Whose Footfall is Loudest?
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
Translated from the Burmese by Thett Su San
THAWDA AYE LEI
NEVER IN my life did I think that flip-flops could be fascinating. Only after a memorable incident entailing a particular pair of flip-flops did I begin to pay attention to them.
An incident, yes! The one that will stay with me my whole life. It made me realise that certain footwear could carry more meaning than just “footwear”. It happened after Amay passed away. Before she drew her last breath, Amay had been struggling with lung cancer for nearly three months. At the time, we were living in a small town. Hoping that we could still save her, we sent her to a hospital in the city. We buried her there when she died.
Without Amay, our journey back to our small town was desolate. My heart felt empty, as if there was nothing left for me to hold on to. Everything around me went pitch dark, as if I had been pulled into a black hole. When it was decided that all of Amay’s belongings would be given away to needy families, I acquiesced. I didn’t want to cling to her stuff—after all, I had lost Amay as a person already. Even then, something that belonged to Amay was discovered unexpectedly. A pair of flip-flops. Under Amay’s bed, lying still and quiet in the darkest corner as if they were hiding, were a pair of her flip-flops. They must have been separated from Amay when she was taken to hospital. When I looked at them carefully, I saw that the soles were worn out and the heels were ragged.
Amay was a frugal woman who always budgeted carefully and spent wisely. Apart from a new pair of flip-flops for some occasions, she wore these worn rubber flip-flops on a daily basis—when she did household chores and went grocery shopping—for many years. If the straps were broken, she would replace them with new ones herself. If only one strap of her flip-flop was broken, she would keep one new strap for later use. After several years of daily use, Amay’s toeprints were imprinted on the flip-flops. Tears started rolling down as I looked at them. These flip-flops showed me beyond a doubt how Amay went through hard times in her life, and how she endured pain and suffering. That pair of flip-flops I inherited from Amay would stay with me for many, many more years.
Since then, I’ve been drawn to stories, memories and lives that could be revealed by well-worn flip-flops. We might change clothes every day, but a member of a low-income household, who could barely afford an extra pair of flip-flops, had to rely on the only pair they had. Flip-flops were a poor person’s comrades-in-arms on a thorny road. Flip-flops gave them strength. They were as close to them as their own skin.
“My flip-flops are my fortress!” poet Hla Than declared. After the military coup in February 2021, I collected more intriguing stories of flip-flops and their owners. A small, underdeveloped country suffering from economic asthma under COVID-19 was hit by a rogue political wave. This spring, the future of the nation became as blurry as the spring mist itself. If someone looked far into the future, they would only see a parched land.
The military claimed that the 2020 election fraud made the coup inevitable. Prior to the election, “The Sound of Heels”, an election campaign song by the National League for Democracy (NLD), was very popular. It became the NLD’s triumphant anthem following the party’s landslide victory in the election, but it vanished into thin air after the military seized power. The song was dedicated to the State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, to whom her supporters referred as “Amay”. The song was about how her efforts gave Myanmar, an ostracised society under long years of military rule, a chance to step onto the world stage. On 1 February, the clack-clack of heels were silenced by the bang-bang of military boots.
Before long, the whole country was completely under the boots. The voices of mourning mothers, the tongue-clicking of dismayed youth, the moaning of farmers out of their stubbled fields and workers out of their factories got louder and louder each day. “Join the CDM now!” As soon as the rallying cry put people on alert, all those different voices merged together—ineffectual whines turned into battle cries reverberating across the sky.
If someone had ever questioned whether footwear could be frightening, the answer would have been “yes”, if they were military boots. In the first week of the Spring Revolution, civil servants joined the CDM en masse. The main action of the CDM was that no employee should go to work. In some political cartoons, military generals in jackboots trampled doctors, school teachers and workers. “Stop going to office, struggle out of the dictatorship!” was the slogan of the strikers. They warned each other that if people continued to work for the military state, many precious lives, beautiful things and human values would be smashed under the boots.
That’s how footwear became a central character in the Myanmar Spring Revolution. There was more to come. Within a week of the coup, thousands of young people took to the streets. In response, the military hired a group of jingoists and staged counter-protests. Some anti-coup protesters started shouting that they were out on the street on their own volition, and that they had not been paid by anyone. To drive home the point that they were from well-to-do families and that they could not possibly be bought, they came to the protests in expensive outfits and shoes. This, however, only highlighted the dire situation of most of their fellow protestors, who couldn’t afford fancy outfits. There were messages on social media condemning some affluent protesters for talking down to people from underprivileged backgrounds, including those hired by the military. In opposing tyranny, people simultaneously learned to smash any form of discrimination based on wealth or class.
Day by day, the revolution gathered strength. It soon turned into a nationwide protest of people from all walks of life—rural and urban. Their footfall echoed in the streets. Now street surfaces seemed totally covered by an array of flip-flops and shoes that it would be difficult for anyone to gain a foothold there. Spring was in full bloom. On roads where fallen ones would be laid to rest, columns after columns of rallies continued to march over and over again.
One of the non-violent protests was known as “Lace your shoes up!” In the early days of the Spring, security personnel seemed uncertain about whether they should use force against protesters. They tried to push the crowds off the roads, saying the people were obstructing traffic. The youth reacted by making their protests mobile. They moved around in small groups and continued to protest.
