Amid Myanmar's Military Takeover, a Pro-Democracy Dissident Speaks Out - Rolling Stone
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Myanmar’s Military Is Killing People for Telling Stories Like This One

In Myanmar, the military has seized power and violently suppressed pro-democracy protests. But here, a dissident tells his story

Anti-coup protesters flash the three-fingered salute during a candlelight night rally in Yangon, Myanmar Sunday, March 14, 2021. At least four people were shot dead during protests in Myanmar on Sunday, as security forces continued their violent crackdown against dissent following last month's military coup. (AP Photo)

Anti-coup protesters flash the three-fingered salute during a candlelight night rally in Yangon, Myanmar, March 14th, 2021.

AP

On the morning of February 1st, the people of Myanmar awoke to the news that life as they knew it had come to an end. The internet was cut, phone lines were down, and a military-run TV channel announced a one-year state of emergency in which the country would be run by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Before that broadcast, the military had rounded up leaders of the country’s civilian party, the National League for Democracy, in early morning raids, detaining them along with activists, public intellectuals, and other politicians. In last November’s election, the NLD had obtained 396 seats in parliament, while the military had secured only 33. The new parliamentary session was supposed to begin later that day.

For the past decade, before the February 1st coup, Myanmar (a former British colony also known as Burma) had been held up as something akin to a triumph of democracy. But the reality was always more complicated: The military had ceded some control to democratically elected officials, but it retained much of the power for itself. Even as the country touted its “free” elections in 2010 and 2015 — and as its citizens began to enjoy freedoms they’d never known in their lifetimes — a quarter of the seats in parliament were reserved for officers of the Tatmadaw, as the military is known. One of the country’s two vice presidents was appointed by the military, a number of its ministries were reserved for military officials, and the Tatmadaw held control or ownership of over 100 companies and two of Myanmar’s largest banks, accounting for a massive share of the country’s economy. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD and winner of a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent resistance to military rule, maintained only frosty relations with Min Aung Hlaing; yet when the military’s attack of the Rohingya ethnic group forced 750,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, she did not condemn the ethnic cleansing. In fact, she defended the Tatmadaw’s actions at the Hague, sacrificing her reputation in the international community in deference to a military that could seize back power at any time.

Last month it did. Since then, a population that had grown accustomed to some democratic norms has faced the horror of isolation (limited internet has been restored, but Facebook, Twitter, and other sites have been blocked) and persecution. What began with a crackdown on peaceful protests has led to a campaign of terror in which the military has begun to systemically massacre its own people, including children as young as five. “We are being brutalized,” says Darko C., an indie-rock musician whose work bringing out the vote in the past election has now forced him into hiding in Myanmar. When Darko (not his real name, but the one under which he performs) reached out to Rolling Stone, he was desperate for the world to know what was really happening in his country. “I want people to be aware of this, because I believe in people. I don’t believe in institutions or organizations, but I have hope in people to intervene in this madness.”

Thus far, news out of the country has been extremely limited, and there are no trustworthy government sources. In the fog of disinformation, it is difficult to verify any accounts. And yet, a growing body of evidence has led U.N. officials to claim that the military’s actions against civilians “likely meet the threshold for crimes against humanity.” Here, edited for length and clarity, is what Darko had to share about a nation in crisis, and a people under attack.

When did you first find out that something was wrong?
On February 1st. The coup happened around, I think, 3 a.m. in Naypyidaw. But when I woke up that morning, I didn’t check any social media or news. I [did] my morning meditation session, and then my wife came back from a bazaar. She went for shopping, and then she told me that our phone connections were cut, internet’s cut, and there was coup in Naypyidaw, which is the new capital of Myanmar. Yangon used to be the capital, and it is still the capital in people’s heart. Naypyidaw is a new city, and it is structured to make a coup very easy — now every official [is] in that area. So they were preparing to do something like this.

When you heard that, were you completely shocked? Was it completely out of the blue?
Yeah, completely out of the blue. But it was weird. I was not shocked at all — maybe it was unbelievable, you know? Like, there were some rumors about a possible coup, but we did not take it seriously because it doesn’t make any sense right now. You know, it would be extremely stupid to go backward like that. Nobody believes in that shit. Even though there was a coup, on that day I thought it would be just to threaten the government to take [the military] seriously, to talk or to have a dialogue with them, to have a negotiation to share the power. That’s what I thought. But, yeah, it turned out to be real. It was real.

