Nadi Hlaing (pseudonym) was a teenager when the Saffron Revolution shook Myanmar. The 2007 uprising saw hundreds of thousands of Myanmar citizens, led by saffron-robed monks, take to the streets demanding political and economic reform from the military regime. Foreign correspondents predicted the downfall of the military government. But within weeks, the military’s brutal crackdown left the streets empty and monasteries stained with blood.
With the February 1 coup, it seemed history was repeating itself.
“When February 1 happened, I felt like I was reliving my trauma – that feeling of helplessness, voicelessness, and feeling extremely vulnerable,” Nadi Hlaing recalls. “But it is different this time around. I’m in my 30s, I have done a lot of advocacy work, I have the knowledge and experience – I can finally stand up for something.”
Nadi Hlaing captures the zeitgeist of the moment: one of apprehensive hopefulness. This time, unlike 2008, unlike 1988, it feels different. Protestors are once again on the streets, this time aided by a flood of social media support. Citizen journalists, empowered by the smartphone, are capturing the military’s every infraction, and reporting it to local and foreign media. Within hours of the military blockade of protests in Sanchaung, the information had spread like wildfire: Western embassies and UN offices released statements of deep concern, and protests flared up across the country in response. The murder of Kyal Sin, a young woman shot in the head by the military during a protest, has stoked such massive outcry that she has become something of a national symbol for the resilience of the movement.
And the Myanmar diaspora, empowered by years of advocacy on Myanmar issues since the NLD nominally took power, are ready to make this fight global.
Nadi Hlaing is one of many Myanmar citizens or members of the Myanmar diaspora based abroad, who are using their experience abroad to the advantage of the movement at home. One of her many projects is an interview series with local people involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), to highlight what she calls the “micro-stories” of the movement. She sees herself as an archivist of the moment: “I just want to allow space for people to share their stories – to be a witness to these experiences.”
As calls for the invocation of ‘Responsibility To Protect’ (R2P) and informed foreign intervention have increased, Nadi Hlaing has increasingly focused her efforts on lobbying the U.S. Congress. She is part of a group of U.S.-based Myanmar professionals who prepare talking points, references and sources for their meetings with congressional staffers on the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee. Her prior experience working with grassroots Myanmar-focused organizations in the D.C. circuit informs her lobbying strategy, and expectation of what her group can make happen.
“One thing I learned from dealing with Congress is that you never just go to one meeting – you set up a series of meetings, constantly feed them information to give them a sense of urgency and keep them informed so they can act from an informed point of view,” Nadi Hlaing advises.
Sandra Hsu Hnin Mon who also moved to the U.S. soon after the Saffron Revolution, is part of Nadi Hlaing’s group liaising with members of Congress. Sandra M. is a trained epidemiologist specializing in Health and Human Rights, so she focused on the COVID-issue early on. According to the British Medical Journal, since the military took power, testing capacity has fallen to ~2000 tests per day from an average of over 17,000 per day weeks before the coup.
In that context, Sandra M. asks the hard questions about the unique protest-pandemic nexus threatening the lives of Myanmar citizens. The second shipment of Covishield (Oxford-AstraZeneca) vaccines arrive in Myanmar on February 11 – will these be distributed to the public as originally laid out by the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports? She raises the deadly, if minor, possibility of incomplete vaccination resulting in vaccine escape. Disruptions to local disease surveillance mechanisms could then mean that variants – escape or otherwise – may go undetected, which poses a grave threat to global COVID-19 containment efforts.
Beyond COVID-19, the recent siege of public hospitals across the country and escalating violence against healthcare workers places yet more strain on Myanmar’s fragile health system, and potentially sets it up for dire and extensive collapse.
In elevating these concerns to larger international organizations like the World Medical Association (the liaison organization between the WHO and the UN), she highlights how much this coup threatens not just the national, but international community.
She adds of the diasporic movement generally: “Everybody felt similar senses of dread and desperation, and a lot of groups are coming together very organically…it is encouraging to see so many people across the diaspora putting differences aside and coming together.”
Sandra M. alludes to what has become a pivotal moment for unity within the ethnically diverse, historically siloed diaspora. As a fractured Myanmar has come together to protest the military, so too have the diaspora come together to protest the coup, recognizing this to be a critical window of opportunity to finally pursue an inclusive federal government.
