Police vehicles along roads in Yangon on Feb. 1, 2021, as Myanmar’s military detained de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup. PHOTO: AFP / STRINGER
On Monday morning, the streets in downtown Yangon were busy with life: mask-wearing commuters strolling to work, monks collecting alms and construction workers digging up roads.It was the start of February, when mornings were refreshingly nippy and the days uninterrupted with sunshine and cloudless skies — no hint of the monsoon ahead.There was, briefly, little sign that another horribly familiar chapter in Myanmar’s history was unfolding.
Weeks ago, the idea that Myanmar’s military would seize power seemed remote. But in Myanmar, where history has veered off track numerous times, it was not improbable.Days ago, the military was releasing tough-talking statements over November election results in a country battered by COVID-19, ethnic conflict, climate change and poverty. One of the few things Myanmar had going for it was a civilian leader – Aung San Suu Kyi – whose international standing has plummeted but remained a source of unity for many at home.By early morning Suu Kyi and dozens of other senior officials had been detained. The military declared a state of emergency and Myanmar’s short-lived democratic experiment felt like a dream that the public was now waking up from.When I reached City Hall, several armed soldiers blocked people from entering the compound, where four military trucks, one carrying a barbed-wire barrier, were parked. People huddled around ATMs, none of which worked. Two men shot me alarmed looks. “Go home,” said one. “Take shelter now.”
Queues began to spill from supermarkets, snaking up the streets as people rushed to stock up on supplies. I stopped by my local cafe, where the owner told me he had bought three 20-kilogram bags of rice over the weekend. Like many of the shoppers, he had lived through the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings and remembered the food shortages, the lack of electricity and communication, and the soldiers posted throughout the city.
“We don’t want a repeat of 1988 but it’s coming,” he said. “We love our country so much that we returned from Singapore to contribute, but the ones who remained abroad have been proved right.” If the military says it will take over for one year, that means many more years, according to the father of two, who added that the public must “get involved in whatever way” to steer Myanmar away from a return to military dictatorship. “The military is too greedy and this time I think they will be even worse,” he said.
Phone lines and internet providers went down intermittently as rumours swirled about a nationwide blockage. It is still puzzling as to what the military had to gain from this takeover. It already controls 25 percent of parliamentary seats and key ministries under the constitution it drafted. Cronies control big companies and make massive profits. The streets of Yangon are full of questions and no answers, as people try to adopt a semblance of normality.“I don’t know what will happen next, but at least for now we are fine,” said Lin, 37, who was selling fizzy drinks and potato chips on the street.“It’s unfair,” said Thandar, 24, a second-hand book seller. “But everything looks normal around here. I’m not sure how it will look tomorrow though.”Yangon braced for protests after a statement purportedly by Aung San Suu Kyi – whose authenticity could not be confirmed – circulated on social media telling supporters to resist the power grab. Suu Kyi herself, had still not been seen in public as of Monday afternoon.
I cycled back to a police station near City Hall where 12 trucks packed with riot police, anxious faces in their early 20s, held their shields and other equipment. “It makes me sad and mad at the same time,” said a 28-year-old sales manager. “We were trying to forget what the military has done, but now it’s happened again. I just hope our true leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is safe.”