Those first few days, when a lot of people were still hearing the rumor about how staying inside for 72 hours would help, what was it like out on the streets? What does it feel like and what are you thinking on day two, three, four, five?
It was like a dead city. During the first week, it was very much like Covid lockdown. Everything stopped because no one feels safe going out — or maybe they were too sad. Everyone was very cautious, very quiet, really sad. There was almost no one in the streets.

That was for the first week. And then on the second week, everybody was going out. From the eighth day, there were massive rallies, getting bigger and bigger. We brought some snare drums, and some floor toms, and some speakers too, to spice up the rallies and protests a little bit. These small groups of like five or 10 people became thousands.

So basically people are just seeing other people starting to protest and joining in?
Yeah, there was no single leader [of] these protests. So it is good and bad. The good thing is it fucked up the military’s [ability] to search and destroy the leaders — because there are no leaders. So it made them confused. Normally there would be a few leaders, so that, you know, they can search them and take them and everyone will become quiet. But this time, everyone was super furious with their coup, and everyone was pushing back. This is not about a political dispute or whatever; it is actually about our futures [having] been robbed. Everyone knows that. We only had 10 years of a little bit of an infant democracy, and a little bit of freedom and a little bit of freedom of expression. Now it is grabbed. There’s actually only a little chance of winning, but nobody wants to give up, because we can’t live another 50 years of dictatorship. We saw what happened then. We know what’s going to happen to us. So this is now going to become a civil war.

When did the military start cracking down on these protests?
A 19-year-old girl called Myat Thet Thet Khaing was shot dead in the head by a police officer. That’s how it started. Now it’s 183 people shot dead [RS note: The most recent estimate is more than 500, including a number of children]. I don’t remember on which day they started showing up, blocking the streets, blocking the road, trying to scare the students. Now we are being butchered. For example, some NLD party members were just taken at night, and their bodies were sent to their families the next day. There was no explanation. There was no law, actually. Nobody was going to trial, prison, or nothing. They didn’t even provide the cause of death. There were so many bruises on the bodies and the face. One guy, there was no teeth in his body, and there was no organ in his body. What did they do to him in just one night? They took him at night, and just called the family to get his body. So I don’t know. They are trying to scare the people.

Also, they arrest the students, the protesters, and then when they grab them, to some people, they point a gun to their head and shoot in the street. What kind of terrorists would do such things in public? And these kids are only like 19 or 17 years old. I mean, they’re harmless. They’re kids.

How have protesters adapted to the crackdown?
Right now, the protests became more like defense. We all are building barricades and bunkers, blocking the military trucks from coming into our own streets. If they come, people start throwing Molotov cocktails and everything that we have, but of course, we know we can’t win with these little weapons, this resistance. We know we can’t fight them back with Molotov cocktails and bricks and stones. But people are doing the best we can just because we don’t want to bow down to this military. We don’t want to give up just because of the guns and because they can kill us easily. Everybody is ready to fight back, and now everybody is preparing for getting a gun, too. But this is not Texas — I’ve been to Texas, by the way. I’ve been to South by Southwest.

What is day-to-day life like for people in Myanmar right now? Is normal life just destroyed?
Normal life is gone now. There is no normal life anymore. I mean, everything is closed. Everything has stopped. All the food coming from outside of the city stopped. There’s no transportation, no buses. People are staying inside. We heard the internet will be cut off soon, and also electricity might be cut off too. All the banks are closed, we can’t even withdraw our own money. We are eating what we have, and people are helping each other. The good thing is people are helping each other. The next thing is a starvation. I think the starvation will come.

So the situation is really deteriorating?
Right now, every day is escalating. Every night there were more arrests, more arrests, more arrests. Every day is getting worse and worse. The violence and the horror is more and more. Nobody is safe. Anything can happen. Now they are stopping and searching cars. They will search your purse. If they see money inside, they would take it. They’re not even acting like security forces, they are acting like bandits. They are bandits, actually. They are terrorist bandits.

I think that what [the junta] are doing [is] pushing all the people to be extremely angry and furious to kill them back. That’s what they want. I think they are asking for it. So then maybe they can shoot more and [say] they are doing the right thing to control the situation, or something like that. That’s what I feel. Everybody is thinking about defense and fighting back, actually. Almost everybody is preparing for war.

