A young boy’s life drastically changed after the pandemic followed by the coup in Myanmar. This work of fiction is based on reports from different media agencies as well as interviews with people from A Nyar.
Trigger warning: death, war, bombs, suffering of children
Chapter I – Birthday
Today is my birthday. I am twelve years old. I wish I could shout, “Yay! Happy birthday to me!” like a normal person. But I can’t.
What was your plan when you turned twelve years old? Were you going to celebrate it with your family? Were you excited to open your birthday presents? Or would it just be another typical day?
Here is what happens on my birthday. Well… I didn’t plan it. It just happens. My life has been chaotic lately.
So, for today, I will pack things again. Yes, again. I don’t know how many times I have been packing and unpacking things for the whole year. I have lost count after I lost Mom.
I know, I know I have been talking randomly, and maybe you are overloaded with all the information I have been telling you. Let’s go back to my birthday first.
It’s been a while since I’d lived with this expressionless face. I don’t cry or smile or laugh. My emotions are reflected upon my father’s, so I haven’t shown any emotion since my mother passed away. Today, I will pack things again.
I hear soldiers might come to this village after a full moon day. The news has been widely spread in the monastery compound since yesterday. We have to leave before they arrive. If we don’t leave, terrible things will happen. They can arrest and even kill you in the blink of an eye.
Sorry, let’s get back to my birthday again. Today is the full moon day of Tazaungmone. It is also an auspicious day in the Burmese calendar. There are several ways to celebrate this specific day. Usually, we lit candles at home and pagodas. There is a hot air balloon festival in Taunggyi. My parents once promised me they would take me there as my birthday present. I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.
So for my birthday, usually, I would offer alms to the monks in the morning. Oh… I had to wake up early to offer alms to the monks. I used to hate it when I was little. I always complained about it to my parents, but they said, “Do good deeds, and good things will happen to you.”
I didn’t care about good deeds or good things at that time. I just wanted to sleep. So after I offered alms with my parents early in the morning, I usually went back to sleep. Around noon, I would wake up and visit my paternal grandparents’ house and have a feast there with other relatives. It was also another gathering time for the relatives. Lucky me, I will get all the presents.
Sometimes, I went to the pagoda with my cousins in the evening. Usually, we just played around the village or in our compound and forgot about the time. Our parents would ask us to return home when the sun went down. We looked at the moon at night and ate a special salad called ‘Mal Zali Phoo Thoke.’
We believed that the lunar goddess would bless us with her power. We would ask the lunar goddess to give us good health and prosperous wealth while eating that special salad.
It was always the same ritual as far as I remember, and I took it for granted.
I thought my birthdays would be the same as long as my parents were alive. Well, it’s kind of true. We did the same ritual until COVID-19 came into our lives.
Chapter 2 – Pandemic
You could say my parents were one of the well-off people in the village. We had a vast territory of rice paddy fields. I didn’t know the exact size of it. My dad said he would tell me one day. I was too young to be interested in such adult business. All I had to do back then was to study and play around the compound.
When COVID-19 arrived in our village, we thought it was only a seasonal disease. People started to have typical colds, and we only took traditional herb concoction in an attempt to cure the disease. My village only had one Health Care centre. If you were terminally ill and wanted to see “a real doctor,” you had to go to the city.
The nearest hospital from my village was located a two-hour car ride away. In the village, we had tractors with trailers, rice trucks, and bullock carts. Those were the options you could choose. Usually, we wouldn’t go to the hospital because it was very costly and transportation was not convenient.
So when COVID-19 was spread, initially the people from the village were not too concerned about it. My parents and grandparents were no exception. Didn’t we ask the lunar goddess to give us healthy lives every single year?
Well, I wished the goddess really took care of us. But she didn’t.
My paternal grandfather started to get sick. He was the head of the house. He was one of my favourite people because he usually gave me a lot of pocket money on my birthday. Whenever I needed pocket money, I always went directly to him and asked for it. He always gave me more than I asked for.
At first, he took the traditional concoction, but he coughed spontaneously at night. He had asthma which made his cough worse. I could even hear the sound of his cough as we lived in the same compound.
After that, my grandmother got sick. She took care of my grandfather, so no wonder she caught the disease. Then my aunts, cousins, and many relatives, including my father, got ill. Meanwhile, the death rates in the village spiked. The village head started to be concerned about it.
The news from the television also revealed the seriousness of COVID-19. The news about the death rate in the cities also shocked us. Everything was a mess. My grandfather’s condition got worse. My uncle took him to the hospital, but he was sent back because the hospital was overcrowded and there were not enough beds.
