Yangon, Myanmar – I went to bed in a flawed democracy and woke up under military rule. Late on Sunday, hours before Myanmar’s new parliament was due to convene, the military released an aggressive statement again rejecting the results of November’s election, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. It was not a good sign for continuing negotiations in the nation’s capital, which sources had said were going badly.
I woke up on Monday at 5am to a series of missed phone calls and text messages to find that the worst was confirmed: the Myanmar military had moved to seize power from the elected civilian government overnight. The country’s leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, had been arrested in the remote capital of Naypyidaw, along with other high-ranking NLD officials.
I was immediately taken back to September 2017, when I woke up in Phnom Penh to find that the pro-democracy opposition leader Kem Sokha had been arrested in a midnight raid. That was the beginning of the end of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s attempt to bring democracy to the country.
Shortly before 7am, my mobile data and home internet abruptly stopped working, a development many expected should the military go forward with a coup. I took to the streets, schlepping across Yangon to find a cafe that was open early, defied COVID-19 restrictions, and was serving customers despite the coup.
I had no such luck. I passed street markets full of people panic buying emergency food supplies like rice, eggs, and vegetables. Many were scared and confused, unable to contact family outside of the city. Others were frustrated and angry.
Eventually, I made my way to my gym. There was a simple piece of paper taped on the door: “gym closed today”. However, the door was unlocked and the WiFi switched on, so I was able to sit in the lobby and connect to the outside world again. I confirmed with a source that arrests were extending beyond NLD officials, sweeping up activists as well, adding a new dimension of fear for myself and my colleagues working in the media.
Soon, I ventured back out to do more interviews, knowing that doing so would leave me unable to communicate. I spoke to more people on the streets, finding more uncertainty. Lines were forming outside of grocery stores, banks, and pharmacies.
I returned home to find the WiFi still not functioning. The friendly security guard at my building gave me a sad smile. “You should go back to America,” he said. “Myanmar not good.” I went to a colleague’s house and once again reconnected to WiFi, filing quotes and snippets from the ground to different media outlets.
Then came the heartbreaking text messages from Myanmar friends:
“My friend’s dad got captured”.
“I’ve never felt this weak in my life”.
With night falling over Yangon, there have been no major signs of unrest and only isolated incidents of violence, but many questions remain.
A statement attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi was posted on an official NLD Facebook page, urging supporters to reject the coup and protest in the streets, but some NLD officials were uncertain over its authenticity. How will NLD supporters respond to the statement? Will the military crush mass demonstrations violently as they have done in the past?
Will democratic space in Myanmar revert to the semi-open context that existed between 2010 and 2015 under the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)? Or will Myanmar find itself in the Orwellian nightmares of the past military governments?
How much of this was premeditated? For weeks, the USDP accused the NLD of voter fraud, while the Tatmadaw stood silent on the issue, seemingly allowing its proxy to flounder on its own. Then suddenly, it joined the disinformation campaign with a vengeance. Was this a calculated move to make the military’s eventual intervention seem reluctant? Or was it making impulsive decisions on the fly?
There are other questions, perhaps more concerning: What does this mean for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities that have suffered unspeakable abuses at the hands of the military? What will they experience at the hands of a completely unfettered military regime? The NLD was criticised for remaining silent, but it was the military that carried out campaigns of mass murder, rape, and arson.
I closed the day with a heavy heart, gutted for the people of Myanmar, including my close friends and brave colleagues, who all deserve so much more than a return to a dark, recent past.