And you personally know people who’ve been detained by the military?
One of my friends, who is a singer of a reggae band called One Love, he was taken on the first of February. His name is Saw Poe Kwar, and he was known as kind of NLD lobby because he promoted National League for Democracy and their leaders. Nobody knows where he is right now.

When you heard that he was taken, were you afraid that they might come for you?
Yes, of course. I don’t want to lie about it. Saw Phoe Kwar was in one of the bands in this program called Rock Your Vote, like urging young people to vote. My band, Side Effect, was in it too. There was a talk show plus live performances in a studio, and a projection of a music video urging young people to vote. So we did something that [the junta] didn’t like. It actually really worked, and it went viral among young people. And maybe that’s why now a lot of young people are super pissed when their votes are ignored or robbed.

You feel that having done that program together, you would be someone who would be a—
Target. Yes, of course a target. I’m sure I’m on their list somewhere. And not only because of that. I mean, I’m friends with activists, strong activists. So I started calling them, and I was advised to go somewhere. My friends’ houses were searched by the police and security forces when they were not there. That’s when I realized, OK, maybe I should be somewhere else. I don’t want to be taken too easily.

When did you start going into hiding?
I think it was in the second week, when I started going out for the protests. I mean, everyone was doing it, and I know they can’t take everyone, but if they want someone, they can use it as a kind of reason.  And of course, you know, I could be on the list. If I stay in my house, they know exactly where I’m registered, and they can come at night. They can just knock your door. So now I’m somewhere else. They have no idea.

What do you remember from 10 years ago? What was life like under military rule?
That’s true trauma. First of all, you would be intimidated every time you see a man in uniform. And you had no rights at all. You needed to be related to a military family, or know someone related to their family, or nobody can protect you. And there are some laws, but law and order — they define whatever they want and they could do whatever they want to do. They can knock on your door in the middle of the night, and they can take you just to, you know, ask a few questions, and you will never show up again. And no one knows what happened to you — that kind of thing. We knew it could happen every night. And that’s how we lived.

The education system was also totally fucked up. They did it really on purpose, they destroyed the Burmese education system completely, because they can control stupid people easier than smart people. Also, businesses, I mean, you can’t even imagine how they control the businesses. You can’t make any businesses normally because everything is in their hands and they do whatever they want.

In your profession as a musician, how did the military rule affect your work specifically?
We could not sing a song that criticized them even indirectly. There was severe censorship, a censor board, where my songs were censored — just for writing about sex! Sex was not discussable in public. One of my friends got banned for six months after they were not happy with the songs that they already approved. Can you imagine? Crazy.

So every song you wrote had to be approved by the censorship board?
Yes, but there are a few ways to get around it. They censor our song, and what I did is I changed some lyrics that they didn’t like — that they underlined with a red pen — and I rerecorded it and sent it to them, and they said, “OK, approved.” But then when I released it, I released the original version.

And they just never followed up?
Never found out. Of course, they would not listen to my music because they are lazy people. And I knew they actually didn’t even care about it; they were just showing off their power or control.

You lived through something like the current coup before, in 1988, when the military violently repressed a pro-democracy movement to preserve its power. What similarities and differences do you see from then?
In 1988, I was seven. Exactly my son’s age, right now. So that’s why on the first week, I was extremely sad whenever I looked at my son, you know?  Because I knew how I had to struggle, how I had to work so much harder than the people or the artists from the other side of the world, just because I was born in Myanmar, just because I was born in this fucking shithole here. And I thought my son would not have to go [through] the same process, because things looked better. I was so hopeful. And now when I look at my son, oh, my God, he has to do it all over again.

How much of what’s going on does your son know about? And what does he say about it?
Oh, he knows pretty much of everything. I explained it to him. I even explain to him a little bit of what happened back in the days and that this is history repeating itself, and stuff like that. He’s not very shocked. But one of the safe houses where [we were] staying, we had a lot of gunshots and these sound grenades. And my son got used to it. I mean, he was not even afraid. Every morning the police would show up and started shooting — pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow —a lot of shots, and he would keep playing his Minecraft. It became normal. [Voice breaks] That sucks.