They crossed the road when the light was green. They stopped when the light turned red. They shouted rally cries. As soon as they had the chance, they sat on the road, lacing up their shoes at a leisurely pace. Policemen watching them were speechless. In the following days, there were “harvesting onion” and “collecting rice grains” movements. Loose onions and grains of rice were deliberately poured out in the middle of a road so everyone could help pick them up and put them back in the bags to annoy the police. Spring flowers of a variety of colours were seen everywhere. New and creative forms of revolutionary activities shone here and there.
Some people found fault with these kinds of protests. Young people were not serious, they said. Others pointed out the generation gap. Older people did not understand the state-of-the-art techniques of young people. In reality in the early days of the spring, people of all ages managed to build mutual trust and solidarity. They were full of energy, enjoying the calm before a storm.
The fresh, green spring would soon turn into a fully-blown parched summer. The intense heat made wall tiles rise up and crack. A heatwave also pervaded throughout the democratic movement. The forces, standing up hand-in-hand against the junta, were hit with a bloody gust. A volley of gunfire across the sky set a flock of roosting birds on a chaotic flight. A group of soldiers and police chased down the protesters who were retreating into a neighbourhood, and beat them to death like blood-starved beasts. Even the black asphalt road began to weep, blood streaming down all over her face.
After blood was spilled, the style of people’s revolutionary art also changed. Each time a group of people were chased by guns and batons, dozens of ownerless flip-flops would be left abandoned on the street. Some flip-flops were upside down, others in the gutter, and many of them unpaired. And yet most of them looked well-worn. When the security forces were gone, people picked them up and organised them in pairs for their owners to come and collect them. The abandoned flip-flops didn’t look great but they could be invaluable to their owners.
In this way, I learned, rather accidentally, that flip-flops had always been important witnesses to our revolutions. In the 1988 uprising, flip-flops were scattered everywhere on the road. In the 2007 Saffron Revolution, there were many flipflops drenched in blood. Following the 2015 student protests, hundreds of flip-flops were on the road again.
There was even a shoe charity campaign in 2021. It emerged after some people began to question on social media what kind of shoes would be most suitable for protests if they were to escape from violent attacks. A number of shoe donors came forward. In some places, many pairs of “used, feel free to take” shoes in various sizes were on offer. Some people who owned extra pairs of shoes shared them with their comrades. They exchanged metta in sharing shoes. They looked after each other. They became more united, realising that people were cut from the same cloth.
On top of physical violence, people also suffered from psychological warfare by the regime. The longer a revolution dragged on, the more volatile revolutionary morale could become. And yet, crackdowns notwithstanding, most protesters decided to continue with their struggle. Some bid farewells to their parents and friends. “In the event that I am killed I donate my organs to anyone in need,” some people wrote in their wills.
“Don’t push this person any further, / at land’s end / my flipflops are my fortress,” read the last lines of a poem by Hla Than. People prepared for a last-ditch fight. Oaths—that they would not back down no matter what—were sworn. They glued pictures of the coup leader on the roads and marched on them. The senior general’s face was smeared with hundreds of footprints.
The murder of protesters became more commonplace. The number of martyrs multiplied every day. People shed new tears before old tears dried on their cheeks. They were placed under curfew. Internet access was restricted. Arrests and detentions under various charges became more frequent. People felt less and less secure. There were no more grounds for them to take a stand, so it seemed. They became afraid of nightfall. What they feared more probably was the nightfall over their future.
One day I saw a photo of a pair of slippers on social media. “These belonged to a mother. They were left during a protest.” They were white and size 37. The straps were white, but not pure white. The left and right slippers must have been thrown into disarray when the wearer was attacked. There was a line of blood on the pavement that stained one of them. I learned that the owner was a 50-year-old schoolteacher. She was shot to death at that spot by the military terrorists. A bullet that hit her hand took her life as she had a heart condition.
“She wasn’t feeling very well when she went to the protest,” said her daughter in an interview. The alleged “2020 election fraud” brought dishonour to members of the education department who had overseen the polling stations. That’s why she believed that it was her duty to protest the coup on the front line. Before she left home, she had comforted her daughter that the security forces would go easy and not use violence against school teachers.
Sadly, the gun barrel does not discriminate—it was loyal only to the finger that pulled the trigger. One bullet after another shattered our dreams. Karl Marx’s slogan “Proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” echoed loudly among the masses.
The daughter wept violently over the slippers left by her fallen mother. This reminded me of how I cried whenever I saw my amay’s flip-flops. What of her? Would she become interested in footwear too? In revolutions, footwear is often prematurely parted from its wearers.
The group in military boots stood firm, determined to put an end to the civilian resistance. The people had no weapons, nor sturdy shields. Their flip-flops wore thin. Even then, the hot, bloody roads couldn’t be worse than hell. No one seemed to mind the intense heat under their soles.
With or without footwear, their way out of hell would be an arduous journey. ▢
Hla Than’s poem was translated by Ko Ko Thett.
This essay appeared in Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring: Witness Poems and Essays from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021, edited by Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman, and published by Gaudy Boy in North America, Balestier Press in the UK, and Ethos Books in Singapore.
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
Artwork by Mahnoor Azeem. Ink collage on cardstock.
Aung San Suu Kyi
National League for Democracy
Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring
THAWDA AYE LEI is a Burmese writer who has published four novels and two short story collections. She is currently working as a researcher on gender- and media-related studies for Burma-based international NGOs. In 2021, she enrolled in the PhD program in Political Science at McMaster University, Canada.