General Hlaing and The Prisoner. Myanmar
Eighteen people had been killed the day before as government forces shot into the crowds of civil disobedience participants. And yet the protest movement did not yield.
Nyan had been arrested in the street as he withdrew from the charging police and had stopped to aid a fallen protester.
He was now sitting alone in a windowless cell, his back against the wall, face in his hands. Nyan was a civil engineer in a government office that built bridges throughout Burma. He was 39 years old, married and the father of two.
There was a sink and a toilet, no bed, and a single light bulb overhead. He had been fed once — a piece of bread and a small portion of rice — in the twelve hours he had been detained.
A cut on his forehead where he had been struck hard by a wooden club was swollen but had stopped bleeding.
He reviewed in his mind why he had done what he had. At first, his wife, a pharmacist, had hesitated to support him, but he had insisted. The nation needed everyone, he had argued. The military should not get away with shamelessly disregarding the results of an election where the National League for Democracy had won a clear majority and then put their leader, Aung San Suu Ky, under house arrest. Freedom had a cost and it was for the citizens to pay it.
‘If something happens to me, the children have you,’ he had said to his wife, Shway.
‘I have a bad feeling about this, Nyan, I don’t know why.’
‘Be brave, my love, we want the best for our children, don’t we?’
They held each other in a tight embrace as their children, 3 and 2 years old, stood by, anxiously.
The young one started to cry but the older one put her arm around him.
‘Nyan, you’ve protested several times already,’ said Shway. ‘Let others do their part too.’
He drew back to look at her and said, ‘They’re counting on me… I can’t let them down.’
She looked him in the eye, uncertain she would see him again, and nodded.
‘I understand,’ she said softly. ‘Go, then… but first embrace your children.’
He turned and knelt before them, then held them both in a tight embrace.
‘I’ll be back,’ he said. Then he rose and walked out.
Nyan raised his head and rested it against the wall behind. His arms and back ached from the blows he’d received but he didn’t think anything was broken. He knew that some people had been killed in the protests but didn’t know the exact number.
Now he heard the clank of metal on metal as the door was being unlocked.
As it opened two soldiers entered, one with a machine gun in his arm pointed at him, another with a can from where he sprayed a mist into the stale air of the cell. It smelled of fresh linen.
The two soldiers stood before him but said nothing. Then an officer, dressed in a spiffy uniform decorated with medals, stepped in. He was wearing his military cap.
Nyan was surprised. He recognized the man immediately. It was General Hlaing, leader of the military junta that had staged the coup.
The general stopped right in front of Nyan.
The two men locked eyes.
‘We met before,’ said the general.
Nyan remembered. Two years before, the General had made a surprise visit to the Ministry where Nyan worked and the two men had shook hands.
‘Why are you doing this?’ asked the General.
‘In defense of our freedom,’ said Nyan. His voice was firm but there was no anger in his words.
‘You have chosen to jeopardize everything you have, for what?’ replied the General. ‘To be part of a rabble, part of a mob with complete disregard for what the military have done for the nation?’
Nyan looked down for a moment. When he answered he looked the General directly.
‘We are fighting for the right to choose our leaders, the right to express our ideas and let others express theirs. That right should be respected at all times.’
The General listened calmly. ‘My father was a civil engineer too, in the same Ministry you know work.’
Nyan was quiet.
‘There was fraud in the election in November,’ continued the General. ‘That’s why we’ve had to intervene, to protect people’s rights.’
‘There’s a parallel, isn’t there?’ returned Nyan, ‘between what you’ve been saying since your party lost by a wide margin, and what happened in the United States with Mr Trump. He, too, from the start, kept talking of fraud. I wonder if he was your inspiration.’
The soldier with the spray can stepped forward. ‘Do not be disrespectful,’ he said to Nyan, menacingly.
But the General scowled at the soldier and the man quickly backed off.
‘In America, there are safeguards against what you’re now doing,’ said Nyan, ‘not here in Burma. Here, our votes are not respected and we have to put up with your desires to be king, and for your son and daughter to have large business interests that could only be had because of your influence.’
The General showed no emotion but he was now steaming inside. How dare this insignificant prisoner, whose life he held in his hands, speak to him with such insolence.
The General closed his eyes. Whenever he felt like striking out in anger, he closed his eyes and that helped him regain his composure. He liked being composed, or the appearance of it, especially when he had to be ruthless as he was tempted to be right at that moment. It was up to him to do what he wanted with Nyan. Up to him to have him disappear if he chose to. Just like that, for he, General Hlaing, was now the undisputed ruler of Myanmar. He had staged the coup on February 1st and the next day he had created the State Administration Council and put himself in charge.