You mentioned that some students are hopeful that if the violence escalates, perhaps the international community will step in to help. Do you think that’s a possibility?
They believe in that, because they are young and they believe [in] this globalization. And this is why they are risking their life: “You know, if there are more deaths, the world would probably save us.” And it’s an illusion, Alex. The world will be watching us. And we should be thankful if they are watching us. But we will not be saved by the world. It’s a bitter truth. And it’s really hard for me to convince the young people that they should let go of hope of being saved by the international community. They really believe in it. And I don’t believe in it. We will not be saved by the U.N., for sure. The U.N. will probably release 1,000 more statements, and maybe they will release stronger statements, but … I don’t know.

Where do you think this all is headed?
I don’t think this will be compromised or negotiated. Nobody wants to negotiate with [the military junta]. Everybody wants them out. Also, for them, they cannot go back, too. They committed crimes. They will do whatever it takes. If there’s civil war, I think they would bomb us all. They will use air strikes for sure, on their own civilians. The Myanmar military is preparing for war. I’m not sure if they are expecting U.S. troops or the U.N. troops, as we hope. I’m not sure. But the military is stationing forces in the hospitals, in schools. If the international airstrikes come, they will not bomb the hospitals and the schools, right? See how cruel these motherfuckers are? They took the hospitals and they kicked out the patients.

And this is during a global pandemic, of course. We haven’t even talked about that.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, forget about the pandemic. Nobody is scared of Covid anymore, right now. Nobody is even thinking about it. Now, our true enemy is worse than Covid-19, for sure.

Do you know what’s going on with Aung San Suu Kyi? How do you feel about her and what do you think will happen to her?
I have no idea where she is and what is happening to her. I’m not an Aung San Suu worshiper, you know? I respect her for her commitment and for her sacrifice for the country. She’s a very smart and wise lady, of course. But there are some things that I disagree with. For example, her silence about the Rohingya genocide. I totally understand that she had to be silent, just look away, so that she could continue her work, because there was always a threat of coup, always a threat. But I think the coup is also her fault, too. She knew it was coming. I wonder why she did not send specific letters to international communities stating, “If this happens, please do this and this and this and this.” You feel me? She was so confident and stubborn, you know, showing the middle finger to Ming Aung Hliang, the coup leader. He was not happy. This motherfucker was not happy about this. Now we are suffering from that too, where she could have done something about it. She could have done something about it.

Now she’s stuck too. She’s a great leader but, I mean, I don’t think it’s going to work again. I really hope, during this crazy time, new leaders will emerge. The silver lining of this terrible thing is that the 2008 constitution is gone. We will need a new constitution for sure. It’s 54 million peoples’ life and future.

How are people processing what’s happening?
It’s complicated. There’s mood swings, a lot of mood swings. Sometimes you can relate to somebody’s story and then you’ll be crying, sobbing, weeping. I’m not kidding, you really feel like your own son has died or something. Sometimes when you see the soldiers beating these kids, beating the hell out of little kids, you get fucking angry. But when you think about … I mean, right now, we don’t think about the future. There is no future right now. I can’t even guess what’s going to happen next week. So there’s no future at all. I believed I could die every day.

When was the last time you cried about what is happening?
Oh, it was the day before yesterday. That’s when I saw — oh, my God, I can’t even picture that. Oh, my God — when I saw a young person’s brains out. Fuck, it made me cry. I don’t know. That image stuck in my fucking mind. Fuck. Fuck.

Alex, to be honest, I thought this kind of brutality and these kind of heartless or ruthless killings could only happen in the past, because human beings were stupid back then. I thought, “Now we are more civilized. And now, because of new information flow and globalization and all this, this kind of thing could never happen again. And if this kind of horrible thing [did] happen and [was on] Twitter and everything, the whole world will know it. And the whole world will stop it from happening.” [Voice breaks] But this is an illusion, right? No one can stop it. It is happening. We are being butchered. And if this injustice can happen somewhere in this world, the reality is it can happen everywhere. Democracy, peace, security — they are fragile.

Do you think you might be able to get out of Myanmar? If you could, would you want to?
I do. If I can, yes, because I don’t feel safe. I’m not a pacifist, but I don’t believe in war. I believe in guitars and microphones and, you know, stuff like that. These are my weapons. If I could get out of the country tomorrow, I would.

 

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