by Ma Chinthe
These days it often rains unexpectedly. No matter, Phone stays dry. His owner, Meinkalay, keeps him wrapped up in a little plastic case. From time to time when he peeks out from her pocket, Phone does get a little bit wet. But it’s ok. Meinkalay always takes good care of him. She even changes his case every once in a while. Phone knows how his owner adores him so dearly by the way that she embellishes his case with colorful stickers of every hue. After all, he is an essential part of a young woman’s life.
“Ko Ko, are you awake yet? Let me know when you’re up, OK?”
Every morning when she wakes up, Phone is right within Meinkalay’s reach and ready for her to send a message to Chitthu. She never fails to contact him.
“I’m up. But I have to go to training soon so I won’t be able to talk to you until I’m all done with my duties today.”
Chitthu replies to Meinkalay diligently. It was after one year of their relationship that he left the country to train with the military in Russia. Phone still remembers how Meinkalay whimpered and wept after Chitthu left. It was then that Phone became essential to their relationship. Two years have passed since Chitthu left the country. Phone once heard him say that he will finish his training within the next year and return to her.
Phone knows that due to the time difference and the training courses, Chitthu is not available in the mornings. But in the evenings at around 8 or 9 pm in Yangon, Meinkalay and Chitthu talk until Phone becomes scorching hot. Sometimes they talk on the computer, abandoning Phone on the bed. Times like that are boring for Phone. He just lays there dwelling on his unimportance.
One time, when Meinkalay was angry with Chitthu, poor little Phone got caught in the middle. He could barely get any rest. Chitthu called incessantly and Meinkalay refused to answer. Although, she did occasionally check her phone to look at the missed calls and unread messages. Human love is a messy, complicated, beautiful thing.
Phone knows that it won’t be long until the two lovers make amends–all thanks to him. So he keeps his screen alight and ready for his owner to use.
Even though Meinkalay and Chitthu got together during their university days, they did not meet on campus.
When Meinkalay finished high school, her grades were high enough for her to qualify for the medical field. So, she went on to attend the University of Medical Technology in the outskirts of Yangon. The students there were mostly women. People consider women to be natural caregivers, and assume them to be well suited for nursing, taking X-rays, and processing blood and urine samples. It seemed as if women and men were as divided as the Androids and Apples of his own kind. Phone wondered why, if men and women really are so different from one another, that they are equally eager to attend the kinds of universities for becoming full medical doctors.
Life as a human being is nothing like Phone’s existence. Being a phone is simple. In the beginning, people mainly purchased phones for quick and convenient communication. Many also bought phones to play games or to take photos with the finest available cameras. Only later did phones become so attached to their owners. Over time, phones even learned to understand and feel their owners’ desires. But, Phone doesn’t really know what his owner, Meinkalay, wants in her life. In so far as he remembers, it seemed as if Meinkalay went to school as a matter of default. She accepted that getting a degree is a logical step, and went through the motions of attending university. Even though Phone spends every day in the palm of his owner Meinkalay’s hand, he can’t tell what is in her mind.
No matter the reason a phone is purchased, Phone knows that the main purpose of his kind is to create connections. It is nearly impossible to anticipate what type of person, or what types of matters, a phone will spend its life with. Their existence is a beautiful chaos.
Because the University of Medical Technology had a reputation for being well attended by women, the men from the military academy often visited with attempts to impress the student body. The military academy was the complete opposite of Meinkalay’s university – only men were admitted. Even though the two campuses were far from one another, there were plenty of matchmakers between the two. Meinkalay and Chitthut were first acquainted through the work of a mutual friend. But the matchmaker was only important to the very beginning of their story. Once Chitthu got a hold of Meinkalay’s number, Phone was the one who facilitated all of their conversations. To be honest, Phone was the real matchmaker.
Chitthu was Meinkalay’s first love and naturally, she was completely infatuated with him.
Chitthu was a student in the military academy. But he wasn’t in the ranks of just any ordinary Major. He was a highly honorable young man and had the potential to become a General. Given his impressive stature, Meinkalay believed that her parents would approve of their love. Meinkalay’s mother may have had a suspicion that her daughter was in a relationship. But likely because of his rank, she did not try to interfere. After all, she was a young woman. While attending school she prioritized her love life over all other matters.
