The nights have become long, dark and entrenched in fear for the citizens of Myanmar.
A few days stand out among the brutal weeks since the military’s February 1 coup – among those is the March 8 siege of Sanchuang township. A 12-hour ordeal in which security forces, hunting protestors, surrounded some 200 people in a four-street area in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of the same name, many of those trapped were students and women who had marched marking International Women’s Day.
The risk to life was great – by that day, more than 200 protesters had already been killed by members of the military and police within the previous month.
The central township of Sanchaung has been a focal point for activism in Yangon. The residential area is a hub of diversity, seeing the area home to many persecuted ethnic minorities from the wider states of Myanmar, such as Kachin, Shan and Chin. Consequently, the area has been a target of the military over the past month.
With brutal crackdowns and massacres of civilians ongoing, Yangon residents explained to the Globe the terror as their wards were barricaded that night by convoys of armed police and shock infantry battalions.
For 28-year-old student activist Mai, who has frequently been on the frontlines of protests, the day began like most others. On Monday, March 8, her and other young activists began assembling street blockades and barriers made of sandbags, tables, fridges and any rubble available. These barricades are constructed on almost every street in Yangon.
“For me, when I haven’t gone out for a day to protest, I feel like I am not doing what I should do for this movement. That’s why I usually go four or five days a week, to get our rights back and justice for our country,” Mai said. “I believe that it is so important to continue even though the military are shooting us dead. We need to keep raising our voices continuously for justice so the world can hear.”
Following repeated attacks on civilian homes and bystanders by the armed forces, groups of young men formed walls with their homemade shields at the front of the demonstrations, risking their lives to protect other protestors and civilians alike. The charge of riot police and soldiers from behind clouds of tear gas, exploding stun grenades and bullets were an imminent threat.
Sanchaung’s once-bustling neighbourhoods, lined with street vendors, markets and restaurants selling ethnic foods, now resembled a conflict zone. Tensions escalated when the military and security forces stormed the protest and surrounded the township with dozens of military trucks. Combat soldiers and military police carrying automatic rifles filled the streets, trapping over two hundred protestors in residential blocks.
Violent crackdowns are currently in place across all townships in Yangon. According to Reuters, many state institutions such as hospitals and universities are being commandeered by security forces to intimidate those striking and ambush wounded protestors. As of today, at least six townships in Yangon are now under martial law following mass shootings across the city in March. On March 14 in Yangon’s Hlaing Thayar township, more than 48 protestors were shot dead in one day.
Ma Yamone, a 36-year-old striking worker and activist said she was among those trapped in Sanchaung on March 8. As she is from a Chin background, she understands the direct implications of military rule for her people. The Chin people have suffered a long history of persecution under totalitarianism.
“The military and the police boosted their numbers and intensity after they had surrounded the area, it was really difficult to escape,” she recalled. “As we hid in an apartment, at around 8pm, they announced that they will check the housing registers. If they found uninformed guests, both the guests and the house owners would be arrested”.
As darkness fell, many were trapped and hiding long into the night with infantry battalions and military police roaming the streets and raiding houses.
A 70-year-old resident of the area and grandmother of two told the Globe she’d had to hide her family from the security forces. For her, these beginnings were all too familiar having already lived most of her life under a totalitarian regime.
“They [military police] came onto our street, started shooting and smashing up property, but we could hardly see as they cut all the street lights,” she said in a whisper. “They were shouting abusive language at the apartment blocks and threatening to kill anyone on sight. I was hugging my grandchildren as they were so scared. Then soldiers threw stun grenades in front of the apartment. My grandchildren are traumatised.”
The military and police have used power cuts as a common tool to control the conditions of both public areas and areas of private residence. Security forces have also fired arbitrary gunshots into apartments and carried out random beatings and murders of residents to deter communities from aiding protestors.
By 10pm that night, the UK, German and US embassies’ issued statements on the situation. The UK embassy tweeted: “The Embassy is very concerned about reports of many young people being trapped in Sanchaung and other parts of Yangon”. The German Embassy stated: “We urgently appeal to the security forces to abstain from the use of force and detentions against residents and others, and to let all peaceful protestors return to their homes immediately.”
My friends and I, we’ve never experienced this kind of life threatening situation, we were shaking with fear long into the night. Around 11pm, the military police started to knock on the door of the apartment we were hiding in
Protestors hid long into the night, being protected and sheltered by residents who were united behind the uprising.
“My friends and I, we’ve never experienced this kind of life threatening situation, we were shaking with fear long into the night,” Mai said. “Around 11pm, they [the military police] started to knock on the door of the apartment we were hiding in, but the apartment owners hid us well so they couldn’t find us when they searched the building.”
Close to midnight, thousands took to the streets from other townships in defiance of the military curfew chanting “Free the students in Sanchaung”. Fireworks were set off and pots were banged to create a diversion for the trapped protestors. Many who joined the midnight protest were chased back to their townships by security forces in the darkness of night, distracting them from those trapped in Sanchaung.
At 4am the following morning, just before dawn, civilians from other townships arrived at the main roads of Sanchaung to help protestors flee safely. Forty protestors and residents were arrested that night, with scores more beaten. Despite the narrow escape for many, the location of those core-activists detained is currently unknown.
Since then, numerous residents have been arrested or fled the township. Furthermore, activists have been placed on a wanted list, pushing the movement underground. Aung, a 25-years-old coordinator of the defensive measures at protests, is now on the run from the authorities.
“I rely on the unity and kindness of the community to help keep me safe, this is something they are trying to break,” he explained. “As long as we keep this spirit, the revolution against these murders will continue”.
The names of people spoken to have been changed for safety.