Leaving Myanmar—and agonising over friends left behind in the coup

“Never in all my experience of murdered innocence had I stumbled into anything like the coup,” writes National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek.

Published 1 Jun 2021, 09:36 BST
TOPSHOT-MYANMAR-POLITICS-MILITARY

Protesters gather to demonstrate against the February 1 military coup, in downtown in Yangon on February 8, 2021.

Photograph by Ye Aung Thu, AFP/Getty

Writer and National Geographic Explorer Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his final dispatch from Myanmar.  

One afternoon before leaving Myanmar, I went to say goodbye to a houseful of friends hiding in a middle-class neighbourhood of Yangon, the country’s biggest city. They were educated professionals: young artists, university students, entrepreneurs. All were resisting the military junta that had gutted Myanmar’s democracy. I found them around a coffee table, quietly training to use bows and arrows.

“This is the next phase, self-defence,” said one, a skinny pro-democracy activist. He had city-soft hands and wore a nose stud. “Everybody’s going to have to take some heat in this thing. Nobody will come out unscathed.” 

I stared at his Stone Age weapon. Bamboo arrows lay next to ashtrays, empty beer cans, and an iPad. It occurred to me that, for the past eight years, I’d been retracing the footsteps of the first people who’d actually invented bows and arrows about 60,000 years ago: the hunter-gatherers who’d roamed out of Africa and earned the planet for us. It wasn’t a buoying thought.

I am walking across the Earth. Over the course of perhaps a dozen years and roughly 24,000 miles, I’m trekking continuously along the pathways of the ancestors from Africa to South America. I document what I see at boot level.

In Ethiopia I’ve walked through a ferocious resource war between pastoral groups and I’ve been shot at by the Israeli Defence Force in the West Bank. Kurdish guerrillas ambushed me in eastern Turkey, and my hike through Afghanistan was delayed by a Taliban offensive. But never in all my experience of murdered innocence had I stumbled into anything like the coup in Yangon.

The junta’s power grab stunned the city of 5.4 million.

Myanmar was emerging, gingerly, from more than a half-century-long coma of brutal military dictatorships. The civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi was compromised: She tolerated the grisly ethnic cleansing of minority Rohingyas. But people were shocked when the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known, arrested her in the wee hours of February 1. It was a typical caveman putsch. Ideology wasn’t the issue. Democratisation had threatened the potbellied generals’ grip on old privileges. Lucrative shares in beer factories. Lordly motorcades. Their baked-in parliamentary seats. Fossilised in the authoritarianism of the past century, officers dispatched soldiers to literally cut computer cables at data centres, as if the internet were a copper-wired system. Yangon seethed for three days. Then it exploded.

I was there to extend my visa.

Day by day, I watched as growing torrents of Burmese flooded the streets. The young were tattooed globalists, natives of the internet. For weeks, they scorned the military with a carnival of protests. Kids snarled downtown traffic by spilling sacks of onions at intersections. Nurses, firemen, and even food delivery cyclists boycotted work to march. Often women led the vanguard. Legions of beauty queens in ballroom gowns chanted against the army. An office worker I knew, a sedate middle-aged mother, danced atop a portrait of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing—the junta’s megalomaniac leader—taped to a sidewalk. Significantly, the first protester shot was a 19-year-old girl.

To date, security forces in Myanmar have killed more than 800 of their own citizens, including scores of children. The generals attend black-tie balls filmed by drones while their minions beat political prisoners to death or jail independent journalists. They’ve taken to executing poets.

“If the world doesn’t step in, we will probably die,” said a video producer who squared off against the police with a shield made of an old TV dish antenna. “If the UN doesn’t help us, it will turn into a genocide.”

He was proud of how the pro-democracy movement in Yangon always cleaned up its own trash. How city residents distributed free water and food to protesters. How the youth never resorted to violence. He didn’t believe me when I told him nobody was coming to save them.

Protesters react after tear gas was fired by security forces in an attempt to disperse them during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 4, 2021.

Photograph by STR, AFP/Getty

Police have painted over the messages on a pro-democracy protest wall in Yangon, Myanmar.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

I have decided to leave Myanmar.

Two hundred miles of jungle hills separate Mandalay, the old imperial Burmese capital where I paused my walk, from my planned exit at the Chinese border. Foot travel now is simply too risky. The landscapes of Myanmar are erupting into what appears to be a long, ruthless, patchwork civil war. It is a terrible thing to abandon your friends in such situations. But I have. For the first time in 11,000 walked miles, I have leapfrogged ahead by air to continue my journey in China. You can walk away from a lot of things in life. Grief and shame aren’t among them.

Meanwhile, the media spotlight has already moved on. It always does.

But I’m left to wonder what will happen to my wisecracking walking partner from the Chin Hills, a teacher who plodded with me for a broiling week into the Sagaing rice plains, holding a saffron umbrella. His minority group—tough people who fiercely held off British colonial invaders—is taking up their home-made hunting rifles against the junta. The army is pounding them with artillery. 

Or what will become of the immaculate Yangon waiter who learned to tape up the stubbed toes of drunk tourists lounging barside at his now empty hotel. He triaged the gunshot wounds of protesters after shifts. (“I’m so proud of him,” the hotel manager said.)

Or the woman artist who marshalled workers to the civil disobedience movement from burner phones, inking calligraphy to calm her nerves. “I’m so sorry for my late reply,” she texted me after dozens were shot in a central town. “I had a bit of a breakdown.”

Or the Muslim friend who drove me early one morning to the airport. Birds were out in the yellow sky. All of Yangon’s shops were shuttered. Convoys of military trucks filled with helmeted troops were deploying around the city. I looked up into the soldiers’ faces as we drove past. What was I looking for? All the while, my friend talked about leaving—about somehow escaping Myanmar—speaking very low, almost as if to himself, which he could just as well have been.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.

Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.

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