerned they would do something rash.

The Burmese ladies wear the traditional outfit—a longyi. It is a tight fitted full length skirt that is designed to stop you from walking fast and to keep your footsteps dainty. They wear it with slip on shoes. Neither are great if you’re going to be in a protest area.

I was aware that this is the sort of thing that you’re not allowed to do in HR, you’re not allowed to tell people what to wear. You’re certainly not allowed to tell them not to wear traditional clothes. Instead I recommended they wear trousers, something more substantial, in case they got stuck and needed to run. It was always phrased as a suggestion—they don’t need to do it—I just want them to be safe.

Some staff are definitely out in the midst of it and I sat down with them to ask them to try to protest as safely as possible. We talked about how to avoid getting bottlenecked into certain areas, to look for escape routes and so on.”

We’re on the Coup Circle train. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Despite the need for fashion advisories, day to day life in Yangon, in many ways remains unchanged—depending on where you were … and the time of the day. Come each evening the junta cuts the internet. Meanwhile unregistered aircraft fly in from China under cover of darkness—their cargo and purpose unknown.

“The weather is beautiful at the moment, and you could easily not know this is going on in some areas. In others you’re woken by chanting and protesters from as early as 06:30 as protesters muster up, meet and arrange.

In the beginning, the protests were calm and hopeful. There were kids and old people out, a huge amount of women and you felt extremely safe—as you always do in Myanmar. In the last week though, we’ve seen alleged military–paid thugs on the streets causing trouble. This was the first time that I felt unsafe, even though I was nowhere near what was happening.

Then this last week it escalated with the police turning on peaceful protesters. They arrested them and journalists. They’re using weapons, firing bullets in the air to disperse people, using shock bombs to stun people.

There’s a real sense that the police can arrest you for anything at any time—they don’t need a reason, they’ll arrest you. Switching off the internet overnight has created huge paranoia. The belief is they’re building some sort of firewall with Chinese help. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but educated people are suggesting this is the case.”

At around 80%, Burma has a higher smartphone penetration than the United States or Germany. The night–time cut–offs crippled a primary form of communication. With high tech off, the people went low tech—pots and pans.

A sign of solidarity and an early warning system. The pots and pans of Yangon.

“In the early days, we’d bang pots and pans at 20:00 each night. It is a traditional Myanmar way of protecting yourself from evil by scaring it away. This is still going on—every night—and it is getting louder and louder. If you hear it at other times of the day or night, that 8pm feeling of solidarity is replaced by a fear of what’s happening.

Often we go to bed hearing there are shots fired in these areas and arrests in those, but we don’t really know. It wears you down. The internet gets cut and we have to wait until it comes back at 09:00 to catch up. There’s a massive information push every morning, on Instagram especially, as people try to get everyone up to speed.

Everyone is watching, trying to warn others of dangers. It’s that sense of unrest where you don’t want to go to bed too early—assuming you’re able to sleep of course. Then you hear the pots and pans throughout the night—it disrupts everyone’s sleep. I think the junta thought people would get tired and give up, but they’re not. They’re getting more organised and more vigilant.”

Community. Photo: Christopher Smith.

The pots and pans were both a sign of solidarity and an early warning system, but they were also a sign of something more. The power of community.

“The Myanmar community is extremely strong. As in many Asian cultures, multi–generational families live together or in the same area. People know their neighbours—they know when something is up. People are feeding the neighbourhood watchers, collecting money to buy them protective gear.

I have friends whose streets are totally blocked off to people that the neighbours don’t know. I normally turn up bearing gifts, so I’ve been able to pass through to see friends, but others aren’t so lucky. This makes them more scared, to think that their street isn’t safe. It wears you down, an attrition on emotions.

During the day, people are determined more than scared. People are living a duality where they’re tired and afraid, but more determined than afraid. And they’re angry—they won’t stand for this. When you see people on a day to day basis, they’re not afraid—they’re angry, they’re upset.

The usual greetings of how are you doing—we’re not bothering with pleasantries like that. Instead it is what are you doing today? Where are you going today? How can I help? What can I do?”

If only the generals could read. Photo: Christopher Smith.

Yet despite all this, a semblance of normal remains, but it is the “new normal”—thanks to Covid.

“A lot of the restaurants are closed for dine-in guests—because of Covid. Everybody at the protests wear masks—truly huge numbers. So when you’re there, you feel protected from it. It’s very, very impressive. At some of the bigger protests people hand out masks if you don’t have one, or swap it if yours is old.

