Moving to the beat of the Indonesian hit song Ampun Bang Jago (“Have mercy, tough guy”)—a TikTok favorite—and a sampled siren sound, Khing Hnin Wai did her morning aerobics near the Assembly of the Union, a 31-building complex in Naypyidaw, the junta-made capital of Burma. This is her routine: rise early, record a video, upload it for her followers, and head to work. For this physical education instructor for the Ministry of Health and Sports, her hobby chimed with her general professional purpose.
But in Monday’s clip, a military convoy rolled by in the background, red and blue lights flashing atop black vehicles. Without realizing it, Khing Hnin Wai was one of the first people to film Burma’s latest coup taking place.
After the parliament complex was seized by Burmese soldiers, some of them rolled out the way they came, beaming grins at her as they drove by. One asked her if she was about ready to head home, like it was any other day.
That’s how sudden it was. Financial institutions across the country closed on Monday, with the Myanmar Banks Association citing problems with telecommunications. Even so, people lined up to grab as much cash as they could from ATMs, draining the machines of bills. With internet connections hobbled, it was difficult to access payment apps.
Those who had cash in hand dashed to wet markets and grocery stores to stock up on essentials, sparking a day of panic-buying that resembled scenes from more than a year ago, when the coronavirus spread beyond China. Nobody was sure whether a curfew might be ordered, or if friends or family might show up at their doorstep seeking temporary shelter. And what if the military issued a nationwide lockdown, for once not because of the pandemic?
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of civilian government officials who are part of the National League for Democracy—President Win Myint, the chief ministers of various regions, ministry heads, and more—were rounded up. The same went for cultural figures and student leaders.
Communications were taken offline. People who normally use Signal and Telegram were logged out of their accounts. They were unable to log back in because cell networks were down, so their phones could not receive text messages that contained verification codes.
There were attempts to reestablish communications, if only over short ranges. Taking a page from anti-monarchy protesters in Thailand, a cybersecurity specialist and white-hat hacker in Burma told The Daily Beast that he encouraged others to download tools like Bridgefy, which allows users to send each other messages over Bluetooth even when their internet connection is down.
The goal, the white hat said, was to prevent rumors and disinformation from taking hold at a time when people were unsure of what was about to happen. But a limited internet connection meant it was difficult for many to download and install the app in the first place.
There are still older men and women who remember the 1962 coup, when the military took over Burma, installing one-party rule and then martial law. Civil resistance reached an apex in 1988, and Buddhist monks led the Saffron Revolution in 2007. In both movements, the Burmese people sought just a little bit more freedom than the junta allowed.
A Chinese trader and a local businessman in Kokang, a region in eastern Burma, expressed deep worry about the situation. Both recalled how Min Aung Hlaing, the 64-year-old army chief who spearheaded the coup, went to war with narco-armies in and near Kokang in 2017, directing numerous military incursions into the region since then. Min Aung Hlaing’s troops have little regard for the safety of civilians who live in the region, the two traders told The Daily Beast, and tens of thousands of people were displaced over the past four years, with some fleeing to China.
Burma’s armed forces, collectively called the Tatmadaw, may have appeared to lose some political power in recent years, but still control key economic interests—including illegal sources of income from poppy farms, meth labs, as well as jade and ruby mines. As Burma made steps toward democratization, Tatmadaw installed some of its high-ranking men within the roster of parliamentarians.
On Monday, goons were rounding up more than local political figures. Aye Min Thant, a Pulitzer prize winner who is now manager of the Tech for Peace program at Yangon-based seed accelerator Phandeeyar, tweeted that strangers showed up at her home, waiting.
Another individual who is an American citizen of Burmese heritage told The Daily Beast that men showed up at his apartment during the late morning on Monday, banging on and kicking the door. He stayed silent and pretended that he wasn’t at home, and then sought refuge with a sympathetic acquaintance shortly after the men left.
The National League for Democracy’s emblem of a yellow peacock and white star on a red field used to be on display all over the country. Yangon, in particular, is an NLD stronghold. But the flags have been taken down and rolled up, stashed away. Stickers have been scraped off hawker stalls and car windows. Yet, so far, the Tatmadaw-endorsed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s flag—green field, white star on a red corner, sometimes represented by a lion—has not taken the peacock’s place.
The Tatmadaw’s generals have already found backing from one superpower. Nationalistic Chinese state media outlet Global Times cited “experts” who characterized the coup as “an adjustment to [Burma’s] dysfunctional power structure,” because the Union Solidarity and Development Party “has been defeated in elections and lost seats in parliament, which made the military realize that it is very difficult to obtain power through elections.”
Global Times also warned of “possible external influence”—code for attention and responses from the United States, Canada, and European nations.
A Chinese national who operates a trading company in Mandalay told The Daily Beast that she worries the Chinese government’s statements backing Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab will exacerbate anti-Chinese sentiment.
Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest in Naypyidaw—charged with a bizarre infraction of having illegally imported walkie-talkies into the country—and the fate of the hundreds of people who were arrested on Monday morning remains unknown. At night, people in Yangon stand by their windows and bang on pots and pans to signal their disapproval of the coup. Burma is being run by old men in green uniforms again. They declared a state of emergency lasting one year.
Indeed: Have mercy, tough guy.