‘Even human rights cannot help us now’

In this intimate, reflexive piece, Hannah Russell picks up on the traumatic effects of the coup and the impossible choices facing people and their families in Myanmar today. 

Photocredit: Benjamin Small

By Hannah Russell

In 2020, prior to the military coup of February 2021, many of the younger generation in Myanmar were caught in a fractured transition. My friend Myat, a woman from an ethnic minority living in Yangon, was struggling with unemployment amid the pandemic, dividing her time between taking care of her grandmother and looking for work. Myat’s parents and grandparents, like all their generation in Myanmar, had lived their whole lives under the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military). The experience of their parents meant that the Myanmar millennials and Generation Z are the inheritors of a violent age. The hope that sprang from the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) had proved a disappointment to many, fatal to others. 

However, the election results of 2020 and the future under a second NLD government seemed to say with one voice ‘We can never go back’. 2021 would have brought significant challenges, as the vaccine roll out battled the surges of COVID-19 and the devastated economy tried to repair itself after the damage done by the pandemic. But instead, the actions of the Tatmadaw have led to another generation’s suffering, and the dark days of the past are replayed in sickening technicolour. As Lily Kyawt (a pseudonym) wrote on the Teacircle in May, ‘we are re-experiencing the collective trauma of living under the grip of the military.’ In the early days of February, a friend visited a colleague in his apartment in downtown Yangon. This was when the cacophony of pots and pans and singing of ‘kabar makyay bu’[1] at 8pm was perhaps at its loudest, voices raised across a city that was simultaneously holding its breath. My friend’s colleague, a former political prisoner, was in a state of deep distress, as the incredible noise and the events of the past weeks had triggered deeply disturbing memories of previous conflicts and violent incarceration. Later she said, ‘we need to remember, Myanmar is a country full of traumatised people.’ 

I brought this up in conversation with Myat in the second month of the coup. Since the beginning of the coup, we had been exchanging increasingly long and reflective voice notes over an encrypted messaging service. The voice of my friend rose and fell through moments of hysteria, anger and exhaustion. I tasted her fear, audible against the silence of the evenings that were no indicator of peace.  

We met at work in 2016 in Yangon, and in the years that followed, our friendship grew stronger as we faced job stress, relationship problems, family arguments and divisions. But they were combined on her side with the constant threat of poverty, of forced marriage to another person in her ethnic group, of loss of freedom and identity in exchange for her family’s wellbeing. Myat was born in the mid-90s, and is part of a generation some of which, due to the gradual opening up of the country, were able to attend private universities and work with INGOs and private organisations. This explosive exposure to the world beyond Myanmar and the anarchy of the internet gave Myat a self-assurance that her parents never had the chance to possess. When her father arranged for her to be sent abroad to marry an unknown member of her ethnic group, she refused, causing a rift in her family that took years to heal. 

‘Remember how I fight with my Dad about my arranged marriage? That rule came from my father’s culture. But I know, this is my life, my body, my mind. No one can tell me different because I learned at a private university. So when I am faced with unfair things, I can’t stay quiet. I argue with my family because they are brainwashed by living under the military age.’

What did she think, I asked her, about the experience of those who have already lived through such times? There was a delay, and there followed a torrent of voice notes that described her family, who are bound up in both the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and the Tatmadaw. Together they face an uncertain future and fear, always fear; fear that caused jolts of panic and simultaneously ate at her like a cancer, making her sicker by the day.  

She described how on the first day of the coup, her Mum, a quiet, reserved woman from an ethnic minority, had told Myat and her brother to stay inside, to stay away from the protests, worried that she would lose her job as a government worker if her children were identified by security forces. As the coup progressed, Myat felt compelled to join the CDM, along with her brother, and this defiance led her Mum to share, for the first time, her experience as a student in 1988. She was at university in Yangon at the time, and was close friends with a fellow student who was a leader in the democracy movement. Her friend was shot dead by the security forces, and Myat’s mother prepared to attend his funeral on the university campus. The day before, the military announced that anyone who attended his funeral would be arrested. Her own father, Myat’s grandfather, urged her to stay home, to ‘think of your future and your family.’ In the end, she did not attend the funeral, and all that did were taken by security forces. 

In February in 2021, Myat’s mother, usually tight lipped about the past, shared her profound regret at not joining the protests in 1988, even though she knows what happened to those imprisoned, tortured and killed. 33 years later, she joined the strike and resigned from her government job with the support of her children, and joined the protests against the regime. ‘She says ok, go protest but take care, go without regret. Because I know she has regrets’. 

At this point Myat’s story broke off as gunfire erupted in the street below her apartment. I heard the muffled sound of neighbours shouting and swearing, cries of ‘beh tway pyit nay lay?’ (‘what is going on?’) rose among the confusion. ‘Did you hear that sis?’ she asked me ‘Our country is not safe! We have no human rights, even human rights cannot help us now!’

She carried on with her story, audibly shaken. 

‘My Mum is a government worker, but my grandfather was in the military. When he moved to Yangon, he went into the military because that is what uneducated do, he needed to support his family, and the military is the only place he can get a pension. When he passed away, my grandma got the military money. Just one lakh. One lakh, for five families. I couldn’t believe it.’ She paused. ‘He suffered for the military, and after all that, just one lakh.’  

Myat’s uncle is also in the military, and she was able to talk with him only once since the coup began, over a video call from his military base. ‘I asked him how is it there? He said the army controls everything, they cannot see the news, they cannot go out unless they are doing military work. I asked, do you support the CDM? He said of course, in my heart I support this. But he has two children, and he is a soldier, soldiers have no choice.’ 

The greed and paranoia of the Generals has forced the people of Myanmar into an impossible position for the third time in six decades. Plans to study abroad, travel within Myanmar and explore the world, retire quietly, marry freely, have been replaced with a desolate future. The grinding daily oppression that stupefied and silenced previous generations is the poisoned inheritance that parents and grandparents never wanted their children to experience. And so they are all left with a choice that is no choice at all; to accept and find a way to survive, or to sacrifice their livelihoods and futures to try and force the Tatmadaw out of politics forever.

[1] ‘Until the end of the world’ a pro-democracy anthem born out of the 1988 civil uprising. 

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.