Death, danger, despair: A year in Myanmar under the military
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — An elderly woman forced to flee bombings. A former peace negotiator leaving his job to fight Myanmar security forces. A woman’s husband shot during a peaceful protest, leaving her alone to care for their two children.
Since Myanmar’s military dismissed the results of the country’s democratic election and seized power on Feb. 1, 2021, peaceful nationwide protests and violent crackdowns by security forces have spiraled into a nationwide humanitarian crisis.
The Associated Press spoke to people in Myanmar about how their lives have changed in the year since the military took power. They spoke on condition their names are not disclosed for fear of reprisal.
THE WIDOW: “HE SUDDENLY DISAPPEARED”
Before his death, Khine’s husband earned enough money making door gates that her family lived a comfortable life in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. She was able to stay home to care for the couple’s two young daughters while the husband worked.
On Feb. 1, Khine’s husband got a phone call from a friend, telling him about the military takeover.
“He looked really sad, angry and couldn’t talk much,” Khine told the AP by phone.
In the weeks that followed, protests calling for the military to restore democracy and free imprisoned politicians rippled through the country. Khine and her husband joined the crowds.
In late March, as security forces began using lethal force to crack down on protests, Khine was babysitting when demonstrators came to her home to tell her that her husband had been shot. They took him to two clinics but both refused to treat him. He died when they reached a hospital.
“He suddenly disappeared,” she said. “Before the coup, I had never imagined that our family life would fall apart like this.”
Her husband is one of at least 1,490 people killed by the military since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that monitors verified arrests and deaths in Myanmar. Over 11,775 have been arrested, according to the group.
Since her husband’s death, Khine has started working at a garment factory, earning $3 a day. Unable to afford their old apartment after the loss of her husband’s income, the family has moved into a small room. She worries about being able to provide for her children and their mental health.
“My eldest daughter is becoming traumatized,” said Khine. “She often says, ‘My friends have their fathers, but I don’t.’”
THE DISPLACED: “FLEEING THE WAR IS EXHAUSTING”
Bomb blasts, gunfire and artillery shelling have followed 63-year-old Mee at every shelter she’s been forced to flee to over the past year.
She first had to flee to a camp for the displaced after fighting broke out near her village in eastern Myanmar. A month later, the camp was no longer safe, and the medicine she needed for her heart disease and hypertension wasn’t available. With nowhere else to go, Mee moved to a relative’s house.
“While we were there, gunfire was heard,” Mee told the AP by phone “We decided not to run away, even if we died, because fleeing the war is exhausting.”
Not long after, the area near her relative’s house was bombed, and she had to move once more. For now, Mee shares a small barn with 15 other people, all of them displaced. She has enough medicine only for two months and is concerned about the future of her family and the country.
As of Jan. 17, the U.N. refugee agency estimates the number of the displaced since the army takeover at 405,700. Another 32,000 have fled to neighboring countries.
“I am worried and tired every day,” Mee said. “For now, my hope is that I just want to see peace and calm. Then, I want to go back to my house.”
THE SURGEON: “LIVES HAVE TO BE SACRIFICED”
Before the military seized power, the 28 year-old assistant surgeon was studying for his exams to become a specialist. He lived with his family and would take pride in treating patients at the hospital he worked at in a major city.
On the morning of the takeover, he went to work, seeing military vehicles on the roads and helicopters overhead. The phones and internet were cut. Stepping into the hospital, he learned the military had detained the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The next day, he and other health care workers in state-run hospitals quit, sparking what would become known as the Civil Disobedience Movement.
“After the military coup, we no longer wanted to work under them. We believed all the health sectors will have no progress under the military,” he told the AP by phone.
Myanmar has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for health care workers, according to Physicians for Human Rights. It said 30 health workers were killed and 286 arrested between the takeover and Jan. 10.
Seeing his colleagues getting arrested, the surgeon fled to an area controlled by an armed opposition group. He has worked in makeshift clinics made of tents in camps for four months, treating people with general illnesses and those wounded by military shelling and land mines.
Medicine is hard to find, with security forces arresting anyone transporting medication.
“We have to carry medicine secretly. That’s why it takes about a month for medicine to arrive,” he said. “Even if cars are carrying paracetamol or something like that, they’re arrested.”
The surgeon still dreams of being able to return home to take the exams for a specialist.
“But dreams and reality are different,” he said. “The people are suffering from the oppression of the military council. Lives have to be sacrificed for the revolution.”
THE JOURNALIST: “WE DARE NOT TAKE OUT OUR CAMERAS”
The videographer knew journalists had to show the world what was happening in Myanmar. Setting aside their anger and sadness about the military takeover, they went to the streets to document protests and brutal crackdowns with their phones day after day.
“We dare not take out our cameras” for fear of arrest, the videographer told the AP by phone. “Things are getting worse.”
Facing increasing threats, many of the videographer’s colleagues fled to the jungle to join armed resistance groups. Others have been arrested. By Dec. 1, more journalists were arrested in Myanmar than every country in the world except China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least two journalists have been killed and others tortured while in detention, the group said.
Yet the videographer continues to work, realizing that any report could be the last one.
“I’m working like an underground journalist,” the videographer said. “In case of an emergency, I have prepared a bag if I need to run.”
Despite the threats, the journalist has no intention of leaving the country.
“The international community only knows about the military’s atrocities through the media,” the videographer said. “But I will continue to do this work until I can’t do it. If the security forces chase and catch me — let them.”
THE FIGHTER: “I DECIDED I WOULD TAKE UP ARMS”
After watching fellow peaceful protesters get shot in the head by military forces, the 47 year-old made a decision.
“I decided I would take up arms, and I started looking for options to actually do so,” he said.
His protests had started peacefully. After the military takeover, he began organizing rallies in Yangon. But as the weeks passed, he knew his safety was in jeopardy.
“I stopped living in my apartment,” he said. “I also had to ask my family to leave that apartment to a secret location so that (the military) could not harm them.”
But when the protests turned deadly, he realized he wanted to take a step further.
“I never thought I would find myself involved in a struggle,” he told the AP by phone.
The man is just one of thousands of people in Myanmar who have joined loose-knit guerilla groups called People’s Defense Forces. Some have forged alliances with armed ethnic groups that have been at war with Myanmar military for decades, while others have pledged allegiance to the opposition National Unity Government, a parallel administration that declared a “defensive war” against the military in September.
Before the takeover, the man enjoyed going to restaurants with his family, shopping trips to the mall and spending time with his children in their home when he wasn’t working at a nongovernment organization involved in the decades-long peace process.
His days are now spent on missions he is hesitant to speak about for security reasons. He lives in an area of a jungle controlled by an armed ethnic group, carrying multiple weapons wherever he goes. He and his comrades forage for whatever they can to survive and sleep in hammocks strung between trees.
“The life I enjoyed is no longer available,” he said.
The man said he is frustrated by the international community’s lack of response, and that the people of Myanmar have had to take matters into their own hands.
“We have the right to use violence to defend ourselves while the international community stands by.”