We lost our grandfather during the first wave of COVID-19. It was my first experience of losing someone close to me and dear to my heart.
At first, I could not believe he was gone for good. I still thought I would hear his coughing whenever I passed through his room. The feeling of sadness came to me slowly but surely. Death began to seem unbearable and uncomfortable.
We could not have a normal funeral service because there were a lot of funerals in the village, and people who died from COVID-19 had to be cremated right after they passed away. I remembered that everything was rushed. We also did not have proper time to mourn because many relatives were sick or cared for sick family members.
After my grandmother’s funeral, the house seemed deprived of a powerful presence. My family members became aware of COVID-19, and we were more cautious about it. Not every single day would pass without a funeral service in the village.
At that time, we thought we were living in hell. Schools were closed, and the village had no seasonal celebrations. We could not celebrate the Myanmar New Year. Normally, we would throw water at each other to wash away bad luck. People did not have time to care about bad luck because bad luck had already arrived in the village.
Although our family’s income became unstable, my dad said we were still fortunate enough to have what we needed. My dad even shared some rice with the workers. The business was very slow.
Starting from that year, we barely celebrated my birthday.
Since grandfather was gone, family members were not in the mood to celebrate anything special. When the New Year approached, we thought everything would get better because we heard that a vaccine for COVID-19 could be available soon.
We were hopeful. But the future was something we could not predict, was it?
Chapter 3 – The Coup
I still remember the day I woke up on February 1st, 2021. My mom raved because my dad hadn’t returned. My dad went out because none of his workers answered his call to do the harvest. Usually, people came early and finished their jobs before noon. But it was a strange morning.
My mom said Dad had been out for almost 2 hours. I told my mom to call Dad, but she said her phone line was not working. It had happened several times before, so we did not take it seriously.
Around 11 am, my dad came back with a long face. He could not talk and kept shaking his head. Then, other family members came to our compound one after another.
I did not understand. All I heard was some sobbing and angry words. I never saw my dad acting that way before. I was confused. My cousins also came along with their parents and were confused. I tried to ask my cousins, but they also did not know what was happening, and we didn’t dare to go near our parents.
After a while, the adults explained that the military government overthrew Amay Su’s government.* I still did not grasp the gravity of the situation.
At school, we were taught how the military had been fighting for our country. The people from the military gave their lives to the civilians. Sometimes I role-played with my cousins as military soldiers and rebels. When we watched movies, the military always saved people.
Why would they overthrow Amay Su’s government? I was so confused, but I did not ask any questions since I knew that our parents were full of anger by then.
Within a few weeks, there was a thing called ‘protest’. My parents said we should support Amay Su’s government and never accept a military regime as our government.
Again, I only understood a little, but I liked walking around the village carrying banners.
Sometimes my dad would take me on the back of his motorbike. Sometimes we went with the rice truck to another village and joined the other protest groups. Every village came out and showed their desires. Here were the slogans I really liked to shout out loud with my parents.
Tha bate, Tha bate … Mauk, Mauk San Da, San Da … Pya, Pya A Yae Daw Pone … Aung Ya Mye, Aung Ya Mye
It was a fun time.
COVID-19 slowed down our daily lives, and we could not gather around. Therefore, visiting places, meeting old and new people, and wandering around other villages made me very happy. It was like one of the seasonal festivals.
But my happiness did not last long.
After the Myanmar New Year in April, there were no more protests. We heard from the news that soldiers were shooting civilians in the cities. We often saw military trucks wandering around near our villages. We did not dare to go out and show our desires, but we prayed.
The third wave of COVID-19 came to our villages during this chaos. This time, things were more complicated than you could imagine. We were not vaccinated, and this wave was the hardest. We were under military rule and were afraid to go to the town to get medical assistants.
My mom lost both of her parents in the third wave of COVID-19. Each and every household lost at least one person in this wave. A lot of people died due to suffocation after their oxygen levels dropped and could not get ahold of oxygen tanks from the hospitals. Oxygen tanks are items of luxury that only could be accessed by the people from the military.
My maternal grandparents refused to get help from the military, so they chose to die. I remember my mom cried hysterically at the funeral, and my dad was worried about my mom’s health because she gave birth to my sister recently.
I felt overwhelmed. I could barely breathe.
After the third wave of COVID-19, a few people in the village proposed to bear arms and fight back against the military with weapons. Some strangers from the cities came to our villages too. They said they were students.
Wow. I am a student too, but they are much older than me.
Some students suggested a peaceful protest, but some were eager to fight back against the military with weapons because the military had killed their loved ones. I recalled that the student union was with us when I first joined the protests with my dad. The student union flag was very red and had a peacock on it. It looked very stunning to me, so I always looked for it whenever I protested with either of my parents.