One group that has focused particularly on elevating ethnic issues is the Global Alliance For Myanmar Democracy (GM4MD). GM4MD is led by four Myanmar college students based in the U.S. The organization now connects hundreds of people in the Myanmar diaspora from Norway, France, the U.K., Ireland and Germany among other countries. They have worked to get tens of thousands of signatures on petitions delivered to the UN Security Council, hosted educational panels and worked with grassroots organizations to provide spaces for wellness and advocacy within the diasporic community.
One of the founders, Jan Jan, grew up in the Kachin refugee community in the U.S. Speaking of the guilt some members in the diaspora express about not being on the ground during this uprising, she reflects: “I was always hearing stories about people getting shot in Kachin state…I felt a sense of guilt my entire life, that it was a sort of crime living in America while my Kachin family and friends on the ground were shot and killed every day.”
For Jan Jan, the coup has provided new impetus for change, although the military establishment is the tip of the iceberg on the problems in a country where the Bamar-majority have actively discriminated against ethnic minorities for decades. “What we see happening is a huge deal: what has been happening in the villages for decades is coming to the cities – before all these attacks only happened to ethnic minorities, but it wouldn’t get attention because they’re not the Burman dominant group.” Her early exposure to the atrocities of minority discrimination in Myanmar put her in touch with a variety of advocacy groups in the Kachin community that she is leveraging now for her work with GM4MD.
Another founder, Sandra K., grew up as a second-generation Chinese Burmese immigrant to the U.S. Having spent time among Karen and Kachin communities, she similarly sees divides among generations, between ethnic groups and religious groups. She, like many others, recognizes that her experience is different from those on the ground, and that her advocacy is both limited and empowered by her U.S. citizenship.
“The guilt about being a ‘hyphenated American’ really is unique for each ethnic community,” Sandra K. admits. “I have the opportunity as a Burmese American to lobby as a constituent of the U.S. government. But my migration story is also privileged…it is different for a Chin American who migrates here because they were an Internally Displaced Person.”
“There are many layers of complexity,” she concludes.
For Nadi Hlaing, that same complexity animates discussions on what strategies of ‘foreign intervention’ are useful, or even desirable. R2P is a fraught issue in the international community – something both Nadi Hlaing and Sandra M. recognize.
“The most useful thing for the movement right now is to be constructive with our asks and to be able to differentiate which actions are deliverable by which entities.” Nadi Hlaing points to the ongoing grassroots-led advocacy efforts in Congress for targeted sanctions and a comprehensive freeze of all foreign assets under the military control. “The way I see it, this is a strategic balance of acute response to place a chokehold on the military vs. a long-term accountability mechanism to deter the military from gaining economic hegemony.”
Not all ‘foreign intervention’ has been helpful to the movement either. A statement by the Chinese embassy on March 14 condemned alleged protestor violence against Chinese-funded enterprises in Yangon. The military responded by declaring martial law in Hlaingthaya, where many of these enterprises are headquartered. The statement struck Myanmar citizens as tone-deaf and dangerous. “If you don’t want to help, it’s ok but don’t disturb,” Tweeted a Myanmar citizen in response.
The Chinese embassy in Myanmar has issued a statement on Sunday condemning violence against Chinese-funded enterprises in Yangon, calling on Myanmar to ensure the safety of lives and property of Chinese enterprises and personnel. https://t.co/nMTQxJ2l5C pic.twitter.com/ae2Lq5Dqis— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) March 14, 2021
Despite the intricacies of finding the ‘right’ kind of intervention, the Myanmar diaspora are united in taking action.
“For some people, this is their fourth go at it [after 1962, 1988, 2008], so a lot of people who have been silenced in the past have come out of the woodwork to raise awareness on social media, and that has kept a lot of international coverage going,” Sandra M. highlights. “There is also now this cadre of technical experts who are Burmese who are actively engaged with the international community.”
As protestor deaths have risen, ‘hope’ may be too shaky a word to describe what faces Myanmar citizens at home and abroad. Parts of Yangon are now described as a ‘war zone.’ What began as an aspirational movement has turned into fierce resistance. Pro-democracy civilians continue to take to the streets, and netizens continue to report the military’s brutality to foreign correspondents. In the U.S., the diaspora movement is just starting to gain steam.
This time, if Myanmar goes, its citizens will not let it go quietly.