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A Message from Myanmar

In February, a colleague at the Watson Institute forwarded the team at Trending Globally an email from a former student. The subject line read: “I write to you in desperation and with my life at risk.”

The email was sent from Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. The man who sent it was not exaggerating.

Myanmar is in the midst of violent unrest, which started when the country’s military staged a coup on February 1, 2021. Min (that's not his real name) has been part of the protests against the coup, and he’s been trying to get word out to the rest of the world about what’s happening in his country.

On this episode: a conversation with Min about life during military coup, and a message from Myanmar.

You can learn more about Watson's other podcasts here.

Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. In February, a colleague at Watson forwarded me an email she received from a former student. The subject heading was one that I certainly had never come across before.

MIN: "I write to you in desperation and with my life at risk."

DAN RICHARDS: That's Min. Well, that's not his real name, but that's what we'll call him in this episode to protect his privacy.

Min wrote to us from Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. As you've maybe read, there was a military coup in Myanmar in February. Min's been part of the protest against this coup, and he's been trying to get word out to the rest of the world about what's happening in his country.

So after getting that email, I reached out to Min. And we ended up talking a few times over the last couple of weeks. Because of the time difference, we'd talk in what was my morning in Rhode Island and Min's late evening in Yangon. They were incredibly illuminating conversations in more ways than one. So on this episode-- life in a military coup and a message from Myanmar.

So just a little back story--

MIN: When I left my country to study in America, the country had just come out of a military dictatorship.

DAN RICHARDS: Min came to the US for college in Twenty-Eleven, And like he said, at that time, Myanmar was in the beginning of a massive transformation. Myanmar had been ruled by its military for much of the last half-century. But the country also has a long history of citizens pushing for democratic reform.

And in the late two thousands, it seemed like the military was finally loosening its grip. They rewrote the country's constitution in Two Thousand and Eight, they freed political prisoners, and they decided to start holding elections. And in Twenty-Fifteen, the National League for Democracy, known as the NLD, a group in Myanmar long associated with democratic reform, won majorities in both houses of parliament. And the NLD's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, became the equivalent of the prime minister.

So Min was watching this whole transition to democracy from abroad. And he was excited for the future of his country. So in Twenty-Seventeen, after getting his master's, Min moved back home.

MIN: I worked for an NGO. And then I did some entrepreneurial work, starting a restaurant business with a couple of friends. I'm passionate about cooking.

DAN RICHARDS: He was even thinking about getting involved in politics.

MIN: Now, there will be a democratic process where I can participate and run as a candidate. And that's what I wanted to do.

DAN RICHARDS: In November Twenty-Twenty, just this past November, there was another election in Myanmar. The National League for Democracy won again.

MIN: They won by a huge landslide. They won 83% of all votes. But the military decided that five years of democracy was enough.

DAN RICHARDS: The military claimed that the elections had been illegitimate. February 1 came, and that was supposed to be the day that the new parliament, led by the NLD, would be sworn in. But instead--

MIN: February 1, when people woke up, there was no internet. Phone lines weren't working. Nothing was working.

At 8:00 AM, there was a government announcement. And then a TV presenter came on TV and said the military has taken over the country. And it was just like that.

DAN RICHARDS: The transition to democracy in the twenty-tens had occurred with the military's blessing. And it turned out they could just as easily revoke it.

MIN: It was shock and disbelief. People were scared. People are petrified. People were afraid that, I don't know, they might be shot on the streets.

DAN RICHARDS: But for Min and thousands of other people, that shock quickly turned to something else.

MIN: Within a week, the protests started. A friend of mine said, hey, let's go. And before you know it, we just started organizing one here and there. We just organized protests wherever we can.

REPORTER 1: Defying the military once again, anti-coup protesters marched in the hundreds in Dawei, carrying National League for Democracy flags.

REPORTER 2: Demonstrators crouched behind homemade shields during the confrontation with armed forces.

REPORTER 1: In this amateur footage, we see a man in uniform shooting at men on a motorbike.

REPORTER 3: Reporting as many as 50 people have been shot dead in the latest crackdown against anti-coup protesters.

DAN RICHARDS: The protests raged in February, as did the crackdowns against them. But by the time I talked with Min in late March, things had changed.

MIN: A couple of weeks ago, the situation was quite different because there were still lots of protests happening. And now, there's a curfew every day from 8:00 PM until 4:00 AM. And during curfew time, if you are outside, outside of your home, the military can shoot you with impunity. The situation here is akin to living in a Gestapo state.

DAN RICHARDS: So what's it like in your neighborhood now?

MIN: I live in Yangon, the biggest city. It's the commercial heart of the country. It has a population of over 5 million people. And where I live, it used to be full of restaurants that are full up until twelve AM. And now, by 5:00 PM, it's totally empty. Unless it is essential for you to leave your home, then you don't leave.

DAN RICHARDS: How nervous are you in your day-to-day life of violence or bodily harm?

MIN: Oh, very nervous. And so the level of violence that you see is horrendous. And these days, the military has started using hand grenades. And just before I came to talk to you, I had been talking with a person who had been injured from a grenade blast. And he was a medic that happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And just the other day, too, a kid was hiding underneath the stairs. And the military threw a grenade at him. And his body is not even found. It's just blasted into pieces.

DAN RICHARDS: Oh my god. What's your daily life right now? You and your friends and people you know, are people going to their jobs?

MIN: Nobody's going to-- the country has collapsed. Banks are not open. People are not getting paid, obviously, because people are not going to work. Even if they want to go to work, with the level of violence that is happening, you never know when the violence will erupt in your area.

DAN RICHARDS: Mm-hmm. And are you living alone right now? Or do you live with friends or family?

