Opinion

Mandalay: After the Coup


On February 1st, Myanmar's military shocked the world by seizing power in a coup, sidelining last year's election result and setting off a public protest movement that refuses to accept a return to military dicatorship after a decade of democracy in the country. In Mandalay, student Zet Nan is one of millions of people getting through some very dark days. 

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second city, it’s the business centre in the north of the country and a city once filled with kings and courtiers who helped make it the centre of Burmese culture.

But right now, its population of 1.4 million people face a threat from the very armed force set up to protect the citizens.

The military coup of February 1st has now disintegrated into a desperate fight for the soul of the nation, and one of the major battlefields is the city of Mandalay.

I’m living in a tiny apartment in an unremarkable street in the city. Each morning when I wake up I check the internet, which is only now working during some parts of the day - the service is usually restored around 9am.

Then, I’ll open a VPN ( Virtual Private Network) to gain access to Facebook or Twitter, as both have been blocked across the country.

Facebook is giving users in Myanmar the ability to completely lock their profiles, and Facebook and other major social media platforms have banned members of the Myanmar military and are blocking ads from most military-linked companies.

The military though, has cut almost all internet connections. Mobile data has been gone for weeks.  

Myanmar’s independent media outlets are now all closed, so we have the voice of the army, or social media and overseas websites if we have web access at all.

Mandalay Hill 4

Mandalay Hill, a major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists/ photo: Stefan Fussan

My morning routine includes a quick catch-up of events overnight and a look forward to what is planned for the day.

Social media is full of protests, events, and funerals for those who have lost their lives at the hands of the military junta, as well as reports on the escalating conflicts in ethnic areas, and refugees fleeing to the borders or other places.  

Just reading the news makes me think of my own safety on the streets, and I worry about whether the great public effort by the Myanmar people is winning or losing the battle. And what comes next.

Being out on the street for any reason is extremely dangerous, with police or soldiers patrolling parts of Mandalay in search of protestors or those they regard as enemies. Arrests can happen in a moment, and people have been shot in the streets. The killings seem random and designed to instill a sense of fear and terror in Myanmar's people.   

At the time of writing this, I hear a group of people protesting with motorbikes being chased on the street by heavily armed security forces who are not driving in military vehicles or police cars but in unmarked cars.

As I watch carefully from the window I need to keep below the windowsill as I know the security forces will shoot at any target wherever they please. Trucks full of soldiers have been seen indiscriminately firing into apartment buildings like mine.

Then, I hear a gunshot a bit far away. The neighbours are closing doors and windows, children are quickly brought indoors. This kind of encounter is so unpredictable it can just happen on a quiet street in the middle of the day or night.

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Mandalay has become a centre for anti-coup protests /photo wikimedia

Risks are everywhere, and people have been shot - people who were just passing by and not involved with protest action.

In Mandalay, several people were shot down by the army last month following a general strike, and the anger among the people is still strong. 

Staying at home is a much safer option for most people, but internet services are likely to be completely cut soon.  

Using the phone to call my family in other parts of the country reminds me of talking on a radio telephone and the disrupted connection makes me think someone could well be listening. I am not safe.

Most people in Mandalay will slip out for food and other supplies during the day keeping a very low profile in the markets that are still operating. 

Given the coup, the project I worked on has been stopped and I am currently unemployed and living off my savings.

I really don't know how long it will take to get back to work, and I am among millions of people in a similar situation across the country. 

Now, the political group CPRH - the government in exile - has said it has abolished the 2008 Constitution and instead presented a "Democracy Charter" which could form the basis of a new Myanmar. 

And they now have support from the 10 ethnic armed organisations that signed a ceasefire deal with the military. Maybe a big change is coming.  

I remember something the noted Myanmar Historian, Thant Myint-U said just after the coup in February.

 "..Myanmar's a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic and religion lines, where millions can barely feed themselves."

That description is never more true than today.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author

- Asia Media Centre