Inside Myanmar

Watching an aerobics video mid-coup took me back to a very strange time

Hi!

I’m sure you’ve probably seen the video this week of a Naypyidaw local doing a compelling aerobics workout, as a military coup begins to take place behind her. The various vehicles you see in convoy are all military. It’s terrifying.

As I watched Myanmar’s military sweeping in to seize power, I remembered sweeping there myself. Like, actually sweeping. I was shooting an episode of Dark Tourist and had been talking to the residents who’d been brought in to sweep the roadsides of their brand new capital city for $3 a day.

It was a strange place to be, as a journalist. As anybody.

As to why the military felt they must sweep in and take over this week? Well, originally it was for “rampant election fraud”. They’ve failed to prove that, and have now set their sights on the leader they detained, Aung San Suu Kyi. The crime they accuse her of is truly heinous:

After deposing Myanmar’s democratically elected government, the country’s military has issued the first formal charges against its de facto leader, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi of illegally importing walkie-talkie radios.

Well, fuck. Walkie-talkies.


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Myanmar has a horribly dark history before all this happened — and Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international condemnation herself, especially in regards to her treatment of the Rohingya people.

“Since becoming Myanmar’s state counsellor, her leadership has been partly defined by the treatment of the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

In 2017 hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh due to an army crackdown sparked by deadly attacks on police stations in Rakhine state.

Myanmar now faces a lawsuit accusing it of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), while the International Criminal Court is investigating the country for crimes against humanity.

Ms Suu Kyi’s former international supporters accused her of doing nothing to stop rape, murder and possible genocide by refusing to condemn the still powerful military or acknowledge accounts of atrocities.”

The Human Rights Commission’s report from last year makes for some sobering reading. The following excerpt from that report could be triggering for sexual assault survivors:

The government of Myanmar in 2019 continued to defy international calls to seriously investigate human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Shan, Kachin, Karen, and Rakhine States.

In August 2019, the FFM called on Myanmar’s security forces to stop using sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and gang rape, against women, children and transgender people, to terrorize and punish ethnic minorities. The military has used sexual violence to devastate communities and deter women and girls from returning to their homes.

So yeah, dark as fuck. And in all of this, the military’s presence is felt everywhere.

When I was there for Dark Tourist, I spent most of my time there in Naypyidaw — a relatively new city that was only competed in 2012, 320 kilometres away from their old capital of Yangon.

It was big and grand and ridiculous — a 20 lane highway, occupied by the occasional vehicle and stray dog. One theory about why it had to be so wide (apart from avoiding traffic jams) is that it could double as a runway for military aircraft.

One thing I was amazed we got to do for Dark Tourist was film inside their parliament chambers — found at the end of that great big highway. Inside, I was shown 660 seats by our government tour guide, and told that 25% of those seats were occupied by the military.

The thing is, no constitutional change can happen in the country unless more than 75% of MPs approve. With military holding 25% of the seats… no changes are going to happen unless the generals approve it. So while it may be a democracy on paper, the generals of old are still in power. It’s scary stuff.

And reading news reports first thing this week, I certainly wouldn’t want to be inside there right now:

“According to a statement on a military-owned television station, the army said it had carried out the detentions in response to “election fraud”, handing power to military chief Min Aung Hlaing and imposing a state of emergency for one year.

The party of detained leader Suu Kyi (a Nobel laureate) has called for her immediate release and for the military junta to recognise her victory in November’s election.”

After a few day’s filming, I was glad to be leaving that particular part of Naypyidaw. It felt oppressive. Overwhelming. A grand gesture of a city; a capital uprooted.

The rest of Naypyidaw was more for me. I no longer had a government minder filming my every move, and I no longer had to worry about my room being bugged.

So I just wanted to leave you with a few more shots. These are the moments I recall warmly.

I’m really grateful to the various people who put up with me. Especially the families who fed us and told me a little about their lives. They didn’t have to, but they did.

It’s been several years since that series — and I really wanted to talk to someone from Myanmar about what’s going on there now. To get their take on what’s going down.

So I reached out to Yun Waddy Lwin Mo, an influencer from Myanmar. When Dark Tourist came out, she shared it on her social media — which was awesome because she has millions of fans across her Facebook and Instagram. She also has a very good cat.

I wasn’t sure Yun Waddy would be into this. As you can probably tell, Myanmar is a scary place. But she agreed to talk about the coup. So here’s our conversation. It’s no small thing she’s doing this.

Thanks for this, and thanks for your shout out a few years ago. First up, can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?

First of all, I’d like to thank you for the work you’ve done on Myanmar in Dark Tourist. And I’d like to thank you again for taking your time to speak about the current issues in Myanmar. I’m a 22-year-old Myanmar influencer currently residing in Australia to finish up my undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. Because of travel restrictions, I have not visited my family and home country for over a year now. Being hopeful that this was all going to change in 2021, I am completely devastated by the turn of events back home. 

What’s it been like watching what’s happening back home in Myanmar?

At first, I really felt helpless and stunned, because god knows what the military does to anyone speaking up against their actions. Myanmar has suffered generations of unjust rule under the power of the military and all this information is available online for anyone curious enough to look.

Remembering the events of 1988 uprisings and the bloodshed it has caused, the people fear that history may repeat itself in 2021. To avoid going out and holding protests in the streets, everyone has turned to take advantage of the technological advancements and utilise social media platforms in order to promote campaigns such as #CivilDisobedience, and spread global awareness of the coup d’état.

I have also used my social platforms to participate and peacefully protest, all the while taking it hour-by-hour to hear about the next news update. Of course not to mention the country is still very much in the middle of COVID19 battle. The vaccines that everyone has been waiting for and expecting to arrive this week have been delayed, phone and internet lines unstable, and Facebook banned all within four days of the coup.

I think it’s really important that the world hears about this, and I believe leaders around the world need to apply pressure so Myanmar can successfully transition to a democracy. 

Are you surprised to see what is happening, or were there warning signs? 

I have to say I was completely shocked by what has happened. There were signs of discontent from the opposing party since the NLD (National League for Democracy) won the 2020 General Elections by a landslide. Although there has always been the possibility, a military coup is what I would have presumed to be an unreasonably shocking occasion, like that of an extraterrestrial invasion! I’ve never been bothered by politics, but I believe this is more than that. This heavily threatens basic human rights. 

What is most alarming to you about what’s happened?

I guess what’s most alarming to me, besides the coup itself, would be the detainment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others, plus falsely accusing of election fraud. The fact that they have actually detained her again — and on top of that, they have charged her with the most absurd reason, that is the legality of a walkie-talkie!

How do you feel about this? I mean, Myanmar has a troubled history — and ongoing — but it felt like democracy was heading in the right direction, right?

Democracy was heading in the right direction and the people did go out of their way to earn this democracy by voting. There is no election fraud, and we as Myanmar citizens are doing whatever we can to spread the word. 

Are you scared to talk out at all? I mean, you have to go back to Myanmar — and you will have family over there. I just know when I was there filming I had a government minder the whole time filming me… it felt a little overwhelming and scary.

To be completely honest, I was scared and still am. But I realised being Burmese it’s really up to me and my generation to stand up and speak in these difficult times, just as our parents and grandparents had years ago, so that future generations may never have to face this again. 

Thanks so much. Please stay safe.


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David.