It’s interesting because these protesters don’t seem to have a leader as such. It’s more individuals within communities, within their social groups. They arrange their own group, then hear there’s going to be another group somewhere. So it’s quite hard for the military to clamp down when there are no obvious leaders.

But yes, you can have a “normal” time in Yangon if it wasn’t for the coup. I’ve heard you can go to some of the hotels on a Friday night, and there’ll be people there by the pool drinking and relaxing. When I say people, I mean mostly expats, the few still here.

For the Myanmar people it’s different—they’re not able to switch off.

This is not to say that expats aren’t supporting the protestors, I definitely don’t want to put that message across. How the expat community is holding fast is impressive, and many are helping as they can behind the scenes.”

If you cast your mind back to February 1 there was the coup’s first viral hit. The sight of Khing Hnin Wai leading an aerobics class while the coup played out behind her. It was an astonishing thing to watch.

“We were expecting parliament to open that day, and she was probably just as shocked as everybody else. It was a very visual moment, and this coup has been noteworthy for its many picture perfect moments. It is fascinating—during the Saffron Revolution, people were not as internet savvy as they are now.

Seven to eight years ago people were paying US$2,000 for a SIM card. Today, everybody has a phone—literally everybody. The phones might not be fancy, but they generally have internet capabilities. So people are conscious that in the past things happened and few outside Myanmar knew about it. This is why they’re so keen to make sure the international community is aware this time around.”

Support a free press. TBF I’m not sure what sort of press this was, but the pic fits. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

So for those outside looking in, what can people do to help?

“In summary, raise awareness, donate if you can and put pressure on your government for action.

First of all, share the news, make sure people are aware of what is continuing to happen. As time goes by, Myanmar may fall out of peoples’ minds—people are going to forget about us—don’t let them.

Write to your local government representative and ask them what their stance is. We can’t just see blanket sanctions put in place again, that will only hurt the people. Instead, write and ask them about targeted military sanctions. Pressure them on this. Pressure companies dealing in the country to make sure money doesn’t end up in military purses.

You can also donatethere are so many options.

There are certain charities that are providing rice to people. Others providing protective gear. Others helping to keep journalists safe. Subscribe to paid media—Frontier Myanmar is a great new source and they need funds—as do others including Myanmar Now. If you don’t want to subscribe, consider a one–off donation.

Some friends and I decided, along with many, many, other people, that we’d collect donations to buy food for people. In the beginning we were on the streets feeding hundreds of people a day. In the last week, because of the risk of arrest, it’s been slightly less safe to do this. So we started to use the money to branch into other areas.

Bigger picture, there was that incredible speech at the UN. It must put pressure on the international community. Not to recognise the junta. Not to work with them. Not to give them legitimacy.

The junta released 23,000 prisoners in the first 10 days of the coup. Prisoner amnesties are not uncommon in Myanmar, but this release was unexpected. It was also suspicious—lets say there weren’t any prisoners of conscience released. So they’ve freed up 23,000 spaces in jail, and there’s a real fear of what is to come with future arrests.”

A balancing act. Photo: Christopher Smith.

We’re almost four weeks in and I won’t ask you to reach for your crystal ball, but what is your gut feeling? What do you think?

“Until last week, I was feeling quite buoyed and energised by it all—that we could do anything. This week though, as the level of violence has increased, I’m definitely concerned. For the people here and for the safety of people on the ground. We’ll see more of the same—more arrests, more military textbook tactics, all to keep opposition and the protests down.

It’s impossible to know any more than that. Like I said earlier, I want to clarify that on a day to day basis, I felt extremely safe here. I know a lot of my Myanmar friends feel safe but they’re also extremely angry. Their fear is more in the unknowing, and anger at the police for their actions.

This isn’t a nation that’s cowed by the police, this is a nation that is rebelling against them and is very determined. When you see such passion and anger combining, that’s a reason to be more concerned—but hopeful too. The protesters don’t seem to be backing down at the moment, and neither do the military.

A huge thanks to my friend in Yangon for putting aside the time for this chat.

Just to repeat, please consider supporting independent media in Burma, outfits like Frontier Myanmar and Myanmar Now are doing spectacular work. If you’re not in Burma, perhaps not bang your pots and pans, but do write to your local governmental representative and tell them this is not ok and should not be allowed to pass.

The people of Burma (Myanmar) deserve better.