Today
Mon 25 October 2021

Stephen Delahunty speaks to a British citizen who was arrested by soldiers following the military coup in the country last year

Charlie Artingstoll was arrested last month after 12 heavily armed soldiers entered his home in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, and accused him of being part of an anti-Government protest movement. 

Since the country’s General Election last November, the Myanmar military has contested the results claiming, without evidence, widespread electoral fraud. On 1 February this year, the military removed the Government while deploying armoured vehicles and live ammunition to suppress protests. It also imposed martial law across the country.

Canterbury-born Artingstoll moved to the south-east Asian country in 2014 to start a job with the United Nations. After two years, he left his UN role and began organising events for expats, before getting involved in the local hip hop scene and managing upcoming artists. The 29-year-old also ran a watch repair business on the side.

Charlie Artingstoll

“I played football in the morning,” Artingstoll told Byline Times as he recalled the day he was detained. “I drove home. I passed military trucks, checkpoints, places where peaceful protestors had been murdered. During the entire journey, I was thinking about my friends who had been killed, friends who had been arrested or were in hiding.

“I was angry. Just before I turned onto my road, I saw another military truck coming down the road towards me. I wasn’t really thinking, it was just one of those things. I did it almost automatically, I stuck three fingers up. It felt very good.”

The three-fingered salute that originated in the Hunger Games film series has become a symbol of resistance and solidarity for democracy movements across south-east Asia. Images of pro-democracy demonstrators making the salute could be seen on the streets of Yangon as protestors began to resist the junta Government in the weeks after the coup.

“There was a knock at the door, it was the security guard,” said Artingstoll after he arrived at his home in downtown Yangon. “He told me that there were some soldiers downstairs who wanted to talk to me.”

He was confronted by 12 armed men. The leader of the group, which consisted of soldiers and police, poked Artingstoll with his gun and accused him of being part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) – a campaign involving professionals, such as health workers, lawyers and teachers, refusing to work under the military’s rule.

“I’ve thought about this a lot as there’s no way I could possibly be a civil servant,” he said. “Did they really know what CDM meant? They had probably been brainwashed into thinking it was a terrorist group hell-bent on destroying the country.

“I decided not to let them know I spoke Burmese. I remember how unprofessional they seemed, all of their guns were rusted, with the serial numbers written on with Tipp-Ex, and they all appeared to be different, there was no standard issue. There were no radios, they were communicating via mobile phones and they swore a lot, including at me. The police seemed to be following the orders of the soldiers.”

The rest of what happened was a blur, Artingstoll told Byline Times, as he was put into a truck and taken to a police station.

“It was kind of surreal,” he said. “They wanted to check my photos, but luckily my phone had died. I was at the police station for an hour or so before a senior policeman came and told me to leave. The soldiers seemed pretty annoyed. I remember being very calm, which is strange because I was sure I was going to end up in prison. I was very lucky.”

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma – a watchdog group formed by exiled political prisoners now based in Thailand – more than 5,000 people are currently under detention and 873 people have been killed since the coup began. 

Artingstoll said that it was hard to describe seeing the country implode in a matter of 100 days: “Nothing happened in the first week, I think people were too shocked to respond. Then came the mass protests all over the country, millions of people lining the streets in defiance. The atmosphere was like a giant festival, everybody was so united, and so together.”

But things turned very dark. Artingstoll said the Government responded by releasing 20,000 prisoners into Yangon, allegedly given explicit instructions to disturb the peace. In response, citizens formed night-watches, taking turns to stay up all night to protect their neighbourhoods.

“People began to get abducted in the middle of the night, their bodies returned later on with their faces disfigured from beatings and their organs missing,” he told Byline Times. “The security forces started shooting protestors who tried to protect themselves with handmade riot shields. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve seen die. It was a pre-meditated campaign of state terrorism – there’s no other way to describe it.”

Artingstoll said he had already been discussing with some friends about whether or not to leave Myanmar on the day he was detained. They talked about how much suffering there had already been – and how much more was to come. 

“I very, very reluctantly realised I had to leave,” he said. “I had to leave because my head and the situation was just too messed up. I should have left months ago, but I stayed as an act of solidarity, leaving felt like a sign of defeat.”

He said he saw many people fleeing the city for the jungle so that they can receive military training from opposition groups and take up arms against the junta Government. In April, a United Nations official warned that the country was on the verge of a “full-blown conflict”.

Artingstoll has since fled Myanmar and is currently staying in Bangkok. He said he would like to return to one day as it has become his home, but he doesn’t think it will be safe to do so for quite a long time.

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