The Depth and the Breadth of the Land: Poetry of Witness in Myanmar 2021
by Ko Ko Thett
Following the November 2020 elections in Myanmar, when it was clear that the results were a serious comedown for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, plenty of telltale signs of the looming tragedy for the country emerged.
Some Chinese and Russian officials visited the top brass in Naypyidaw. “There is nothing I don’t have the balls to do.”, Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who had not concealed his ambition to become the country’s president, declared. There was a parade of tanks in Yangon. Most of us didn’t buy those portents, overlooking the extremely volatile state of affairs in transitional Myanmar.
At the break of dawn on 1 February 2021, the putsch struck like a tsunami. In the first day the whole country, and the Burmese diaspora, simply went quiet in shock and disbelief. The people were in a denial. Two days after the coup, medical professionals in Yangon and Mandalay launched the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and banging of pots and pans in protest began to be heard in the evenings in the cities.
A Singapore poet was one of the first to respond to what then appeared to be a tragicomic situation in Myanmar. Echoing the Burmese poet Maung Saung Kha—jailed six months in 2015 in Yangon for penning a poem about having a tattoo portrait of the then Burmese president on his penis, and reacting to the news that elected politician Aung San Suu Kyi was being charged with import-export laws for keeping some walkie-talkies at her house, Daryl Lim writes, “ Tattoo the import-export laws / on my foreskin // Write them on paper and burn them / so I may drink their ashes in my green tea // I am enriched by / your import-export laws.”
Within a week of the coup, starting from Mandalay and spreading over to Yangon and all over the places in the county, people disregarded COVID-19 perils and emerged in a nationwide protest. Just as in the 1988 uprising in what was then called Burma, the people of Myanmar looked out to the West and the UN for help, many of their protest banners and signs in English saying exactly just that.
The very first casualty of the junta’s brutality was a twenty-year-old woman, shot in the head at a rally in Naypyidaw on 19 February. “As the country fell, what could the world do? / Scavenge for loot? Slipped dreams. / The sniper looks great in uniform. And the flag looks fucked too. / Nobody enjoyed their own deaths.” “Myanmar” by Zeyar Lynn, is dated 20 Feb. Coup’21.
Monywa poet K Za Win is more blunt in his call to arms: “Before the Revolution opened out, / a bullet blew someone’s brains out, / out on the street. // Did that skull have a message for you? / Faced with the devil / is this or that statement relevant?”
By the end of March, the junta’s wholesale arrests and murders were widespread. The Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) didn’t mince words when they warned that “[the protesters] should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back.”
The regime’s bullets killed children sitting in the house too. “There’s a hole the size of a pencil tip / in the bamboo wall of our house. / Not so long ago Little Daughter / piled thanaka on her cheeks and / disappeared into that hole. […] Today each and every person in this country / has a a tiny hole as big as a pencil tip / in their chest.” “Hole” by Min San Wai is about a fourteen-year-old girl who was killed by a bullet that came through the bamboo wall of her house in Meiktila on 27 March.
Kidnapping of activists in the middle of the night by security forces, aided and abetted by regime snitches known locally as dalans, became increasingly common. “In the depth of the night / when all lights are out / everyone must hold their breath. / First the footsteps of the army boots, / then the orders, “Two from this house!” “Three from that house.” / “Pull’em down. Beat’em up!” / Rabid dogs snatch our neighbours. / The dalan, a finger whose moral flesh / is infested with maggots, is there to help.” Mi Chan Wai, known for her award-winning short stories, managed to write down what was happening in her neighbourhood at the outskirts of Yangon.
Braving the bullets or torture to death if arrested, people, predominantly youths, continued to take to the streets en masse. Ko Inwa witnesses how “the Generation Z” were relentlessly engaged in flash protests. Each time there was a crackdown they dispersed and were ready to regroup the following day; "They talk about / one of their shoes / that went off on the run./ About a a wallet they lost. […] They talk about how one of their phones / dropped and cracked. / How they had to flee for their life. / They laugh again. / Everything is light. / They say ‘See you tomorrow.’ They don’t talk big.”
They also came up with several innovative forms of protests in what they call the “Spring Revolution.” There were multi-religious prayers in the evenings, protests of parked cars in the middle of roads in Yangon, a display of flowers or flip-flops in memory of the fallen, and even an exhibition of pyittaingtaung, Burmese answer to tumbling Kelly, as a symbol of resilience.