It was not the first election that the military’s party had lost. They had lost, too, in 2015, when long time dissident Suu Kyi had risen to power even though the military refused to allow her to have the title of president. And then the following year, in October 2016, as if to establish clearly who was really in charge, General Hlaing’s troops had violently pushed the Rohingya Muslim minority out of Rakhine State near Bangladesh where many sought refuge. The actions had been deemed genocidal in intent by most of the world. But the uproar had passed. Everything passed. The world would soon forget about his small nation again, leaving him free to rule as he wished.
Myanmar was his. He owned it. It was his to do what he wanted when he wanted. And he was not about to cede that privilege to people whose brains were addled with notions of democracy.
The world belonged to men of power and he was one of them. He and Xi Jinping and Putin and Duterte and Kim Jong Un and El Sisi, Assad and the Saudis too.
He was sure that China would be supportive of his coup. In fact, all of them would.
When he opened his eyes, the General asked his escort to leave the cell.
The two soldiers were hesitant. Nyan was not cuffed or tied down to anything.
‘Leave,’ the General repeated.
The two men exited.
The General took off his cap and brushed back his hair. He had a pistol strapped to his side. He was a good shot, he reminded himself. If Nyan made the slightest move he would put a bullet in his head.
‘I like power… always have… which is why I went into the military. It makes me feel alive… I’m 64 years old and in good health… I could live another 30 years… so why not do it while I’m exercising power? Why share the cake if I can have it all? Suu Kyi may win elections but I can impose my will. There’s something sublimely intoxicating about that.’
‘It doesn’t bother you that the nation as a whole is damaged by having one man in power doing as he wishes?’ asked Nyan.
‘Just like we need physical exertion to develop strong bodies, we need political exertion to grow our minds and learn to repair social injustices, injustices to which we’re all so prone simply because we’re human,’ replied Nyan. ‘We need political discourse to expand and affirm ourselves and so enrich the country.’
The General moved his head slightly but there was no change in his expression.
‘There are so many countries where democracy leads only to paralysis,’ said the General, ‘which is why China has opted for autocracy. Look at how well they’re doing. Their example is teaching us all the right way to do things. Soon they will surpass America in every way.’
Nyan folded his arms as he kept looking up at the General.
‘Your forces have killed people… shot and beat them… does it not bother you? Can you sleep at night… knowing that because of you there will be children without fathers or mothers, or brothers or sisters? Have you not thought of all that you’ve had, all the privilege you’ve enjoyed all of your life? The protests are not meant to strip you of your place in the military, but to insist that you respect the will of the people, that you protect the results of elections. The protests are meant to curb your excesses, your vanity, your grandiosity, your disregard for the rest of us. The riches you’ve accumulated, are they not enough for you?’
The General had not moved at all since he planted himself in front of Nyan. Now he took a small step back. He put his cap back on.
‘The weapons you use to repress us are all very modern,’ resumed Nyan. ‘The guns, the cameras, the cyber weapons. And the new armored vehicles cruising our streets were made in Israel… we can tell. So they found a way to circumvent American sanctions.’
‘I want the best for Burma,’ said the General.
‘You do not want the best for Burma… you want the best for you and the military,’ returned Nyan, ‘and you’re willing to brutalize us to achieve your aims.’
The two men looked at each other for a moment.’
Then Nyan asked, ‘What will happen to me?’
‘I will give you two options… leave the country… or stay and cease to be political.’
Nyan hung his head.
But he didn’t need much time to deliberate. At 39 years old he had a clear idea of what to do with his life. He believed in the protests. He believed that, eventually, enough of the men who were now siding with General Hlaing would realize that the blood in their hands was the blood of their brothers and sisters, their fathers and mothers, and confronting their fears would choose to turn against the General. Nyan believed that the spirit of revolt against injustice that filled every Burmese when they set out to participate in a protest, would one day convince their oppressors that they were on the wrong side of history and would then join the fight against tyranny.
The General rested his right hand on the handle of his side arm. ‘You can take your time before giving me a reply.’
‘I don’t need more time,’ said Nyan, ‘I reject both options… and choose to fight you.’
The General didn’t change expression. But he, too, had made up his mind. The struggle for the soul of Myanmar would rage on.
He moved to exit the cell but stopped.
Without turning back to look at Nyan he added, ‘You think the world will come for you?’
‘I have no illusions,’ replied Nyan.
‘Then why throw your life away?’
‘I am not throwing my life away… I love my people.’
The General paused for an instant… then… ‘yes… love,’ he said softly, almost to himself.
And he exited the cell.
The door slammed shut behind him.