8 Minutes To Read

2021 (or) An Atrocious Year

8 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • ဗမာစာ
  • Za Latt Myay (pseudonym) discusses the life of a Myanmar refugee in India.

    Credit: Zack Fronicz

    The Myanmar military staged a coup on 1st February, 2021. This was the beginning of terror and atrocity for many in Myanmar, including me. The images of people brutally killed by the military, family members mourning the loss of their loved ones, buildings burnt to ashes, and people displaced from their homes due to intensified battles flashback in my mind as I write this. These are the fearsome scenes that can be witnessed in Myanmar daily. Some people might already be accustomed to it. No one even cares anymore, except those who are living in these terrifying situations.

    Everything changed rapidly for me. 2021 was the year when all my beliefs were turned upside down. For instance, I did not believe that there would be another military coup in Myanmar. However, I was completely wrong. I did not think that I would have to leave my home behind and live in the forest as an IDP. I had to experience that. The worst situation was losing my family members and friends who I believed to be with me until the last day of my life. Some people were killed in battles, others were arrested—it will be nearly impossible to see them again in this life. One of my elder brothers sacrificed his life by volunteering to coordinate the logistics of this revolution. 2021 was the year when the stability in my life was unbelievably shaken and collapsed—just like a house of cards.

    The Beginning

    Potential for the coup was evident even before the 1st of February. A few days before the coup, a military representative made a statement in a press conference: “We cannot exactly confirm whether the coup will be staged or not.” On 27th January, the commander-in-chief made an implicit statement that “if the constitution is not being followed by people, this will be abolished.” Myanmar people were concerned and tensions were high among the international community before the outbreak of the coup. Still, I did not believe that the military would be foolish enough to stage the coup. Nonetheless, the coup was staged, exactly as the people feared.

    I went to bed early the night before the coup. My brother was reading a book about the “8888 Revolution.” Then, I was living in Yangon with my brother. I supported him as he attended high school and supervised him academically. I bought him books so that he would be knowledgeable about events in addition to his school subjects. In particular, I encouraged him to read books on Myanmar’s history. He was reading a book titled, Notes on State-Owned Newspapers during 8888 Revolution, a book about the events leading up to the 8888 revolution and the oppression by the Myanmar military.  It might have been a coincidence that the coup happened that night and that history has repeated itself. It appears as if Myanmar cannot escape its tragic past and the vicious cycles of military coups since 1962. Coups in Myanmar appear to be an inevitable curse for all generations to face.

    Everything struck at lightning speed after the coup. It seemed as though a stable sea had suddenly become furious and created tidal waves. People, days, and events both appeared and disappeared under these huge waves. Nothing was certain, only uncertainties loomed over the future of the millions of people.

    I took to the streets and engaged in protests as a responsible citizen. I was involved in these street protests for many days. However, there were only two of us: my younger brother and myself. If anything happened to me, there was no one else to support my brother. Therefore, I returned to my hometown in Chin State. Various movements against the military coup spread like wildfire and locals also took part actively in protests. Although the military retaliated against peaceful protests with brutal crackdown, they did not impose any violent then. They monitored the situations for months. However, the arrest of 5 peaceful protesters on 24 April marked a turning point. It pushed the peaceful protests into armed conflict.  While the People’s Defence Force of my town won the April battle, they could not sustain control of the city. Another skirmish broke out in May and thousands of locals had to flee from the city—making seeking refuge in forests and jungles as displaced people.   

    Life a displaced person in the wild

    The battle in May reached its peak in mid-April. The deafening noise of guns, bombs, grenades, and heavy artillery dominated the whole city. Our family could not live at home anymore. We could hear the shootings in the backyard. We worried for our lives, and so, we fled on our motorbikes. We thought the skirmishes would die down in a few days and hid in the wild. However, the battles only intensified. The area where hid was not too far from home, only about 5 minutes by motorbike. However, we dared not go back. There were many displaced people like us in the forests, bushes, gorges, and ravines. Everyone thought we would be able to go home after a few days and so, hid in the nearby forests.

    As we had to escape before the battles, we did not even have enough blankets. We had to sleep on uneven surfaces by laying down a waterproof tarp. Since we did not have blankets, we had to sleep with our clothes to protect ourselves. We were eaten by mosquitoes and insects. As we hid in nearby forests, we could not sleep either—worried that soldiers would come.

    Soon, the Myanmar military even used fighter jets. We had to flee further into the wild. As we were not safe, we had to find our way to mountains and ravines. One of our shelters were located on a gorge near a spring. As the surface was a slope, we had to adjust the soil so it would be even with the few tools we had. The surface was not big or long enough to accommodate our whole family. We slept with great discomfort by curling our bodies up. When I woke up the next morning, the lower part of my body was at the edge of the gorge. If it had been any lower, I might have fallen in. We had to endure this excruciating pain as displaced people. These were the most distressing times for me.

