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A week of the coup

A Correspondent | Updated on February 08, 2021

Down down: With masks and red ribbons pinned on their chests protesters wave the three-finger ‘Hunger Games’ salute as a symbol of pro-democracy   -  REUTERS

A resident watches history unfold from her balcony as pro-democracy protests swell across Myanmar with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets against military dictatorship

* My phone has been pinging all week long... almost every conversation has started with the question: Are you safe?

* This calm was just on the surface — hiding an underlying tension that was becoming harder and harder to bear

* This is not the first time the pots had to come out of the kitchen — they were banging in 1988, then in 2007

* In 2021, for the first time, the pots are accompanied by hashtags: #nightsofpotsandpans is one of the answers to #WhatishappeninginMyanmar.

***

It is Monday morning in Yangon, a week since the coup. Waves of sounds reach me as I stand on my balcony. It isn’t the notorious blare of bus horns or the usual buzz of a five million-strong city starting another work week — but a rising roar of tens of thousands of people marching, shouting, singing, and talking as one. And tonight, no matter what the day brings, I will stand on my balcony at 8 pm, as I have been for the past week, to listen to the sounds of pots, pans and metal plates being beaten till they bend as the whole city cries out as one.

In Myanmar, you bang pots to ward off evil spirits. My neighbourhood is mixed — it has a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist monastery, all within walking distance. Yet, my neighbours will stand at their windows and rooftops against the same evil — to send a signal to the military that took over the country in a coup and declared a year-long state of emergency on February 1.

Surprise

The sound of clanking metal every evening was a stark contrast to how quiet the rest of the days had been until Saturday. This calm was just on the surface — hiding an underlying tension that was becoming harder and harder to bear until it dissolved into the excitement and energy of the mass protests that are shaking the city as I am writing these lines.

Bang bang: In Myanmar people have been beating pots in protest against the February 1 military coup   -  REUTERS

 

A week ago, the city woke up to news that President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and leaders of her party had been detained in the middle of the night in their residences at Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw. Military checkpoints blocked the major roads and soldiers were photographed guarding the most important government buildings in Yangon and Naypyidaw. By 6 am, the streets in my neighbourhood were filled with echoes of loudspeakers instead of the usual prayer of the monks next door. The coup had been discussed as a possibility over the last few weeks; still, when it happened, it was unexpected and shocking.

The Tatmadaw — Myanmar’s military that ruled the country between 1962 and 2011 — had refused to accept the landslide victory of the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) in the national elections held on November 8 last year. Instead, it complained about widespread election fraud, claims that continued to grow louder and ultimately led to the coup on February 1, the day the new session of the parliament was set to open. For once, the wheels of government turned fast last week — every day brought new announcements: A new Cabinet and Union Election Commission appointed, a 10-hour overnight curfew introduced, restrictions on social media platforms announced. On Saturday, the whole country was sent on an Internet blackout for the weekend.

Grief

My phone has been pinging all week long. Friends from abroad wonder what is happening; friends in Yangon share updates; almost every conversation has started with the question: Are you safe? As a foreigner living in Myanmar, the answer is an easy yes. But worries for my local friends and colleagues, and a sense of loss for the progress of the last decade, have made last week sad and sleepless, spent in suspense with no end in sight. It feels like the country is collectively going through the five stages of mourning all at once.

Isolation was already the norm since the second wave of Covid-19 started in August and Yangon became a ‘stay-at-home’ region. For me personally, living a few floors above the street in a newly built apartment building, the distance was also vertical — I observed little nuns in pink robes collecting alms down below, followed masked sabzi wallas on their afternoon rounds along the street, waved at my neighbours who spent the evening hours on their balconies, and stared at the hazy horizon as the city burnt through its trash after the monsoon. Over the last week, being closed in by the pandemic and the coup, under the threat of an Internet shutdown that turned into reality, a Facebook, then Twitter and Instagram ban, my isolation was accompanied by a mix of anxiety, anger, apprehension, and moments of hope.

Hope

I spent the week circling the living room and roaming the Internet: Reading the news and trying to verify them, making chai (or laphet yay in Myanmar), observing the ever-confused bats and the waning moon, checking connectivity, then going on Facebook to rejoice. Since Tuesday, a growing #CivilDisobedienceMovement has been bringing together thousands to take a public stand by Gandhian non-violence to #SaveMyanmar. Since Wednesday, medical staff, the true heroes of 2020, have been on strike in several hospitals.

Photos of civil servants, students, teachers, and work teams have been popping up since Thursday — in uniforms and masks, red ribbons pinned on their chests, waving the three-finger ‘Hunger Games’ salute. In The Hunger Games, the salute represented solidarity in a dystopian world where rebels fought for freedom from a tyrant. Off screen, it was first seen among Thai protesters while they expressed outrage in the wake of Thailand’s 2014 military coup. The gesture has since become a symbol of resistance in Southeast Asia.

Online, people are coming together to demand for the parliament to convene and release those (134 and counting) detained since the coup. By Thursday, the first protesters had taken to the streets. By Saturday, the murmurs had blossomed into mass protests across the country with chants of “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win”. Over the weekend, in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, hundreds of thousands marched, and more than a million people are expected to join the protests today. Young and old are taking a risk — the streets of the city had been soaked in blood before, such as during the 1988 uprising, and there is a fear of police violence and the military taking over from them. But, for now, protesters are offering flowers and food to the riot police facing them.

One of the more commonly shared graphic series on Facebook depicts hip Myanmar youngsters posing in front of red backgrounds with a sign: “You messed with the wrong generation”. After all, this is the generation for whom the Internet is a comfortable battleground, VPNs are a handy weapon, and rewinding the last 10 years of change seems impossible. Globally, the coup has been condemned — American President Joe Biden has his first foreign policy crisis at hand with the memory of US sanctions not forgotten by either side. Even the UN Security Council expressed “deep concern” — a significant statement coming from a group that includes the Tatmadaw’s old friend, China. Locally, it is hard to imagine how democratic transition can be reversed and people’s hope for growth and development curtailed. It had the strength to propel Myanmar forward even amidst the 2017 Rohingya crisis, ongoing armed conflict, and the pandemic.

Since Tuesday, my neighbourhood has been finishing its evening cacerolazo by singing Kabar Makyay Bu (We Won’t Be Satisfied till the End of the World) — the anthem of the 8888 Uprising that was cruelly crushed by the military junta and led to the decades-long house arrest of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It gives me goosebumps every night. It is a song of resistance that says: ‘We don’t forgive, and we don’t forget’. And there is a lot to remember. This is not the first time the pots had to come out of the kitchen — they were banging in 1988, then during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. And while these revolutions failed to bring democratic reforms, they gave Myanmar an iconography of hope and resistance, an understanding of what it means to fight for freedom and to lose that fight, and generations who understand the cost of oppression.

In 2021, for the first time, the pots are accompanied by hashtags: #nightsofpotsandpans is one of the answers to #WhatishappeninginMyanmar. But there are others: #Feb8Coup, #CivilDisobedience, #RejectMilitaryCoup, #HearTheVoiceOfMyanmar and #NoMoreSilence. The sound of clattering metal, honking cars and booming music is getting louder every day. Amidst this show of solidarity, bravery and strength, I lean on the rail of my balcony and watch history unfold with a hopeful heart.

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Published on February 08, 2021
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