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Life in Myanmar's Yangon after COVID and a coup

Michael Kemp in Yangon
March 24, 2023

Myanmar's largest city has been cut off from the world for almost four years. DW spoke with Yangon residents about what life is like under a military regime.

A view of a street in Yangon, Myanmar
Image: AFP

At first glance, Yangon seems to have hardly changed since the time before the pandemic and the coup. In the mornings and evenings, cars jam the city's main streets. At night, the golden needle of the Shwedagon Pagoda shines over the city.

On the weekends, couples hold hands and walk along Inya Lake, while middle-class shoppers head to modern malls. This even includes the "Myanmar Plaza" mall, which was boycotted after the coup for its connections with the ruling junta.  

However, a closer look reveals how things have changed here in this city of 7.3 million people. At every major crossing, concrete bunkers have been erected, complete with sandbags. The windows are covered in green nets, so you cannot see whether there are armed police stationed inside. 

It becomes clear that at least some of the bunkers are occupied, as now and then rifle barrels protrude over the sandbags or helmets in blue-gray camouflage patch lie on the sandbags.

A stalemate under surveillance 

After spending more time in Yangon, it is clear the city is not like other Southeast Asian metropolises, where life and business are bustling.  

Everywhere in the city, abandoned construction projects are a reminder that growth here is at a standstill, as those in charge make sure that no resistance to their power can emerge.

However, "normal" criminality is often ignored in Myanmar. A Yangon resident told DW anonymously that the police do not have enough resources. The man said he went to the police after a bicycle theft. Usually, people don't trust the police anymore, but in this case, the man had known the policeman in his neighborhood for many years. The policeman also wanted to help, but said that he did not have enough officers. The police officers were all occupied enforcing the curfew at night or searching for opponents of the military regime.

Myanmar marks two years since military coup

Currently, Yangon is under a curfew from midnight to 4:00 a.m. If you look out of your hotel room during this time, the metropolis is deserted. Now and then a pickup truck manned by five or six armed police officers makes its rounds through the empty streets. Entire neighborhoods lie in complete darkness.

Economic misery

Life in Yangon's poorest areas has become more and more desperate. Hundreds of thousands do not know in the morning how they will find something to eat during the day. There are no reliable figures, but unemployment has also risen sharply.

Pressure on poor neighborhoods is further increased by the large number of refugees fleeing to Yangon from regions where civil war is raging.

One man told DW anonymously that his entire extended family fled to Yangon from the embattled Chin State for security reasons. Only two uncles stayed behind to guard the houses and property.

Even people who have jobs have to deal with a difficult economic environment.  

Since the coup, Yangon's industrial parks have been lacking orders. At one company for electronic parts that DW was able to visit, production has plummeted by 70%. 

Large areas of the factory complex remain unused. At other factories in the production zone, one entrepreneur told DW, the situation is no different. Nevertheless, he has been able to keep all his workers, but without salary increases, which due to inflation amounts to an equivalent loss of income of around 30%.

Power outages are another problem for businesses, which need to absorb costs for diesel generators, making production costlier. 

The military state is obviously not fulfilling its duties to the public. It does not protect its citizens from theft and robbery, it is unable to supply them with electricity, and the economy lies idle.

Even infrastructure projects, such as the new road connecting the districts of North and South Okkalapa, which are being pushed by the military government as prestige projects, are a sign that state functions in Myanmar are largely absent. 

The street lights that are set up there, one man told DW with gallows humor, are probably more intended primarily for posting signs and advertising, since there is no electricity most of the time anyway.

An exodus from Myanmar 

Given the situation, it is not surprising that most of the people DW spoke with in Yangon said they are worried, frustrated, exhausted and depressed.

The Thailand-Myanmar border clinic for people fleeing war

Those who joined the armed struggle after the violent suppression of peaceful protests in the spring and summer of 2021 have now largely been pushed out of Yangon.

Now, only rarely are there attacks targeting military officers or politicians close to the junta or acts of sabotage.

Nowhere in Yangon can the graffiti with the three-finger salute (the sign of resistance), or the slogans of the revolution, still be seen. The armed struggle has shifted from the cities to Myanmar's border region.

Those who have the money, along with the necessary language and professional skills, and have no obligations in the country, try to leave Myanmar.

Long lines formed mostly of young people are frequently seen in front of the embassies of Japan, South Korea and Germany at visa issuing times.

Thousands of refugees arrive monthly at the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot, which has become something like the unofficial opposition capital of Myanmar. The UN Human Rights Council states that at least 72,000 people left the country between the coup in February 2021 and January 2023.

Another form of escape for those who cannot leave the country is the use of alcohol and drugs, which has increased significantly, according to interviewees. 

In newly opened bars and clubs, such as the "Octoholic" on Pho Sein Road, where a giant octopus sculpture above the entrance holds foaming glasses of beer in its tentacles, young people get drunk to the point of unconsciousness.

Since the coup, drugs -- especially methamphetamine and heroin -- have been entering the city largely unhindered from notorious drug kitchens in the so-called golden triangle between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Here, too, police look the other way.

Escaping into religion and art 

Other Yangon residents are turning to religion. Many Buddhists DW spoke with have said they are going to the pagoda more often and have started meditating daily.

"It is a kind of therapy. To find inner peace," one man said. Masses and church services are also well attended on Sundays, as DW was able to observe.

Last but not least, many new and also some long-established art galleries have reopened. The art market is booming and works are being traded at high prices. Works by unknown artists can go for up to $50,000.

Money laundering is probably behind this, because it was difficult to launder money during the months of COVID lockdowns and the curfews during the coup. In any case, artists welcome the growing market for their work. 

"It's good that artists can work and sell again. Art opens a space," one artist told DW. By that, he is referring to a space for self-expression and for processing the experiences of the last few years. "People starting to breathe again after months of holding their breath."

DW asked another resident if things were returning to normal in Yangon. "Nobody wants to live under the military, but we have to live."

For this article, a dozen interviews were conducted in Yangon with journalists, intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, NGO staff, students, analysts and representatives of embassies and institutions. For security reasons, DW's interview partners are not identified in more detail.

Edited by: Shamil Shams