Meinkalay and Chitthu used to skip class and go to the park, exchanging tender kisses on the banks of Kandawgyi Lake. In the evenings, they would go to a restaurant in the middle of Chinatown. Secluded by the closed curtains, the two would eat sushi in the dim, air conditioned room.
“I love you so much, Ko Ko.”
“And I love you so much.”
On nights that it poured in Myaynigone, they would take shelter under a food stall. While enjoying Rakhine noodle soup, the two young lovers would whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Under their umbrella, where nobody could see, they kissed in the rain. Phone would blush as he looked at the couple. Once in a while, the couple would ask Phone to take pictures of them kissing one another. The relics of their love were safe in Phone’s memory.
“Ko Ko, after you graduate, we’ll tell my parents about our relationship and then we will get married!”
Phone admired their love. It was lasting, unlike the hook-up and break-up culture he knew about in the West from where he was imported. He took pride in boasting to his friends about their relationship.
Phone and his friends, all manufactured in the same batch, communicated through their algorithm about how rare it is to see life-long, monogamous couples in the West. The other phones’ owners didn’t even really care about them. When one phone breaks, they would easily switch to another one.
On the other hand, Phone’s owner Meinkalay, and Chitthu already made plans for their love to be everlasting:
When Chitthu finishes school, he will go to Russia to train for three years. Meanwhile, Meinkalay will work hard, save money, and patiently wait for Chitthu to return. Once Chitthu completes his training, his position as a military officer will be secured. They will have everything they need to start their new life as a married couple.
However, their plans did not account for the military coup.
That day was etched into Phone’s memory.
Before Meinkalay woke, Phone was already buzzing uncontrollably with messages. Some of her friends who were more engaged in politics knew about the coup before sunrise. They sent her links to the news over Facebook.
After Meinkalay woke up she couldn’t even send her daily message to Chitthu right away. She read through all of the messages on her phone as they arrived continuously. Paralyzed, she did not know what to do.
“Ko Ko. Did you hear the news about Myanmar?”
“Yes, I saw it on Facebook.”
“Ko Ko. What’s going to happen next? Isn’t this terrible!?”
“Don’t worry too much. Everything will be fine.”
As Meinkalay ate her breakfast, she and Chitthu sent messages back and forth. Meanwhile, her mother ranted about how she could not stand for the country to return to the military rule that she had endured in her own youth.
On that day, Phone was drained again and again.
Phone’s latest responsibility is storing photos. Meinkalay took plenty of photos in the past – photos of her going out, eating, and doing all sorts of things with her friends. Now, Phone’s memory has been filled with photos of the people’s protests in Yangon. The students from Meinkalay’s school joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. In protest against the military, they went on strike and refused to go to school.
Because the protests were especially massive in Hledan, Meinkalay went along with a group of her friends. She had previously only paid attention to political jokes on Facebook, and supported everything “A May Suu” said and did. Now, Meinkalay was beginning to understand just a fraction of Myanmar’s politics. Through the photos on Phone’s screen, Meinkalay could see the military’s brutality with absolute clarity. Her gaze was fixed on the images of unrestrained violence, especially in the rural borderlands. Phone saw tears welling in Meinkalay’s eyes as she stared furiously at these photos.
Phone, who once thought his owner to be fainthearted and fragile, was surprised to see her overcome with such anger. Humans are not like phones. They can change. They can become changed.
The more that Meinkalay read the news and looked at these types of photos, the more that Phone gave her suggestions to view similar content. Meinkalay began to read and understand the ways that her own Bamar community enacted such oppression on the Rohingya. She read about Bamar ideologies, gender discrimination, and Buddhist nationalism.
As much as she chanted “Strength be with A May Suu” during the early days of the protests, she learned to sing a different tune.
“Power to the people!”
“Are we united?!”
“We are united! We are united!”
From the palm of Meinkalay’s hand, Phone observed his owner changing day by day. But to Chitthu, her transformation was sudden.
“Why didn’t you answer my phone call the other day?”
