Two Refugees from Myanmar Reflect on Where to Go From Here

Today, August 1, completes 18 months of Myanmar’s military coup. We, an uncle and niece who are currently refugees in Mizoram, write this article jointly to express the points of view of an adult and a teenager whose lives have been uprooted by the selfish desire for power of one man, General Hlaing.

In the past 18 months, 2,000 or more people have been killed. About 14,000 are in jail. Around 700,000 have been displaced, and the number continues to rise. The burning of homes and churches has not stopped. A total of 28,419 houses were burnt between February of 2021 and July of 2022, leaving at least 57,000  people homeless. The worst-affected areas are Sagaing Division, followed by Magway Division. The smoke from burning houses has resulted in massive air pollution, leading to further illnesses for the people.

People who have to travel for work are being stopped at new military posts that have been set up at entrances to the cities and towns. The soldiers check their phones and identity cards, and if they feel something is suspicious with a person’s phone or ID he/she is arrested. These powers have become a means of extortion. Those arrested are only released after they pay bribes to the soldiers who arrested them.

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Since most doctors and nurses are a part of the civil disobedience movement, popularly known as CDM, there is no one to treat the wounded who have been hit by flying bullets, patients who have Covid-19, or patients who are simply sick. Even in the capital, Rangoon, the government hospital is short of staff and is not able to provide service, leaving many patients unattended. Some bleed to death, others die due to neglect. When some CDM doctors tried to fill the vacuum by opening clinics, they were arrested. Instead of being intimidated by such arrests, however, more and more medical professionals have started opening clinics. The power of civil unity can be seen everywhere.

There is barely anything left of the formal education system. In the board examination last year, students who had only been able to attend school for three months passed without meeting the qualifications. During the past six months, due to the absence of schools, many children have begun to work for daily wages. Some have even been driven to steal provisions for themselves and their families.

The children who choose to attend government schools that are currently under junta control are sometimes watched over by soldiers carrying guns. The imminent threat of violence makes them unable to focus on anything. Several suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some choose to attend online classes held by teachers who are part of the civil disobedience movement, or online classes that are held by private organisations. Though the CDM recognises these children as students, they are not treated as eligible for school certificates by the junta administration. CDM-affiliated  teachers are even arrested if the military acquires information that they are holding online classes. In the National Unity Government areas, where the junta cuts off internet access, there are not even online classes. Worried parents ask church officials to undertake tuition in their churches. In some places, local business owners make investments to buy city net WiFi, but that is still not sufficient for the whole town.

One of the saddest impacts of the coup on children is how it has divided them. Children whose families are in the civil disobedience movement sometimes mistakenly show small signs of hate towards the children who attend government schools. According to one of the students who attends a local government school, “People judge me for the education system I chose to attend. Is it a sin to want education?”

Seeing the Myanmar situation from an adult’s point of view, I think it is time the United Nations gets involved. As a global organisation dealing with world peace, the UN should try to negotiate an agreement between the National League for Democracy, who were the winners of the 2020 elections, and the junta. If the coup is allowed to continue, an autocratic form of government will take hold in the country. Having lived under military rule during the 1990s, I do not want future generations to be living in constant fear, as I did. It is time for neighbouring countries, powerful countries and international organisations to get involved in pressuring a return to democracy.

Seeing the situation of Myanmar from a teenager’s point of view, I fear that the situation will not improve in coming years. Being a minor means there is not much I can do for my people who are struggling. Waking up every morning to news about murder, abuse and the arrest of innocent people whose only sin is that they are patriotic. Seeing nothing but disappointing posts and stories from the windows that once reminded me that there is a whole other world out there for me to discover. Feeling hate for the selfishness of the authorities who do not have the courage to give up their salary and the bribes they receive, despite seeing the same news that I do. The feeling of daily exhaustion from all the hatred that I carry in my heart. The helpless desire for a better yet unpredictable future. Always wondering if a greater power would help bring an end to all this misery. Having knowledge of the fact that millions of lives are lost just because of the selfish desires of one man. Trying hard to not lose faith in the power of unity. I believe that the people will win with a little bit more support, and there will be progress if the People’s Defense Force (PDF) is recognised by the world as the legitimate army of the National Unity Government, who are representatives of the general will of the people.

If the current situation continues, there will be more and more deaths. More doctors, teachers, activists, officers and innocent people will lose their lives.The wives who have been widowed, the children who have been orphaned, the parents who have lost their children, the sisters and brothers who have lost their siblings and the friends who have lost their partners will continue to mourn.

The little development the country had made over the years is withering away. Citizens are getting used to the sound of gunshots and thinking that it is the new normal. Myanmar is still living in darkness and it needs light. Change happens with a change of the heart, as Mahatma Gandhi said. “The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart.”

Featured image: People protest in the wake of executions, in Yangon, Myanmar, July 25, 2022 this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Photo: Lu Nge Khit/via Reuters

This article was first published on The Wire.