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As Myanmar death toll climbs, a soldier's wife is caught between protesters and military

By TIMOTHY MCLAUGHLIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 27, 2021

When Myanmar's military seized power in a coup last month, a 32-year-old woman named May quickly became part of the resistance.

Her work carries an added risk: her husband is a soldier in the very army that deposed the civilian government. He is unaware that she is aiding those resisting against his commander in chief, now also head of state, and fellow soldiers, she said.

May's secret activism since the coup - and her break from the role she is meant to play as a dutiful military spouse - has left her straddling two worlds in conflict. One is with the protesters, a vast majority of the country. The other is within the bubble of Myanmar's military, which remains in many ways isolated and shaped by a worldview of indoctrination and incessant propaganda.

The wives of other soldiers have warned May, who asked The Washington Post to use a nickname and not disclose her location for security reasons, that her support of the protests could be put her husband's career and their lives at risk.

At least 91 people were killed in anti-coup demonstrations that coincided with Armed Forces Day on Saturday including three children, according to the news website Myanmar Now, after a warning from the military on state television that protesters could be "shot in the head," according to state television.

The U.S. ambassasor to Myanmar, Thomas Vajda, denounced the latest bloodshed as "horrifying."

"On Myanmar's Armed Forces Day, security forces are murdering unarmed civilians, including children, the very people they swore to protect," Vajda wrote on Twitter.

Many spouses believe what the military is doing is right, she said, and even those who disagree are often too frightened to speak up. So far, May's husband has not been involved in operations against protesters.

"There are very few people [in military families] who will risk expressing the truth openly because there are many consequences," she said.

Security forces have detained more than 2,900 people since the Feb. 1 coup and killed more than 300, according to human rights groups.

With a mobile phone and an unstable WiFi connection - sometimes drawn from her neighbor's house - May has documented street protests and distributed relief funds to workers on strike.

As she expanded her roles in the protest movement, she helped police officers who ignored the Army's orders to fire on anti-coup demonstrators. Money was funneled to the defiant police and safe houses arranged for their families once they fled the force.

The junta has unsuccessfully tried to justify the coup by claiming widespread corruption and voter fraud in elections last November that saw a landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

The military force has not quelled the popular uprising. International efforts to pressure the military, known as the Tatmadaw, into reversing course have also come up short.

"The demonstrations have not yet - and may never - reached critical mass, whereby there are enough people taking up the cause to make the movement self-sustaining," said Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer who studies authoritarian regimes at Griffith University in Australia.

"This means the coup will only be reversed by a split within the Tatmadaw," he added, "which comparatively has been one of the most cohesive and durable military's anywhere in the autocratic world."

Myanmar's military - on full display at Saturday's Armed Forces Day parade where hundreds of soldiers marched in formation across a vast parade ground and fighter jets streaked overhead - attempts to portray itself as an illustrious fighting force, the only group capable of holding a fractious nation together.

Military leaders are deeply entrenched in the country's politics and economy, controlling a quarter of parliament seats even before the coup despite a quasi-democratic experiment that put Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy in charge of the civilian government.

The military is also mired by decades of corruption and rampant human rights abuses, including torture, arson and rape. Most seriously, it faces charges of genocide over a 2017 operation against Rohingya Muslims.

Two large conglomerates controlled by the military were sanctioned by the United States and Britain on Thursday.

Yet in the country, the military operates with near complete impunity. The highest-ranking officials have amassed fortunes and live in sprawling compounds in Yangon, the commercial capital. Their family members openly flaunt their wealth on social media.

Despite their proclamations about foreign forces attempting to split and conquer Myanmar, many send their children abroad for education and travel to Singapore for medical treatment when needed.

Life for rank-and-file officers is far different. Soldiers are sent on long deployments. Even when they return from the front lines, living conditions are difficult.

May said that while her husband was deployed in northeastern Myanmar in recent years she lived in a military compound that had no electricity, Internet or running water.

"Even in the modern world, the military still cannot meet even the basic needs for its personnel," she said.

Senior officers have "no sympathy" for those under their command, according to May.

She recounted an incident when soldiers came home from a long tour of duty, but were forced by commanding officers to clean their compound despite injuries among the group. She said she watched as soldiers with sores on their feet hobbled around to finish their task.

"They could hardly walk," she said.

Life for military wives mirrors in many ways that of their husbands. Wives of lower-ranking soldiers are put to work doing chores by those of senior officers, who dictate even smallest details of their lives such as clothing choices.

"Some of the people are bootlickers," May said. "They are only concerned about their husbands getting a higher rank. Others are not as interested in that, instead, they just do what they think is right."

Sometimes, May said, wives of lower-ranking officers pay bribes to the wives of their commanders, hoping their husband's units will be recalled from the front lines earlier.

Many wives also run small businesses off base to supplement their husbands' paltry incomes, just a few hundred dollars a month.

The military championed this approach in the late 1990s and early 2000s to create a level of self reliance as it raced to expand despite the country's economy being in ruins, according to Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore, who has studied the military's business interests.

While this has brought some integration, the armed forces remain quite insular, with existing parallel services, from banks to hospitals, available to members of the armed forces. Social circles remain tight, with military families often intermarrying.

After the 2015 elections, May said, she and others were told by a general that the military was keeping tabs on which party people voted for, instilling a sense of fear and paranoia among those supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

"The propaganda in the military is very successful since they are isolated and cut off from the outside world," said May. "They just think the military is right and say this coup will simply end after one year."

Recently, the anti-coup movement has launched an online "social punishment" campaign to denounce family members of the military and junta, particularly ones that reside abroad in democratic countries.

"They don't care about anyone apart from their family," Maung Saungkha, a poet and free speech activist, said of the efforts. "So the family is Achilles heel for them."

May, too, said she supports these activities. The "revolution," she said, had brought new scrutiny and anger toward the military.

"The whole institution itself," she said, "needs to change."

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The Washington Post's Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon contributed to this report.