“Sorry Ko Ko. I was meeting with some of my school friends to make plans for the upcoming protests. I didn’t even get a chance to look at my phone.”
It’s true. Meinkalay had a lot of work to do. She did not even glance at the usual content she used to spend hours scrolling through for enjoyment.
“Look at you going out late at night, after sundown. You don’t even make time to talk to your Ko Ko.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. You know how it is here with the political situation – there is no peace. We, the young people, are the only ones who can save our own future. Ko Ko, I wish you were here so that we could fight together.”
“Hold on. Is my girl becoming a little politician?”
The impassioned words she was about to speak were severed by Chitthu’s derisive questioning. Meinkalay, who is not used to talking back, was at a sudden loss for words.
“Have you forgotten that I owe my job to the military? The only reason I’m able to study overseas is because of their support. And now because of everything that is happening I might have to come back to Myanmar sooner than I had thought. The senior military officials need me to come and use the kinds of training that I’ve been receiving to respond to all of this civil unrest along the borders.
Besides, there is a silver lining. Once I come back, we can make plans for our wedding…together. I’ve been wanting to tell you this so that you won’t worry anymore about our marriage. My salary will be more than enough for the two of us to be comfortable. We’ll be living in excess!
And in my opinion, I think it’s about time for you to stop striking and go back to school. I mean, the wife of a General should have at least one degree. Eventually you can stop working and just live off of my salary. At this point, you have protested enough. I didn’t try to stop you in the beginning because I did not want you to be too upset. I let you protest. But now, I am putting my foot down.”
“Oh, do I need your permission, Ko Ko? Under all of this oppression, only you could imagine a silver lining. I thought that as a young person yourself, you would understand. But apparently you’re so beholden with the military, I can’t discuss my plans with you. I have nothing else to say to you.”
With her heart beating wildly in her chest, Meinkalay poured her thoughts into Phone without inhibition. Before Chitthu could say another word, she hung up. Then, she cried.
Chitthu hasn’t called since the end of that conversation.
And neither Meinkalay to Chitthu.
Their previous quarrels had always been over inconsequential matters. Meinkalay didn’t know that an argument arising out of politics could be so intense.
Phone had once praised Meinkalay and Chitthu’s love for being so distinguished from that of Western counties. He couldn’t make sense of the familiar relationship that now seemed so strange.
Humans really are difficult to understand.
To occupy the silence that Chitthu’s nightly phone calls had once filled, Meinkalay put all of her energy into organizing protests. She took it upon herself to be a student leader from the University of Medical Technology.
Phone became crowded with apps he had never had before, like Telegram and Signal. Phone was no longer able to access and read the messages that Meinkalay was sending. Phone and Meinkalay were such close companions. He was alarmed that she would have any secrets to keep from him.
Phone was able to get a sense of what Meinkalay was up to from listening in on her voice calls.
After connecting with the Yangon University Student Union, she started to do more than simply attend protests. Meinkalay helped publish a newspaper about the Spring Revolution and gave medical assistance to wounded protesters. Whenever someone asked about Chitthu, she clenched her teeth and answered firmly.
“It’s not only that I don’t associate with him because he supports the military. I also can’t stand to associate with anyone taking a ‘neutral’ stance. I’m just lucky that I found out about his ways early on. All I can hope for him is that his picture doesn’t end up in a social shaming campaign.”
“Oh, should we post his pictures and shame him then?” her friend asked sarcastically.
After a strong and steady relationship of three years, Phone could not understand why Meinkalay spoke about her lover in such a degrading manner. Even a little machine like Phone has a bond with his owner. He had so much admiration for her relationship with Chitthu. Has Phone been wrong all along?
One evening, Meinkalay was preparing for the “Htamein protests” that would take place on International Women’s Day. While she was in the process of tying one of her htamein to a bamboo rod, her phone rang. Chitthu’s Myanmar phone number flashed across the screen. He must be back in the country. Phone lit up with excitement, anticipating to hear a loving conversation between the couple once more. Phone enjoyed hearing Meinkalay and Chitthu make amends after an argument. The two wounded lovers would self-consciously ease their disposition for the sake of the other, as if riding the waves into calmer waters.