    Fleeing from war: the reality of a displaced person

    As the situation worsened by mid-May, we could no longer live near town. The battles continued and it looked like there was no end in sight. Some of the local PDF forces also left town. No one could go into town. On that morning, people hid in forests and hundreds of people were on the roads. I have only seen such crowds in movies and the news. Now, I witnessed it with my own eyes.

    On 17th May, just like other displaced people, we moved to villages. At the first camp we settled in, I was assigned as the camp leader. I was responsible for collecting food donations, distributing them among displaced people, and negotiating with families in the camp and the respective locals. Children had already been deprived of education for a prolonged period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. If that continued, it was worrisome that these children would not have basic literacy and learn mathematics. I was concerned that they would become an illiterate generation in the next 20 years. Therefore, we prepared to open a school for locals and displaced children. I met with the village leaders and discussed the type of classes, the number of teachers required, and the number of school buildings. We cleaned the classrooms, gathered all the teachers, and collected the list of students. However, a few days before we could open the school, the military attacked our area. We, then, had to flee from the area again. We could not live at the camp anymore and had to move to a safer place. Since then, we have not settled anywhere. As the Myanmar military attacked us at least twice a month, we had to hide ourselves.

    Becoming an Educator

    Although I was displaced and on-the-run, I never stopped thinking about what I could do to help our people. I did not believe in armed struggle in principle. Thus, I did not engage in the People’s Defence Force. Another alternative to contribute was to help my people through education.

    In July 2021, we tried to open schools in all the villages in our local city by collaborating with CDM teachers. We developed plans to open our schools. We advocated to the parents and looked for funding. We also provided intensive trainings for volunteer teachers. In September 2021, almost all the villages in my local town reopened their schools, particularly primary schools. We also established a township education board that would oversee the whole town and implemented teacher training programs, provided learning aids, and developed education policies. In that way, I became a teacher (or) an educator, a career that I had never envisioned for myself. Currently, there are more than 172 schools in in my city and more than 12,000 students have resumed their education. We may be displaced from our homes, but we can still bring benefits to our society.

    Life as an IDP

    My devotion to education in my city was purely voluntary and I gained no financial benefit for it. I even had to give up my previous job. While I lived as an IDP, my friend was killed for his involvement in the revolution. My younger brother was hit by heavy artillery and severely injured; he can no longer live his life as an able-bodied person. Since our family had no income, I worried about our livelihood, and thus moved to India to look for work. If I had returned to Yangon, I might have been arrested on the way. Therefore, I made the decision to leave for India.

    Emma Larkin wrote in her book, Finding George Orwell in Myanmar, about leaving the country in these terms:

    “If you are Burmese, there are two ways to leave the country. The first option is to travel to the border of Thailand or India and cross over to the other side, where people wait endlessly, and for the most part hopelessly, in malaria-ridden refugee camps to gain asylum in another country, or for a better political climate that might make it possible for them to return to Burma...The second option is even harder: to try to leave through official channels. Burmese people do not have passports and must apply through the government for temporary documents if they want to leave the country....The passport application can take anywhere from one month to a year, and there is no guarantee that, after paying the numerous bribes required, success will be forthcoming. Adding to the difficulty of leaving is the prohibition against Burmese nationals possessing foreign currency.”
    Emma Larkin
    Finding George Orwell in Myanmar

    Emma Larkin wrote that in 2003. It has been more than 20 years, but the nation has not changed much—the situation has only deteriorated. For instance, there were about 300,000 IDPs in Myanmar before 2020. After the coup in 2021, the number of IDPs has mounted to more nearly 2 millions. Myanmar is now suffering with a surge of IDPs and refugees. It remains unclear when all this will be over. Millions of people live in agony and uncertainty, and they have yet to find a way out yet. I am one of these millions of people.

    If I were given a choice now, I would prioritise a safe return home. Nobody wants their life denigrated as a refugee in an alien environment where different cultures and unfamiliarity dominates. However, the civil wars in Myanmar will not be extinguished unless the military dictatorship collapses. Millions of people will continue to suffer and are forced to flee from their homes. It is predictable that the numbers of IDPs waiting hopelessly at border towns will only further skyrocket.   

    The disaster of IDPs and refugees will continue to loom over the nation.  

    Za Latt Myay (pseudonym) is a teacher and currently works as a researcher at the Institute of Chin Affairs (ICA).

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