Waking up in a nightmare
Hlaing Htwe admits that it is not easy, given Myanmar’s long history of repressive military rule and economic deprivation, to regard its brief era of relative freedom as the norm.
‘It’s as if there was a short period of peace which was just an illusion, and what we are seeing now is actually reality,’ he says, referring to the ‘democratic transition’ which began ten years ago when Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was elected to parliament in a by-election in April 2012.
We went to bed on the evening of January 31 with democracy and we woke up on the morning of February 1 with a dictatorship
This event, which was followed three and a half years later by national elections that brought the NLD to power in a landslide victory, ushered in a revitalization of the pro-democracy movement that grew out of massive protests against military rule in 1988. It also effectively ended decades of international isolation that had made Myanmar one of the poorest countries in the world.
However, when the NLD won another resounding victory at the polls in 2020, it was apparently too much for the military to accept. In a 1990 replay, when a previous junta refused to recognize the NLD’s first victory two years after the party was founded, the generals again seized power, citing electoral fraud.
“We went to bed on the night of January 31 with democracy and woke up on the morning of February 1 to a dictatorship,” Hlaing Htwe said, recalling the suddenness of last year’s return to military rule.
“It’s all gone” – was the first thought that came to his mind when he learned that the elected NLD government had been overthrown.
Once the shock passed, and as protesters gathered in large numbers across the country, he convinced himself that the coup would fail. But as someone who had participated in the 1988 uprising as a freshman in college, he also felt growing unease about how the situation was unfolding.
“It’s because of the trauma of our generation,” he said.
His fears were soon proven to be well-founded, as the regime was quick to resort to violence to suppress opposition to its rule, just as its predecessors had done.
As the repression grew more savage as the weeks passed and the weeks turned into months, opponents of the regime continued to hold their ground, both through the nonviolent civil disobedience movement and by resorting to the armed resistance.
Meanwhile, others not directly involved in the anti-coup movement struggled on other fronts.
For some, life quickly became much more difficult. Even those who didn’t experience any drastic change in their situation at first, like Hlaing Htwe, started to feel the pressure.
However, it was mostly the hubbub of memories – of the days when he had to queue to buy necessities such as rice, oil and candles from government stores – that oppressed Htwe Hlaing as the economic conditions were deteriorating.
Now that he has to use an inverter hooked up to a car battery to make sure he has at least some electricity in his house at night, he remembers how his father used to do refueling the family car just so they can sell the fuel to pay for household expenses.
“It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do at the time. No one ever questioned why it was necessary in the first place,” he said.
He was quick to add that his own situation was not as bad as that of many others. “But I can see where it’s heading,” he said.
The woes of the working class
For Win Win*, a garment factory worker in the industrial suburb of Yangon, Hlaing Tharyar, the reality of the situation hit faster and faster.
Originally from the Sagaing region, she came to Yangon five years ago in search of a job. Since then, she has been living in a workers’ dormitory, where she has a space of only 10’x10′ to belong to herself.
Since the coup, she has seen many others lose their jobs. This makes her grateful that she is still working. But even at full employment, she struggles to survive, as the prices of basic necessities continue to soar beyond her modest means.
To save money, most factory workers get up early in the morning to cook their own meals. After work, they go to the markets to buy food to cook in their dormitories. Due to power cuts, many now have to use charcoal for cooking, which takes more time and energy than using electric stoves. If they are too exhausted at the end of the day, they buy food from vendors, eating away at their tight budgets.
“If the power comes back in the middle of the night, we all get up to cook while we can because there’s no guarantee it’ll still be there in the morning,” she says, describing the disruptions that have become regular. . part of his life since last year.
Even taking showers has become more difficult since the coup. Without a reliable supply of electricity, water cannot always be pumped into the dormitory.
“Some days we don’t have water to wash ourselves. These are our “no shower” days, she says.
Taxi drivers are also affected by the post-coup economy. As living costs rise, more and more people are opting for the bus or train to get around. With gasoline now costing around 2,500 kyats ($1.40) a litre, driving around town in the hope of paying a price is now prohibitively expensive.
When the authorities all start asking for money for tea, you know the country is going backwards – way back
To make matters worse, checkpoints have become commonplace in Yangon since the coup, according to Min Min*, a taxi driver with many years of experience.
This means that police and soldiers now have more opportunities to demand “tea money” – small bribes that were a ubiquitous feature of life under previous regimes.
“When the authorities all start asking for money for tea, you know the country is going backwards, way back,” he said.
clouds of doubt
It’s not just the economy that weighs on people. There is also a pervasive sense of mistrust that has crept back into everyday life. Tea rooms are once again places where one does not express oneself too freely.
“Between the Covid and the coup, I no longer feel safe when I sit next to other people,” says Hlaing Htwe.
He says that every time he takes a seat in one of his favorite tearooms, he finds himself examining the faces of other customers. Instead of reading news papers – most of which have ceased publication since the coup – he reads the expressions of strangers to try to guess whether they are military informants or regime supporters.
Hlaing Htwe knows what it’s like to live under a cloud of doubt about those around him – and himself.
In 1988, he joined other students who fled into the jungle with the intention of taking up arms against the regime that had taken power that year. After a few months, however, he returned to Yangon when it became apparent that there was little support for the armed struggle among ordinary people, who had seen for themselves how much violence the army was prepared to do. inflict to stay in power.
He saw how people learned to adapt to this new reality after a brief moment of hope, when it looked like the people of the land would finally succeed in overthrowing their oppressors. Civil servants who had taken part in the protests went back to work, sheepish. Celebrities who were calling for democracy started making propaganda for the junta. And the rebels who came back from the jungle tried to make a living.