Originally published on Mohinga Matters
If someone visits Yangon today, one could look at the scenes in the streets and argue that the resistance is in a recess. For the first time since the COVID-19 first wave in 2020, restaurants have returned to business, bars have started serving customers until midnight and a sense of normalcy is back in people’s routines. Ignore military barricades and occasional explosions, a day in Yangon today does look like just another day under the control of the semi-democratic government of 2015-2020. If Myanmar is heading to a failed state as many reported, why is its economic capital boasting greater-than-ever spending power after dark?
In the early days of the coup, Yangon was one of the areas where the regime imposed a curfew between 8 pm to 4 am. Later the curfew was relaxed to allow people to stay out until 10 pm, and on March 22, 2022, the junta adjusted it from 12 midnight to 4 am, which has remained the same to this day. Although a few nightclubs and bars were already enjoying great business up to that point, the relaxation effectively allowed multiple entertainment centers to blossom and shape the nightlife culture under military rule. With that, enter the drugs.
“Back in the day, we just went clubbing to get drunk and dance. Don’t get me wrong, we did use drugs but never in bulk and it was never our primary goal,” said Kaung, a 24-year-old employee from a company based in Yangon.
He added that party drugs such as Ketamine (better known as K) and Ecstasy (E) pills were sold and used openly in nightclubs these days. The places offer a complete package where one only has to show up in the facility at the appropriate hour and substances are delivered to their table with a few phone calls or sometimes, with a mere code sign.
And it’s also relatively easy to get around those appropriate hours. Hsu, a 30-year-old sales agent said, “A friend of mine works as a Disc Jockey (DJ) and he works more than a few places a night, which requires moving from one club to another during curfew hours, he occasionally gets stopped by soldiers on the road and when that happens, he simply has to show a paper that he works as a DJ for this and that company and they let him go”. For that reason, people believe that these entertainment centers are run by families with military affiliations who have multiple purposes, including making money and portraying the country as a normal state.
While it is easy to blame solely on the rich and military-affiliated, there is no denying that ordinary people with somewhat stable income also have a stake in normalizing this city.
Myat who frequents bars with unplugged shows as well as supports the resistance financially said, “Yangon nights are more normal than ever. Before the coup, you could count on your two hands the hangout places that had live bands but now they are everywhere. I too drop by once or twice every week and spend a minimum of MMK 100,000 ($35 USD). I do realize if I contribute this amount to the resistance movement, the money would be better spent. But I deserve this much to treat myself.”
He continued, “Those who are seen in bars and pubs most likely have managed to keep a job in this climate and celebrate for that reason. And those who hang out in the nightclubs are mostly made up of descendants of military-affiliated families, business cronies, DJs, and party-goer-turned-drug dealers.”
Myat himself has been to a nightclub three times since the coup and met former acquaintances in each visit, some of whom have long disappeared from social media to avoid speaking out against the military takeover and some are doctors who have refused to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
Nonetheless, it’s not just drug-fueled nightclubs and flashy rich kids that are keeping Yangon alive these days. Local pubs, karaoke centers, and amusement locations have also become popular venues once again for young and middle-aged Yangooners seeking a break from work and the country’s political turmoil.
Business as Usual?
Are the bars and nightclubs the only businesses that are booming in this climate and driving the spending power of the city?
Aye, the owner of an art gallery located on the outskirts of Yangon, disagrees. Aye claims that the art industry is another one that has witnessed rapid growth in a short period.
According to Aye, the economy was rather difficult in the months following the coup. It was even challenging to make sufficient money to pay rent in certain months. However, everything dramatically changed in mid-2022 when business cronies entered the market. The rich families started buying art pieces in lots in what seemed like potentially prosperous investments for the future.
“I know that they are not really into art but they see value in such investment in a time when they have too much cash and the economy is going downhill. I swallow my pride to blend in with them and sell my pieces at a high price”.
She has faced stern criticism for associating with some military-backed businessmen although being vocal about her stance in the resistance. Aye has a valid justification for doing so. She has been supporting many CDM staff including her own family members and artists who no longer can create art and afford their own living.
Alexander is another business owner who has enjoyed a surge during this period although his consulting company has taken off for a completely different reason. Alexander and his staff used to rely on the local market, and the unstable situation has forced them to find opportunities elsewhere. The firm, run by a 100% local team, is now growing thanks to external contracts outside Myanmar. Despite the usual delays in regulatory work, Alexander does not think that the coup has affected his company on day-to-day operations. A strong supporter himself of the resistance, he helps the movement by recruiting CDM students and avoiding blacklisted companies in addition to finding regular work and income for his staff. When asked about tax, Alexander said he would consider paying tax to the regime at some point to keep his company afloat.
“The reason is that I do indeed feel we are making a more positive impact by paying some small tax and existing instead of paying no tax and not existing.”
With businesses operating as usual and its nights being lit up brighter than ever, Yangon seems to be at the most normal it has been in three years when the rest of the country burns in rage. Does this all mean that the resistance in Myanmar’s largest city is really in recess?
“I don’t think there is less armed movement in Yangon today. Look, Yangon is the most diverse city in the whole country with the highest number of migrants. Yangon has to be active for the lives that depend on it. Plus, it always helps the resistance when people have stable income,” said Paing, an experienced reporter.
He added, “For the nightlife culture, the military is totally accountable for this. It’s best for them if youths spend money on drugs and parties instead of armed resistance. But I don’t think the resistance is slowed down by this. Let’s be frank about it, youths that want to fight back against the junta on a battlefield will never end up in a nightclub”.
Paing is not wrong. In this month alone, two major operations were carried out by urban guerilla forces in Yangon. The first one took place in Thaketa Township, a 10-minute drive from downtown Yangon, where two policemen were shot and killed for being the conspirators of the junta. In the second, an armed major business crony was taken down in Thanlyin, a 40-minute drive from Sule Pagoda in broad daylight.
In terms of more-lighted disobedience in the background, Hsu, the aforementioned sales agent, stressed that she had encountered her colleagues working on “Click to Donate” apps during lunch breaks so that they could help fund the activities. A resistance topic is still a frequent conversation among coworkers in most offices or even bars. On the second anniversary of the coup on February 1, 2023, the whole city was brought down to total silence, participating in the country-wide Silent Strike.
Moreover, Yangon nights may have been lit up by both sides of the resistance but average supporters of the revolution do draw a line on the ownership of the places they hang out. No matter how popular a bar is, people will not go if it’s blacklisted for associating with the military or avoid consuming military-related products. Myanmar Beer which was the best-selling brand in town for many decades has virtually disappeared from the marketplace. No temptation has challenged the underlying resistance inside the people.
Resistance in Recess? Think Again
To sum up, Yangon is still the beautiful city it has always been, full of green parks, golden pagodas, delicious street food, skilled labors, and the world’s greatest hospitality despite being under the control of the military leadership. And in spite of the normalcy one may encounter on the streets these days, the resistance remains intact in the city, as attested by recent development in terms of armed conflicts. Yangoners have led and witnessed various historic revolutions against injustice from the anti-colonial movement in 1920 to the Saffron Revolution in 2007. It would be premature to make a judgment that the city has counted itself out in this resistance.
Paing, the reporter compared the current situation with the colonial-era when General Aung San left Yangon to take military training in Japan.
“You have to know when to leave and when to return. I don’t think the ultimate victory will ever come without Yangon being a part of the resistance. We now have many General Aung Sans in our youths, they will turn up eventually when they are called upon”.
We too like to believe so. That Yangon nights may seem normal but people in it are not, and they have not given up just yet.
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