Our compound was always full of people. I did not know what was actually happening. I thought some people came to our house to visit my newborn baby sister. But most of the time, they passed through my sister’s cradle and went straight to my father.
One day, one of my cousins disappeared. My aunt was really worried about her son. We tried to find him near the village, but he was just gone into the thin air.
After a few weeks, we heard he had joined the revolutionary group. My cousin came back with some of his friends and shared their training knowledge.
Revolutionary groups popped up like mushrooms in the rainy seasons.
Things were escalating within a blink of an eye. Amay Su’s government did something worth mentioning, but I did not remember what exactly it was called. We still called it the Amay Su’s government. The protestors looked like heroes from the movies. The bad guys tried to kill them, but they still survived. Of course, our village and surrounding villages supported Amay Su’s government. That’s the only government we wanted to support.
During COVID-19, at least one person in each household died. Also, at least one person in each household joined the Local Defence Force for the revolution. People went to the borders to join the training sessions by the ethnic revolutionary organisations. Some stayed behind and started organising their own groups.
Within a few months, there were groups here and there. We were ready to fight back against the bad guys, but things were not like in the movies. Things got out of control because the military started dropping bombs from the sky.
I thought it would be like in the movies, where people fight face-to-face equally. They would roar “Fight!” and then run to the enemies and shoot from side to side. Isn’t it always like that in war movies?
But for us, the planes were flying over our villages and bombs were dropped.
I could hear the loud noise. It was the first time I heard about the bombs, but little did I know I would get used to that noise in the following months.
My cousin came from time to time to our compound and brought news. Most of the time, they were bad news. Death of comrades, or arrests of our friends by the military. We became familiar with death.
During COVID-19, we thought we lived in hell. But this was worse.
My family’s business went downhill. My grandfathers from both sides passed away. No one was able to fill their shoes. My eldest uncle tried to lead, but he was captured and murdered by the military because my cousin joined the Local Defence Force.
Still, there were a few people from the village who supported the military. It was devastating.
After my uncle passed away, we planned to move to my mom’s village because we knew we could be the next target. But things changed. I was not sure if it was for better or for worse.
We heard the rumours the military would burn down the villages that supported the Local Defence Forces. As soon as the rumours spread, people who supported the military fled from the village.
My dad thought we did not need to move. We also believed soldiers did not dare to burn down the village. They would not dare to commit such inhumane crimes.
*NOTE: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is called “Amay Su” by the nation, meaning “Mother Su”. Her party is known as the National League of Democracy (NLD).
Chapter 4 – Mother
We were wrong. The military burned my mom’s village to ashes. The whole village was burned down: big houses, small houses, rice storages, and the Buddhist monastery. Everything was became ashes.
We were furious. What kind of people would burn down the whole village? Why would they do that to us? What did we do so wrong that they even burned down the whole village? There were a lot of “why” and “how” in adult conversations.
My dad started to prepare for the worst-case scenario. My dad told me to pack my favourite clothes in my backpack. He told me to pack at most five pairs of clothes. He said if something happened, I should be able to carry my backpack and run. I did not understand why I should run alone if we were leaving the house with my parents.
Later, I realised why my dad said what he said.
At first, my dad was planning to use our rice tractor, but it was too big, and the petrol price was sky-high. We would not be able to buy petrol in the long term. So he chose a bullock cart. As long as we could find food for ourselves and food for our cows, it would be a good plan. We would be able to mingle among other carts too.
I prayed that the day would never come, but I think Buddha could not help us anymore. It was one of those full moon days. I didn’t exactly remember that day. All I remembered was that we could use the moon’s light when we fled from our village. On that day, around noon, we heard that soldiers had arrived at the village next to us. We started to prepare.
We could not take much as our bullock cart was already crowded with mom, baby sister, grandma, dad, and me. I sat next to my dad, who was driving the cart. My grandma sat with my mom and baby sister at the back.
We left the house in the afternoon with some other relatives’ carts. There were a few people who fled with their motorbikes and cars.
My mom tried to lock the house, but my dad told her if it were burned down, the lock could not prevent anything. My mom still locked it as if she was locking up our sweet memories inside our house.
I wanted to cry, but I did not. I just stared at our house for a few minutes. The house and the compound were where I grew up. I was born and raised here. I hopped around one house from another in this compound. I played with my cousins in this compound. My grandfather passed away in this compound. I could never imagine that I had to leave the house and the compound under these circumstances.
My dad told me to face the worst when we left the compound. It was the last time I saw our house.
