The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Myanmar unravels after military coup, people flee cities for rural backwaters

Soldiers patrol a street in Yangon, Myanmar. The country is in turmoil with security forces clamping down on anti-coup protesters. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Before dawn one day late last month, Win stuffed his belongings into the trunk of his car, checked on his 14-year-old daughter in the back seat and, with his wife next to him, drove 10 hours back to the farming village of his birth.

He knew it was time to flee. He had watched soldiers shoot civilians outside his apartment in Yangon, the city where he had spent 22 years building up a successful printing business.

“It happened right in front of my eyes,” said the 42-year-old, who gave only part of his name for fear of reprisal.

Many have made the same decision. Myanmar’s main cities are emptying out, racked by the violence and fear the military has unleashed against civilians resisting its Feb. 1 coup. More than 700 people have been killed by security forces, including dozens of children, according to a monitoring group that tracks casualties. Most have been in the cities.

Like Win, these people are abandoning jobs and businesses to return to the rural backwaters they left for a better life — a reversal of the urbanization that once offered the promise of a more prosperous future. Others are leaving Myanmar entirely, while renewed conflict along the country’s borders has sent thousands more fleeing into China, Thailand and India. Yangon’s airport, empty during the coronavirus pandemic, is now packed with passengers leaving on flights out of the country, while the Thai Embassy is inundated with visa applicants daily.

My unusual week with Myanmar’s violent, paranoid military junta

The result is a mounting humanitarian crisis. Having traded their livelihoods for safety, people fleeing to the countryside are unable to find work in their villages. Few places in Myanmar outside of cities offer employment opportunities, other than exploitative businesses such as the jade and timber trades.

“People returning to their rural homes are unlikely to find jobs, and will place further strain on families’ ability to get enough food and make ends meet,” said Richard Horsey, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, who warned the U.N. Security Council last week that Myanmar faces “state collapse.” He estimates that several hundred thousand people have left the cities in recent weeks.

Mass exodus

When resistance started to swell against the military’s ouster of the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, Win thought he was too old to be on the front line. But his publishing house, which prints educational books and sells machines imported from Japan, supported the civil disobedience movement that seeks to deprive the junta of economic resources by encouraging dissenters to stop working. Other printing houses found different ways to support the movement, distributing fliers and placards calling for revolution and condemning the military. Others printed photos of Myanmar ­commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, so protesters could stomp on them.

In early March, Myanmar’s ­security forces opened fire on dozens of peaceful protesters as more and more rose up against the coup. Win stopped going out, hiding with his wife and daughter whenever security forces would enter their neighborhood. Scrolling through his phone whenever mobile Internet was enabled, he was startled by the killings of teenagers almost as young as his daughter. He decided he would have to leave, and set about convincing his wife and daughter, both of whom were born in Yangon.

“What I was seeing those days was unpleasant — arrests and killing of people,” he said. “I felt unsafe in Yangon.”

Myanmar is descending into chaos. A Yangon neighborhood is in the eye of the storm.

Around that time, thousands of internal migrant workers employed in Myanmar’s garment industry fled back to their home villages, after a massacre in the industrial neighborhood of Hlaing Tharyar. Entrepreneurs began to leave, too, including a manager for a tourism company who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Speaking from Bangkok, she said she returned to Myanmar in 2015, just before the landmark general election in which Suu Kyi and her party took over civilian leadership in a power-sharing agreement with the military, which had loosened its grip after half a century of direct rule.

“I knew there would be a big change, with the country opening up, and I wanted to be a part of that change,” she said. At the tourism company, her salary was about 130 times what she had earned in 2009 when she previously lived in Myanmar.

She invested her profits in a bar, and had no plans to leave even as the pandemic took a toll on business. After the coup, though, she no longer sees a future in Myanmar.

“Everything will be gone,” she said.

Back to the old ways

Most leaving Myanmar’s cities do not have the resources or permits to go to Bangkok or farther afield, and instead head for villages they left decades ago. For Win, that was a town of about 12,000 people near the Irrawaddy River in the Magway region, more than 75 miles from major amenities.

Since arriving in late March, Win has not had Internet connectivity. The military cut mobile data and then all broadband Internet, leaving only fiber — which his small town does not have. He has had to rely on phone calls to connect with friends and family back in Yangon.

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Win’s 14-year-old daughter, San, has had to abandon her studies, which moved online during the pandemic. She said she is “bored” in the countryside and misses Yangon. She spends her days poring over books and calling her friends in the city.

“They told me they are scared, because they still keep hearing gunfire,” San said of her friends, giving only part of her name out of safety concerns. “I want this dictatorship to end, because it is damaging our lives.”

A nongovernmental organization that operates in Win’s town is finding it virtually impossible to work because there is no Internet. Personnel stationed there are unable to read emails from the head office or communicate with colleagues.

“We are not even sure if we can continue working next month,” said a worker at the NGO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and declined to identify the organization out of safety concerns.

'Inner peace'

Win, meanwhile, knows he will never truly be safe from the military’s grip. Before he arrived in the town, one protester was killed by the military there, and five others were injured. When small protests or chants break out, security forces use stun grenades to scare the villagers, and they have arrested officials there from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. On his journey from Yangon to Magway, he passed several security checkpoints, where armed soldiers peered into their vehicle and checked their belongings. His wife and daughter were silently reciting Buddhist mantras the whole time, he said.

Still, he has not heard gunshots since moving. His life is peaceful, and each day begins with a walk, breakfast with his family and gardening in the small compound in front of his house. Options for entertainment are dwindling: Soldiers forced his neighbors to remove satellite TV dishes, leaving just the two free-to-air military broadcast channels, which Win does not want to watch.

It is a marked departure from his life in Yangon, he said, where he would work 12-hour days sorting out import and export licenses, training workers and interacting with customers.

Sometimes he worries about money, but he came prepared with jewelry and other valuables the family could pawn.

“I think I have made the right decision,” he said. “It is more about seeking inner peace, rather than seeing violence and conflict in front of my eyes every day.”

Cape Diamond in Yangon contributed to this report.

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