But, Meinkalay just stared at Phone’s screen as the ringtone continued beeping. “Why won’t you answer?” Phone thought.
The ringing finally stopped. Shortly after, there was a new voice message. Meinkalay immediately opened it and listened.
“If you still value our relationship in the slightest, I am willing to forgive for all of your wrong doing. I forgive you.
Look, he is giving into you. Meinkalay, please just call him back.
Meinkalay didn’t make a sound. She clenched Phone in her hand. Phone wondered if she would listen to the message for a second time or keep it saved for later. Phone became wet with tears as Meinkalay pressed him closely against her ear.
Why should Meinkalay be crying? Chitthu has already called her back.
Meinkalay removed Phone from her ear. She opened Chitthu’s contact information, clicked “Settings,” and selected “Block Number.”
Wait a minute. Don’t you know that “Block Number” means that he won’t be able to contact your phone at all!? Why would you block Chitthu’s phone number? If you block his number, how am I supposed to fix your relationship?
As Phone dwelled on these questions, Meinkalay went through all the voicemails, text messages, and photos she had with Chitthu- deleting them one by one. She wiped the tears off of Phone, tossed him onto her bed, and continued tying the htamein to the bamboo rod.
Phone could no longer understand his owner’s love. Phone thought that he knew everything about human love. It turned out he was all wrong. The messages and photos of Meinkalay and Chitthu’s relationship would remain in Phone’s inner memory, at least until his next software update. Before it was too late, Phone would tell his friends through the algorithm about it one more time. To little Phone, human love was only a distant memory – a mysterious, messy, and marvelous thing.
 Meinkalay is a Burmese work for “young woman.”
 Ko Ko is a term of endearment, commonly used to refer to an older man with whom one is in a romantic relationship.
 Chitthu is a Burmese word meaning “lover” and is often used to refer to one’s romantic partner.
 Kandawgyi Lake, located just north of downtown Yangon, Myanmar, is a popular location for walking and recreation. Commonly featured in movies, television shows, and music videos, the reservoir is an iconic romantic landmark.
 Myaynigone is a township in Yangon, Myanmar. Frequented by young people, its commercial district is known for its plethora of restaurants, bars, and food stalls.
 “A May Suu,” literally meaning Mother Suu, is a term used to refer to Aung San Suu Kyi by her followers. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician from the National League for Democracy party and served as State Counsellor of Myanmar from 2016 until the military coup in 2021.
 The “Htamein Protests” were a series of anti-military protests that took place in Myanmar beginning in February 2021. A Htamein is a traditional skirt commonly worn by women in Myanmar. Long standing misogynistic beliefs dictate that if a man is to walk beneath a woman’s clothing, such as a htamein, his masculinity will be damaged. During the Htamein Protests, htameins were strung across city streets to slow the troops’ trajectory. Flown as flags, htamein are also held as a symbol of women’s liberation.
This text is part of မိုးသောက် — a series of posts edited by Nathalie Johnston and arranged by Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA).
မိုးသောက် or ‘moethauk’ literally translates to ‘drink of rain’ but is used in the Burmese language to refer to the early morning or dawn. The participating scholars in this section of the blog are from Myanmar and chose this name to reference a new beginning, starting over in the wake of the damage caused by Covid-19 and the recent military coup in Myanmar.
Click here to read this text in Burmese.
Ma Chinthe (or Miss Lion) is the pen name of Chu May Paing, a decolonial feminist in progress, an anthropologist in training, and a writer. Although she has been writing (but never published) poems, short stories, and novelas in Burmese since high school, Chu debuted her creative writing journey with her short story “Pyitinehtaung” in Burmese, published bilingually on Aruna Blog post Feb-2021 military coup in Myanmar. Born and raised in Yangon, Myanmar and recently becoming an American citizen, Chu likes to engage with the concepts of temporal positionalities, intense feelings, and shifting materialities. Weaving ethnographic storytelling into her research with Burmese communities, Chu’s scholarly writings on the issues of feelings, resistance, and identity have appeared in The New Ethnographer, American Ethnologist, Society for Linguistic Anthropology among others.