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Escape from Burma’s Military After A year on Military Coup

Opposite the neo-gothic cathedral stood the old and empty offices of the Myanmar Times, formerly the nation’s only private English-language daily. Operations halted a few weeks after the 1 February 2021 coup as staff resigned and readers boycotted the newspaper over its proprietor’s editorial policies, seen as sympathetic to the regime.

Other media outlets also disappeared, some returning into exile in Thailand or operating underground, as Myanmar ended a decade of relative press freedom. By coincidence I had moved to the independent Frontier Myanmar on the day of the coup. “You’ve jinxed us all,” a colleague joked by phone as the junta cut off mobile and internet networks.

Days after the coup I relocated to a hotel beside Yangon’s Kandawgyi Lake and relied on its military-owned wifi network to circumvent restrictions and keep reporting. I covered protests until the bullets rained down, and afterwards stayed in touch with activists, politicians, diplomats and businesspeople. Some of my Burmese colleagues took refuge in border jungle areas. From my room I could see the gilded Shwedagon, the most revered pagoda in Myanmar, under the moonlight as the city was put under a night-time curfew. The hotel bar thankfully stayed open. One foreigner after another held drunken goodbye gatherings around a pool lined with palm trees as the military carried out house-to-house arrests outside.

Yangon turned from one of the safest cities in Asia to its most violent. An employee of the South Korean bank Shinhan was fatally shot in the company van. Bombs exploded across the country, including near my hotel. Over the past year an estimated 1,500-plus people have been killed by the regime. “You should read A Gentleman in Moscow,” an international non-governmental organisation leader told me over drinks, referring to the story of Count Alexander Rostov, who is ordered to live out the rest of his life under house arrest in the Russian capital’s Metropol hotel.

I am no Rostov. In late July I returned to my apartment in the outskirts of Yangon amid Covid-19’s third wave and spent the rest of the year splitting my accommodation among various places. Carrying a jute tote bag from Marks & Spencer, my disguise as an innocent Hong Kong businessman paid off when soldiers stopped and searched my taxis. For months, risks of mobile phone searches and criminalisation of free speech made me leave my iPhone behind when going out.

Activists, employees and even investors were eager to share – usually via encrypted channels – leaked information, and their own emotions and pleas to the world. But on the ground there was a genuine sense of despair and despondency, and of betrayal. As friends and colleagues lost loved ones and as Yangon residents remained defiant by the show of citywide strikes as recently as last month, the world has not offered much support beyond statements and words.

Many businesspeople who spent the last decade courting the reformist administrations of Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi have had no problem shaking hands with the new autocratic regime. Chambers of commerce from China, India, South Korea and Malaysia greeted the regime without a fuss. Comparisons with South Africa’s apartheid era came to mind.

The generals responded to the public’s mass opposition with sheer brutality. Entire villages were burnt or terrorised for supporting the resistance. They tried to control internet access, and considered developing their own digital currency while drafting a cybersecurity law to criminalise online gambling and VPN use.

Reminiscent of North Korea, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing opened an underpass and inspected chicken and duck farms during the various crises. The coup leader expressed ambitions for Myanmar to make electric cars, domestic vaccines and an underground metro in the deserted capital Naypyidaw amid growing power outages and economic collapse.

Beside Yangon’s beautiful Inya Lake I hosted an end-of-year garden party to thank readers and contacts. Diplomats and investors were among those gathering to chat and take stock of a tumultuous year. The sun painted the city sky golden red. Scotch eggs, lobster bisque, welsh rarebit were served. Life in the commercial capital went on – for some.

But there was a constant sense of danger lurking for journalists. If the regime threw me behind bars, “there won’t be a James Bond to get you out”, one ambassador warned. The junta has killed at least three Burmese journalists since December; my US colleague Danny Fenster spent six months in Insein prison. I was one of the last foreign correspondents for western media outlets left in the country. Feeling the strain after nearly a year of covering the coup and sensing I had ridden my luck as long as possible, I decided to quit. Escorted by diplomats inside the airport, I paid my visa overstay fees and rushed to my plane.

Many in Myanmar, however, are refusing to give up: journalists work in hiding, young people and formerly peaceful activists have joined new resistance forces in the jungles and ethnic communities have stepped up their decades-long struggles. The regime is inflicting heavy losses – but also incurring its own.

  • Thompson Chau is editor-at-large of Burmese media outlet Frontier Myanmar and covers Myanmar for the Economist. He has lived and worked in Yangon since 2016, and was formerly associate editor and chief reporter at the Myanmar Times

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