In protests led by women they marched with htabi flags held high in defiance of the military dominated by men. They hung their underwear and htabis over the roads to deter the troops, who traditionally believed that walking under a woman’s htabi would bring bad luck. None of those protests were tolerated by the authorities.
“ […] Roads, blockaded, turned into ancillary legs. / Legs, smashed, turned into wings. / Wings, clipped, turned into breeze. / Breeze, detained, turned into a storm. / Storm, imprisoned,
spawned a million offsprings. / Those offsprings are our inbreath & outbreath—swallows in & out of our nostrils—our spring” writes another poet who now calls himself Nga Ba.
Some of them decided not to take the atrocities lying down and fought back with whatever homemade weapons and slingshots at hand. In Chin State, antiquated hunting muskets known as tumis, proudly displayed in many ethnic Chin houses, came back to life against the junta’s modern assault rifles. Alleged dalans and village and ward level administrators appointed by the regime became easy targets everywhere. The regime’s retaliation was predictably heavy-handed. The town of Demoso in Kayah State, which put up a fierce resistance against the junta troops is a ghost town today. On April 9 alone, an estimated 82 people were killed in Bago when the junta troops bombarded protesters’ barricades and encampments.
Within six months of the coup, more than 900 people were killed all over Myanmar, several thousands displaced or disabled. Monywa poets K Za Win, Kyi Lin Aye and Khet Thi were among the dead. The former two were shot to death in a rally in Monywa in March and the latter, captured and tortured to death in Shwebo in May.
Under the thumb of the junta, justice may wear uniform but justice is not uniform, except for those being accused of assassinating the regime officials. A group of poets and artists who were arrested on 27 March at a protest in Yangon were released in three months. Some others, who were arrested in similar circumstances, like Maung Yu Py and his lawyer Nayi (Myeik), also a poet, were sentenced to two years in prison.
Punishment for resistance fighters, who have been found guilty of murder of local administrators at the junta’s secretive courts, is invariably death. By July, there were sixty-five death sentences made known to the public by the MRTV. The pain of seeing a brother who was sentenced to death is described by a poet who calls himself Plug X: “Just as I am thinking how disgraceful the news anchor is, / your name comes out of that graceless mouth. / It’s the very first time I see your photo in three months. / Brother, your face is bruised. / Brother, poet, communist, virpassana practitioner! / Found guilty of murder, terrorism, and sedition / a military court has sentenced you to death.”
In July, as the third wave of COVID-19 wrecked havoc in Myanmar hundreds of people queuing up to cremate their relatives at cemeteries was a common sight. Among the victims of COVID-19 was Maw Min Than, a classical guitarist and a poet from Mandalay. The collapse of healthcare due to the repression of medical professionals is reflected in an unfinished poem by Aung Chaimt, who seemed to have suffered from a stomach ulcer. He appealed to physicians for any medicine to alleviate pain, before he gave up; “Hey man, are you going to die?” / No, maybe four-five-six minutes / maybe nine-ten minutes / a nap, a rest or a bit of shut-eye, to take me away from the times, I would like to take a siesta.” Aung Chemit, aged seventy-three, who passed away on 9 August in Yangon, is just a highlight in a series of unnecessary fatalities of writers and intellectuals under the regime.
For many youths of Myanmar, whose life chances have been ruined by a singular ambition of an army general, the notion of acceptance, or coming to terms with their griefs and grievances, is no longer possible. Poet Maung Saung Kha has left his native Yangon to train at an ethnic insurgent army base to take up arms against the junta. “No plan to go anywhere without victory!” he said.
On the other hand, the uncertainty facing most other people who remain in the country, trapped like tall grass in the fight between two bulls, is best captured by Min Nyein Aye:
The sacred text says
there is a whetstone here;
There is natural gas there.
For a clue
I will leave this poem
so you can work out
the depth & the breadth
of the land.
- All poems cited in the article, except Daryl Lim and Zeyar Lynn poems which were written in English, are translated from the Burmese by the author.
This essay first appeared in Muara, published by Pelita Tenggara for George Town Literary Festival. Muara can be purchased here.