Near midnight earlier this month in Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar’s Kachin State, an 18-year-old youth heard a bang at the door. He didn’t need to look outside to know who it was: Just hours before, a neighbour had warned him that police and soldiers would come house-to-house, checking for overnight guests.
Since the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar, the requirement to register guests is one of many ways that the new regime has systematically rolled back reforms instituted during the country’s ten-year reprieve from direct military rule, which lasted from 1962 to 2011. The junta – which suspended Myanmar’s parliament and detained its elected leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi – has also imposed a nightly curfew, instituted martial law in active protest areas and suspended parts of a privacy law, giving it the authority to search, seize and arrest citizens without a warrant.
As people across Myanmar fight for their freedoms with relentless street protests, government-worker strikes and escalating civil war in the country’s borderlands, checks of overnight guests further opens the door for security forces to raid and intimidate people in their homes and exert even greater control over their activities and movement. It endangers not only the hosts, who face up to a week in prison for violations, but also the thousands of dissidents currently in hiding.
Since the coup, more than 3,000 people have been arrested. Among the most common charges are for what the military deems actions that may cause fear among the public, knowingly spreading “false news,” or leading armed forces to mutiny or failure of duty. Many of those in custody were not charged at all.
Those arrested face an unknown future under a regime which has shown a penchant for violence. Hundreds of people have gone missing since their arrest, while many others have died in custody – some of whose bodies showed signs of torture. In total, security forces have killed more than 700 people since the coup.
Most activists, protest leaders and other likely targets have fled their homes. Some have gone to areas under control by armed ethnic groups, but most are hiding with family or friends. On Feb. 14, the day after announcing the overnight-guest registration policy, the junta warned the public not to hide runaway protesters.
“The [guest] registration law makes us feel that there is no safe place for us,” the teen in Myitkyina said. The Globe is not naming him because of concerns for his safety.
On the night that security forces came knocking, he froze in place. Not only had he participated in the protest movement – which at its peak was thought to include millions of people – but he was sheltering several friends who were also involved.
“They kicked the entrance door and shouted, ‘Is anyone at home?’ But we didn’t open it,” he said. After the armed visitors threatened to open fire or throw stones, he and his five family members finally stepped out, while his friends hid inside.
In the dark, he made out three soldiers, a police officer, two local administrators and two strangers in plain clothes. Behind them were three military trucks, a police car, a pickup truck and an SUV.
“They asked us, ‘How many people live in your house? Is everyone at home? Are there any guests who are not on this list?’” the teen recalled. “They also asked, ‘How many adult males do you have in your house?’”
In the past month, civil war has reignited between military forces, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), as well as other ethnic armed groups across the country. Both the Tatmadaw and KIA have called for new recruits, and armed groups in the country have a documented history of using forced recruitment.
“After that night’s incident, my mother kept calling [me and my friends] if she didn’t see us,” the teen said. “She worries that we might be kidnapped and forced to be soldiers.”
Though the convoy left his home after ten minutes, the fear still lingers, he said.
“We don’t even feel safe in our own house. We can’t sleep soundly … We don’t dare to turn on the lights at night, speak loudly or walk carelessly inside,” he said. “The weather is hot, but we hesitate to use the air conditioner or fan. We are worried they will come when they hear noises.”
A protest leader in Myitkyina, whose name The Globe is also not using for his security, has been trying to throw police and military off his trail since fleeing home in early March. “If we [activists] stay in one place for too long, they will notice us, and it will be dangerous for us and the host too,” he said.
He has evaded run-ins with security forces so far, but is always preparing contingency plans. “When I arrive at a house to sleep, I ask the host about the situation … which way I can escape – if I go this way, where the path leads, etc. I check the escape route before I sleep,” he said.
He is also concerned for his hosts. “I worry that the owner of the house could be harmed for hosting me, so I feel bad to ask for help to stay at friends’ or relatives’ houses. They love me, but I know by seeing their faces that they don’t feel comfortable,” he said.
In Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon, tensions run high about the new rule around hosting overnight guests, with many calling for a boycott. Between April 6 and 10, at least six township administration offices – where people are required to register guests – inexplicably burned down, as did an administrative office in the city of Mawlamyine.
J Paing, a Yangon-based photojournalist who has been on the move since Feb. 27, heard from his former neighbours that security forces have twice visited his apartment and questioned them about his whereabouts.
Since the registration requirement went into effect, his hosts have cautioned him that they could be punished for sheltering him. He rarely goes outside, and has asked his neighbours to do any shopping for him.
He hopes the Myanmar public will boycott the guest-registration policy. “Registering overnight guests is like supporting the foundation of a house which gives more authority to the military junta. If many people register overnight guests, the house will be strong. If fewer people do it, the house will collapse.”
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