When we left, we all agreed to go to the field near our village. We could not completely leave the village, although we had prepared for the worst. Around midnight, we saw huge flames licking the sky. We gathered and looked at the flames without saying a word.
I heard someone sobbing and then more sobbing. It was one of the coldest nights, but it was the hottest night for us. I didn’t know how long we’d been watching—maybe four or five hours? I also didn’t remember how the morning arrived.
The sky was so gloomy. I thought it was the weather, but I was wrong. The ash from the village fell on us when the wind blew.
Some villagers, including my parents, planned to return to the village and see how much destruction was left by the military. They also wanted to check their rice storage building. If there was any rice left, we would like to return to collect it. So we returned to the burnt village on our relative’s cart, assuming things had cooled down. We left my grandma and baby sister with our cart. I accompanied my parents to our village.
As soon as we stepped into our village, I felt like we were walking towards purgatory. I barely recognised the houses because they were burned down to the ground. Ashes were flying in the air, and it was hard to breathe. I accompanied my dad to check the rice storage building when we arrived at our compound. My mom went to check the house.
It was the last time I saw my mother.
I heard a loud noise from inside the house. My mind went completely dark. I did not remember the rest.
When I woke up, I realised I was inside one of the carts. One of my relatives was taking care of me. I was sick for a few days. I didn’t remember how many days. Maybe a week?
I had nightmares when I was sick.
People around me acted so strangely.
My dad also changed. He became easily irritated over small things. He barely held my baby sister. He would sit mindlessly. Sometimes I saw him crying. Things were more difficult without my mom.
Chapter 5 – Graveyard
We later found out the soldiers laid the landmines because they knew villagers would return and check their houses. I did not expect that a human being would commit such cruel acts. My mom was the first victim in our village. Later, there were more and more victims.
Since that day, we decided not to return to our home. I would rather call that place a graveyard.
I cannot recall any memory of my mom’s funeral. Did they even hold a funeral for her? What did they do? I still don’t remember how my mom died or about her funeral. I also became sensitive to loud noises.
I kept losing people who were dear to my heart since COVID-19 came to our village. Losing someone is hard, and I realised the things I cherish are not eternal.
I still have nightmares. In my dreams, my mom is always there. Sometimes she will sing for my baby sister, or she will tell stories to us. I will wake up with sweat and tears because in the dreams she always walks away from us, and I will run to chase her.
My grandma tries to fill the shoes left by my mother, but she has health issues. She has a heart problem and she will lose her breath from time to time. I have to babysit my sister most of the time.
My grandma takes care of my sister only when I go to attend the makeshift school.
We can barely stay in one place for more than three months. We constantly move from one place to another whenever we hear ‘the rumour’. We can not risk anything anymore.
Whenever I hear ‘the rumour’, I pack everything and put it in our cart. I am ready to leave at any given moment. I can easily drive our bullock cart now.
Things change so quickly. I don’t know how I end up in charge of this cart.
After my mom’s death, I wake up only to survive day by day. There is no future. I feel like I am walking on a cloud.
Usually, our cart is stationed at the Buddhist monastery with other people’s carts. If we are lucky enough to stay more than one week in one place, the adults will arrange for a makeshift school, and the children can learn something from there. I don’t know which syllabus they are using, but it is good enough for me as long as I am obligated to do something.
I try to do odd jobs from here and there, but I will not earn much. Also, my grandma wants me to focus more on my studies. My dad is always trying to find some odd job.
We never plan to live our lives from donations. We still have some jewelleries my mom packed while we left the house. I saw my grandma sell a gold comb one time, but I don’t know how much more we have left.
My grandma wants us to move to the town to live with our distant relatives, but my dad is not ready for that. He still blames himself for my mother’s death. He says living on the cart is a part of his punishment. He also says that when the revolution prevails, we will eventually be able to go home. Hopefully, one day, I can convince my dad to live with our relatives to settle and start our new life.
Well… for this year’s birthday, I wish to spend a day with my mom. I want to hold her tight and will not allow her to go and check the house by herself.
I miss her a lot.
According to the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar, there have been three million forced migrants since the coup. After the Lat Yat Kone airstrike, the military has been targeting civilian objects for many more airstrikes. There are many strategies that the world has tried to do, including ASEAN’s five-point consensus, but things were never enough for the military government.
I hope that my piece has moved you. We don’t need you to feel pity for what is happening here, because this is the reality we currently face daily. Rather, I hope you’d be willing to educate yourself and others on what’s happening here.
Share this story and let’s build a stronger community in Southeast Asia. Remember that all of us are neighbours, and we should have each other’s back.