Myanmar is in chaos after military coup. A Yangon neighborhood is in the eye of the storm.
When Moe and two friends moved into a shared apartment in Yangon in 2019, they chose the city’s Sanchaung neighborhood for its lively bars, restaurants and new malls. Striking out on their own for the first time, the young professionals thought they had finally made it as adults — and decorated their digs with stuffed toys and colorful cushions.
Then came the military coup.
Last week, Moe, 23, sat huddled in a bedroom, contemplating torture or death, with her housemates and 13 female protesters. Police officers were rattling on the door, she said, screaming for them to emerge and threatening to arrest them after another day of street battles between security forces and civilians.
“Before the coup, I could have never imagined my life would turn out this way,” Moe said. “I don’t think I could have ever been prepared.”
Since the military seized power Feb. 1, hundreds of thousands across Myanmar have protested the ouster of the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The armed forces, known for campaigns of slaughter against ethnic and religious minorities, have responded by turning weapons on unarmed civilians, killing at least 200, including more than 60 on Sunday, according to human rights groups. Two officials from Suu Kyi’s party have died in custody — one tortured so badly that all of his teeth were missing, according to human rights organizations and his family.
The descent into chaos is playing out most starkly in places such as Sanchaung, a jumble of streets wedged between the gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda and the murky Yangon River that has emerged as the heart of the resistance movement. Starting in 2010, when the military loosened its five-decade grip on power, the area boomed as middle-class families, expatriates and small businesses moved in, followed by malls and high rises. Many of its apartments and hair salons are now staging grounds for protesters.
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“Everyone wanted to live here. It was very metropolitan. It represented the future of Myanmar,” said Htun, a 37-year-old Sanchaung resident. “We have lost everything: our freedoms first, then our businesses, our restaurants, our offices, and our townships, which have turned into a battlefield.”
Moe, Htun and others interviewed by The Washington Post spoke on the condition that only part of their names be published, citing security concerns. The military has condemned the protests as “riots” and “incitement,” and said authorities “are exercising restraint as peacefully as possible.”
Spontaneous protests flared immediately after the coup, but within 48 hours became more coordinated. Among the groups acting as representatives of the resistance is the General Strike Committee of Nationalities, a coalition of ethnic minority activists and others. After security forces cracked down on protesters at rally sites, such as the Sule pagoda, the group shifted tactics and organized protests mainly in Sanchaung, which it viewed as strategically located and especially receptive to its goals.
“Many Sanchaung residents experienced military atrocities before,” said Maung Saung Kha, a committee member, noting that ethnic minorities from around Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, had settled in the area. “They know the true colors of the military, and when the chance of revolution presented itself, they were ready.”
[An American success story is lost in Myanmar’s coup]
Sanchaung’s overwhelmingly young, middle-class and diverse community stepped up, helping demonstrators who poured in from other parts of the city. Htun, Moe and others began receiving protesters, providing them with food, water, shelter, protective gear and other essentials. When police fired rubber bullets or tear gas at the crowds, the dissidents would melt away into apartments and shops.
Volunteers arranged themselves into more than 10 rescue teams, providing medical assistance and security for anti-coup demonstrators. These groups patrol the neighborhood on bicycle, apprehending or threatening those suspected of working as informants for the security forces.
“Protesters feel safe here. They feel well taken care of,” Htun said.
On March 8, security forces changed tactics, according to protesters and residents in Sanchaung. After using rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protesters — who once again took shelter in safe houses — security forces sealed off a section of Sanchaung, trapping hundreds of demonstrators. Police and soldiers threatened to arrest and “punish” anyone caught helping the resistance fighters, according to those who heard the warnings.
May Lay, 38, who runs a beauty salon on one of the barricaded streets, said 13 protesters were sheltering in her premises when the security forces descended on the neighborhood late in the afternoon.
Peering out from her salon, May Lay saw officers break down her neighbor’s door and forcibly remove the occupant and five protesters he was hiding. More than 2,000 have been arrested or detained since Feb. 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma); some have not been seen or heard from since.
Knowing that she and the black-clad protesters in her salon had to leave quickly, May Lay turned to camouflage. She dressed the protesters in sarongs, T-shirts, blouses and flip-flops to make them look like ordinary residents. One protester had identifiable gray hair, which May Lay dyed black. Armed with decoy bags of trash, the protesters sneaked out, telling officers they were on their way to buy groceries.
Others had closer encounters. On a parallel street, police officers saw Moe and her housemates peering out from behind a curtain, and threatened to shoot them, she said. Officers then demanded that the group — the three housemates and the 13 protesters — come down to the street and comply with investigators.
The group rushed into a bedroom as officers ascended to their fifth-floor apartment and tried unsuccessfully to enter, Moe said. The missing doorknob and bits of metal that remain in its place are a testament to how close they came.
Salai Thurein, a 35-year-old member of one of the local rescue teams, said it was especially challenging to hide the protesters’ gear, including makeshift metal shields and hard hats. But virtually every resident within the barricaded area took in some equipment, he said, stashing it in backyards, on rooftops and in drains.
Security forces eventually pulled back early the next day, after arresting several dozen protesters. They took revenge on Sanchaung by smashing cars and destroying shops — but for residents and protesters, that was the best-case scenario.
“We averted a catastrophic event,” Htun said.
Protests against the military’s power grab have intensified and spread. On Sunday, Hlaing Tharyar, an impoverished neighborhood packed with garment factories, became the latest flash point. Soldiers and police took a far more violent approach there than in Sa
nchaung, killing at least 30, according to doctors at a nearby hospital. Hlaing Tharyar and several other neighborhoods are now under martial law, meaning perceived crimes can be punished with hard labor or the death penalty.
Some protesters say they will soon abandon peaceful tactics and arm themselves, threatening a significant escalation of an already volatile situation. Myanmar is awash with weapons after decades of ethnic conflict.
“We now consider it a battle,” said Naing Min, a 27-year-old physician who witnessed the killings in Hlaing Tharyar. “They have guns, and we have knives, slingshots and homemade weapons. We might be able to kill them, too.”
A committee representing members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, who were ousted in the coup, said in a statement that people have “the full right to defend themselves or others” in response to the military’s actions.
Longtime observers of Myanmar are warning of an imminent major lethal crackdown — similar to the one the military inflicted on the Rohingya in 2017, in which thousands were killed. The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, which comprises former United Nations officials who investigated the Rohingya abuses, said in a statement that the military’s actions, including Internet blackouts, are consistent with “past major military offensives.”
“Without immediate political intervention, a major crackdown with fatal consequences is inevitable,” the statement added.
Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.
Story editing by David Crawshaw. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design by Tara McCarty. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine.