Families across Myanmar marked the October Harvest Moon Festival on Wednesday with heavier hearts this year amid the brutal crackdowns, arrests and detentions that have followed the military’s February coup.
In accordance with Buddhist tradition, the Thadingyut Festival is a time when people usually visit with parents and elderly relatives to pay their respects and offer financial assistance. This year, more than last, celebrants ventured out to the nation’s major pagodas to observe associated religious ceremonies, despite the continued threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
But for the first festival under military rule, gatherings were noticeably muted, with many families suffering from a sense of loss because a loved one is on the run, in detention, or even dead because of the junta. Few were the colorful lights and lanterns typically on display in homes, as were bustling local fairs where families would stroll together, eating treats and buying toys.
Nearly nine months after the military’s February 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,181 civilians and arrested at least 7,086, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
The junta says it unseated the NLD government because, they claimed, the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.
On Monday, the junta released 5,636 political prisoners in what observers said was a bid to ease pressure from ASEAN and the international community—claims it has denied. Hundreds remain behind bars and many of those who have been freed report enduring torture at the hands of their captors, often as part of a bid to extract false confessions during interrogation sessions.
On Wednesday, Htay Win from Kyonkhamon village, in Ayeyarwady region’s Zalun township told RFA’s Myanmar Service about his 33-year-old son, Raza Min, who was shot dead on March 3 by security forces during an anti-junta protest in Yangon’s North Okkalapa township.
Htay Win said that Raza Min returned home from Yangon every year for Thadingyut and that the festival would never be the same without him.
“I miss him every day,” he said, adding that he had been relying on his son’s offerings this time of year for financial support in his old age.
“Every night when I pray to God, I offer him an equal share of my merits. I think of him all the time.”
Htay Win’s sadness was echoed by Thin Thin, whose husband—30-year-old laborer Tin Htut Hein—was killed by a soldier’s bullet on Feb. 21 while guarding a security checkpoint in Yangon’s Shwepyithar township.
She told RFA about how difficult it was explaining to her five-year-old son why his father was absent on Thadingyut.
“We usually visit our parents on both sides for Thadingyut, but it’s different this year because he is not here,” Thin Thin said.
“We have a thousand lanterns and a thousand flowers celebrations in our neighborhood, and we would always go there to enjoy snacks and buy toys. Families would walk around freely as there was no coronavirus then. But now that he’s gone, we don’t feel like going anywhere,” she said.
“My son often asks about him. He thinks his father is coming back.”
Detained or in hiding
Others told RFA their traditions had been upended because their family members had been detained or sent to prison for anti-junta activities.
San San Aye’s four sons Shwe Ngar, Khaing Myeh, Soe Pyi Aung and Aung Myo Lin were arrested last April on charges of murder and sentenced to death in September before being transferred to prisons in Mandalay, Taungoo, Myingyan and Kyaikmaraw.
She told RFA that every Thadingyut her sons pay their respects to their grandmother, and this year they sent letters to her from prison, unaware that she had died three months ago.
“Every year at Thadingyut, my sons would pay homage to their grandmother and parents with their savings,” San San Aye said.
“In their letters, they said they wouldn’t be able to come in person to her this year and sent their respects from afar, but their grandmother already passed away,” she said, adding that she hadn’t informed them about her mother’s death because she didn’t want to upset them.
“Of course, I’d like to see all my children at Thadingyut. I had expected to see them, and now I am heartbroken.”
RFA also spoke with poet Maung Moe Pwint, who has been in hiding after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of “defamation.”
He said that for Thadingyut he usually visits with his siblings but couldn’t this year because he is on the run and was even unable to attend the funeral of his sister who died recently.
“Every year, I would exchange gifts with my sister at Thadingyut and even if we couldn’t see each other, we would send the gifts to one another,” he said.
“Now that she is gone, I have nothing but sadness. I can’t even eat since I heard the news of her death.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 1,989 people have been separated from their families after being issued arrest warrants for their involvement in anti-junta protests.
‘My thoughts are on the revolution’
Some of the younger people RFA spoke with in cities including Yangon and Mandalay said that while they are sad to be separated from their families during Thadingyut, it is more important to show united opposition to the junta and work towards removing the military from power.
A high school student in Mandalay who has been in hiding told RFA on condition of anonymity that he hoped to be able to reunite with his family for the festival in 2022.
“I paid respects to my parents over the phone this year because I cannot go to see them in person,” he said.
“If the dictatorship is over this year, I will be with my family next year and we will enjoy each other’s company again. But right now, my thoughts are on the revolution. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, there is a revolution to be fought, even during Thadingyut.”
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