MIN: I live with my parents.

DAN RICHARDS: And have they been involved in the protests at all? Or what's this experience been like for them, do you think?

MIN: Well, they're not-- they're too old to participate in protests. But mind you, this is the sixth time in their lives that they have experienced an uprising.

DAN RICHARDS: Do they support you being part of them?

MIN: Of course, they support me. But of course, like any parents, they would be worried, right?

DAN RICHARDS: Of course.

MIN: Because you're talking about a country where there's no rule of law. For all they know, if I'm taken away, there's a high possibility that they'll beat me up.

And one guy, one soldier, is too drunk and accidentally hits me too hard in the head with the butt of his rifle. And then I have a clot in my brain. And the next morning, I'm dead. And that's a possibility. And that has happened with many protesters, as well.

DAN RICHARDS: That's-- I truly-- I can't imagine it. What is the current government, the military-- what are they claiming is happening right now? And what are they saying is going to solve this?

MIN: Right. So essentially, the guys that they wanted to win didn't win. So they alleged voter fraud. And actually, what's very funny was that, as you know, Donald Trump was also alleging voter fraud around November, December, January, right?

DAN RICHARDS: Right.

MIN: And there were so many memes in the country about how the two party leaders, Donald Trump and the military-backed party, were cooperating on how to overturn the legitimate elections.

DAN RICHARDS: Wow.

MIN: And of course, they say that they are going to hold new elections in a year. But if that is the case, then why are you arresting members of parliament from the party that had just won?

DAN RICHARDS: What do you hope for-- I don't know what the timeline is. But in the next few months, what do you hope will come of this period?

MIN: So after the pro-democracy government was deposed, some of the parliamentary members who escaped formed a committee to represent the former government. So they are pursuing a parallel political movement that is aiming to delegitimize the military council that is ruling the country and also to make sure that the international community only recognizes them as the legitimate government.

DAN RICHARDS: But despite this, Min thinks there's going to be a lot more violence.

MIN: Myanmar is a very diverse country with over 130 ethnic groups. And the military has, since its inception, been involved in brutally oppressing ethnic minorities. So these ethnic minorities have for decades been fighting a war with the military.

So in Myanmar, you have about 20 very strong armed groups. Together, they can form an army of 150,000 soldiers. The deposed government, now the rival government, is calling for a military alliance of all armed groups, supplemented with new recruits on the civilian population.

And the armed groups are openly advertising on Facebook, saying, please call this number and join our army. I already know so many people who have joined the armed groups as recruits. Already, war is happening. But before long, it will just graduate onto a full-scale civil war.

DAN RICHARDS: How does that idea of escalation make you feel?

MIN: Obviously, it's horrible. It's just like one day, everything is peaceful. And a month, two months down the line, there are going to be bombs dropped. There are going to be battles being waged on your doorstep.

And that is the possibility that has very quickly become a new reality. I don't know. In one month's time, if you call me up again, I might be in the army. Who knows?

DAN RICHARDS: Min and I started to wrap up the conversation. Somehow, we got into talking about the Avengers movie franchise, which I personally know nothing about.

MIN: Being Marvel fans, Marvel-- Hollywood having such a huge influence upon this world.

DAN RICHARDS: We had shut off the video on our call at this point because the internet was getting sort of bad. So I was just staring at a black screen at this point, wondering what Marvel movies have to do with these protests in Myanmar, when--

MIN: Hold up. I see a lot of police coming.

DAN RICHARDS: Oh.

MIN: Let me just-- see two police cars, three military trucks-- three military trucks. Oh, there's a lot of them. So they do patrols every now and then.

DAN RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.

MIN: Every time they do a patrol near my house, my heart skips a beat, because you never know.

DAN RICHARDS: I can only imagine. My heart's just skipped a beat.

MIN: Can you-- can you hold on? I'll be back in 30 seconds.

DAN RICHARDS: Of course. Take your time.

MIN: [SPEAKING BURMESE]

Hello?

DAN RICHARDS: Hello.

MIN: Yes. They passed by my house. I just wanted to check whether they stopped near my apartment or that they have went away. But it is unusual-- because I live near an intersection. And I know that they do not come on my road, but normally just go straight. But they took a right turn and came onto my road. So that was-- I was a little freaked out.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah, of course. Well, I'm glad they drove on past.

MIN: Yes. But as I was just saying, the sad reality, the unfortunate reality, is that armed resistance seems to be the only way, especially since the international--

DAN RICHARDS: We talked a little more about the strategy among the protesters and what he thinks might happen in the next few months. He also went back and told me the plot of The Avengers.

MIN: Huge battle with the evil guy, Thanos, and all the famous Avengers that--

DAN RICHARDS: And the point was, which maybe you've already guessed if you know the plot of The Avengers-- the point was that Min and his friends and his family feel like they are in an endless, violent saga that has had way too many sequels.

MIN: And people are just saying, no, this is the last time you will do it, because if the military can re-stage a coup any time that they want, what's to say that they won't do it 20 years from now, right? This is just a fight that we just cannot give in.

DAN RICHARDS: We signed off a little after that.

MIN: All right. Take care. Stay safe.

DAN RICHARDS: Stay safe. You, too.

MIN: Thank you. Bye bye.

DAN RICHARDS: Bye.

I was getting ready for the start of my workday in Providence. Min was getting ready for another night under curfew, relieved that the military vehicles outside his house had kept on driving into the night.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield-- additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us. And if you haven't already, subscribe to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts.

You can learn more about this show and Watson's other podcasts by visiting our website. We'll put a link in the show notes. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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About the Podcast

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About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.