Yangon, Myanmar – I went to bed in an imperfect democracy and woke up under military rule. Late Sunday, hours before Myanmar’s new parliament was convened, the military issued an aggressive statement again rejecting the November election results, which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. . This was not a good sign for continued negotiations in the nation’s capital, which sources said were going badly.
I woke up at 5 a.m. on Monday to a series of missed phone calls and texts to find that the worst was confirmed: the Burmese army had acted to seize power from the elected civilian government overnight. The country’s leader, State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, had been arrested in the remote capital of Naypyidaw, along with other senior NLD officials.
I was immediately brought back in September 2017, when I woke up in Phnom Penh to find that pro-democracy opposition leader Kem Sokha had been arrested during a midnight raid. This was the beginning of the end of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s attempt to bring democracy back to the country.
Shortly before 7 a.m., my mobile data and home internet abruptly stopped working, a development many expected the military would decide in a coup. I took to the streets, driving through Yangon to find a cafe open early, defying COVID-19 restrictions and serving customers despite the coup.
I have not had such luck. I walked past panicked street markets to buy emergency food like rice, eggs and vegetables. Many were scared and confused, unable to contact their families outside the city. Others were frustrated and angry.
Finally, I made it to my gym. There was a simple piece of paper stuck to the door: “Gym closed today”. However, the door was unlocked and the WiFi turned on, so I was able to sit in the lobby and connect to the outside world again. I confirmed to a source that the arrests extend beyond NLD officials, sweeping through activists as well, adding a new dimension of fear for me and my colleagues working in the media.
Soon, I ventured back to do more interviews, knowing that this would leave me unable to communicate. I spoke to more people on the street, finding more uncertainty. Queues formed outside grocery stores, banks and pharmacies.
I returned home to find that the WiFi was still not working. The friendly security guard at my building gave me a sad smile. “You should go back to America,” he said. “Myanmar is not good.” I went to a colleague’s house and reconnected to the WiFi again, dropping quotes and excerpts from the floor to different media.
Then came the heartbreaking texts of Burmese friends:
“My friend’s father has been captured”.
“I have never felt so weak in my life”.
As night fell over Yangon, there were 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 take to the streets, but some NLD officials were unsure of his authenticity. How will NLD supporters react to this statement? Will the military violently crush mass protests as they have done in the past?
Will the democratic space in Myanmar return to the semi-open context that existed between 2010 and 2015 under the mandate of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)? Or will Myanmar find itself in the Orwellian nightmares of past military governments?
How premeditated was this? For weeks, the USDP accused the NLD of electoral fraud, while the Tatmadaw remained silent on the matter, apparently allowing his proxy to struggle on his own. Then suddenly he joined the disinformation campaign with a vengeance. Was this a calculated move to make the possible intervention of the army appear reluctant? Or was he making impulsive decisions on the fly?
There are other questions, perhaps more worrying: what does this mean for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities who have suffered untold abuse at the hands of the military? What will they live with in the hands of a totally free military regime? The NLD has been criticized for remaining silent, but it was the military who carried out campaigns of mass murder, rape and arson.
I closed the day with a heavy, empty heart for the people of Myanmar, including my close friends and courageous colleagues, all of whom deserve more than a return to a dark and recent past.