Essay by Thu Thu May Oo

“Shh!! Papa! They might hear you!” I whispered to my dad, but he kept chanting “We want democracy! We want democracy!” as we drove our small medieval motorbike in the outskirt of my hometown.

I was only 5 years old at that time, but I still remember vividly the fear I had for the “people in uniform”. While I may not have understood much, I knew that democracy was not the term we could readily use. I grew up in a small town called Mawlamyine in south eastern Myanmar (formerly known as Burma during the British colonial era), surrounded by verdant mountain ranges covered with velvet green forests. We had a small garden where we grew various types of flowers, fruits and vegetables from rambutan, papaya, coconut to Thai chilies, water spinach, drumstick (moringa) and pennywort, my dogs’ favorite snack. We felt content with our life. Well, we had to.

Thu Thu May Oo as an adult (above) and as a child. Photo courtesy of Thu Thu May Oo.

Growing up surrounded by poverty and ethnic conflicts under half a century of military dictatorship, I learned to be grateful for the things I had in my life, and to give back to the community who were more underserved than us. Every evening, under the flickering candlelight, my siblings and I would accompany our parents as we tuned into BBC and VOA radio channels to get the latest political and economic news of our country. Every day we listened to the news about political prisoners, and the civil wars between the military government and the ethnic minorities. Yet, every single day, we dreamed and hoped for the day when we no longer had to survive under the military regime.

My first personal encounter of a civil movement in Myanmar was 2007 Saffron Revolution. I was 14 years old, living with my grandpa in Yangon, a formal capital when various protests occurred at the corner of my street and then, all over the country. A sudden rise in fuel price had triggered a series of economic crises to the point where people could no longer afford to eat or buy the necessities. Unfortunately, peaceful demonstrations led by students, political activists and Buddhist monks quickly turned to bloodshed when the military soldiers started beating their civilians and attacking with tear gas. Some were arrested while others were massacred in these peaceful protests. I remember witnessing the outburst of different groups of protestors as the military soldiers cracked down the gatherings. I also remember seeing people holding hands tightly and chanting with unity. Darkness followed a series of curfew as the electricity was being cut off with no access to international news channels. The only way to connect to the outside world was once again through listening to radio.

I never imagined this day would come again. My mom called me in the early morning of Monday, February 1st, 2021 (4:20 PM PST Sunday). I was already wrapped up with anxiety because she never called me this early. Trembling to my dismay, the Myanmar military staged a coup to overturn the 2020 election, our second democratic election since the end of military dictatorship in 2011. The Myanmar people re-elected the National League for Democracy party (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first and incumbent State Counsellor of Myanmar. Unfortunately, before the President Win Myint and the elected officials were sworn in at the parliament on February 1st, 2021, they were being detained along with civil activists and monks after the military declared the November 2020 results fraudulent, a baseless claim to strike a coup. The NLD party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide with more than 80 percent of votes against the opposition party which was backed by military personnel. Despite the fair election, the military has declared the state of emergency for one year, meaning the country will be controlled by the commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing who was supposed to be retiring this summer. Furthermore, it seemed he wanted to run as a president later on which didn’t come to terms with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was asserting for constitutional change that would place the army under the authority of an elected government.

The undermining of our democracy and freedom, and the allegation of voter fraud that you are seeing right now, are textbook examples of military coup and authoritarianism. What’s more, the 2008 constitution written by the military government was not to serve the people but to themselves. In fact, the Ministry of Defense constitutionally oversees the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the Ministry of Police while also holding the government’s executive, legislative and judicial powers.

Since the military personnel make up 25 percent of members of the parliament, it is hard to make any systemic changes. So, who has really been controlling Myanmar? The very same military leaders who have been causing ethnic wars and ethnic disparities including the genocide of Rohingya community in Western Myanmar. Moreover, there has been a delay with COVID-19 vaccination after the military suspended the flight from India that carried vaccine shipment. They have also been working closely to monitor any communication and movement people are taking. How far are we going to let this continue?

Our tenuous democracy was once again shattered along with the civic duties, goals and dreams that I had set for myself and for my family. My heart sinks as I echo the trembling voice of my mom, and a despair and misery my siblings and friends are experiencing at this very moment. My mom, a second-year nursing student, was on her night shift at the hospital in Mawlamyine in 1988, when the military soldiers cracked down the students’ rally at night. The flashback of the 8888 uprising, the marching beat of the people, and the sights of the blood she saw from cleansing the wounds of the protestors, rushed back into her eyes when I asked my mom about the brutality of the Myanmar military junta, she and her generation had witnessed. From living in a constant fear, ethnic crises to ongoing poverty with lack of proper access to education, healthcare services and economic stability, we are the embodiment of the sacrifices and pain our ancestors suffered and the distress of the future of our country and our generation.

Military tanks and soldiers flooded the streets of Nay Pyi Daw, the nation’s capital, along with the internet and phone services being disrupted during the siege. They continued to block access to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This coup has triggered a growing concern and frustrations among people in both Myanmar and outside of the country, leading to civil disobedience movement across the nation and online to spread this awareness globally. Our democracy was once again stolen by a military.

However, this time, we will not back down.

The sound of the beat of pots and pans echoed from one city to the next at 8 PM sharp whilst the government employees, teachers, medical professionals, lawyers and many other professionals went on a peaceful strike by not showing up to work. Three-fingered movement, created in the Hunger Games series, which was adopted by activists in Thailand, also began in Myanmar to show the resistance against the tyranny. On February 6th, 2021, the first major protests took place in large cities which the rest of the country followed. Our collective voices echoed across the world to demand for democracy, condemnation of military dictatorship, new constitution reform and stop the war conflicts against our ethnic communities. More importantly, the military coup has opened my mind to articulate the existing government system critically and to advocate for equitable and fair society for us and our future generation. Myanmar is rich with diverse ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions, and it’s time we embrace our diversity and inclusivity. We need to institutionalize systemic changes by dismantling patriarchal Bamar-Buddhist supremacy and making equitable society for all the people with different ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. Additionally, our new reformed constitution and the government would need to include intersectional framework to recognize environmental racism, violations of human rights, ethnic and racial disparities, any discrimination against LGBTQIA community.

Democracy is fragile in a country like Myanmar with sociopolitical issues due to colonialism and military dictatorship. From Black Lives Matter movement to farmers protests in India, we are seeing the sociopolitical movements as the human rights being violated around the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, our society is in need of more people to fight against social inequities, institutionalized racial and ethnic disparities, and fight for democracy and freedom. As I am writing this, I am feeling the sociopolitical trauma and collectively experiencing a heavy heart and anxiety with my family, friends and Myanmar people around the world. This military coup has not only triggered our intergenerational trauma in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and ecological crisis, but also has heightened the deep uncertainties for our country and for our future generation.

Thu Thu May Oo is originally from Mawlamyine, Myanmar (Burma). She is currently living in Seattle and is a M.S Nutrition Education candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Essay by Shwe Zin

My earliest memory of photographs were of these. While I was too young to understand the context behind these pictures at the time, they haunted me nonetheless. My late father, and current step-father were both younger than me when they left their jobs and their families behind to join the student uprising of 1988 in Burma. After the government crackdown, they were also amongst the thousands who fled into Thailand and became exiled. My mother had just given birth to my eldest sister at the time. She followed my father into the jungles soon after. My older brother was born in Mae Tao clinic, a clinic started by a doctor that also fled Burma. Me and my younger sister were born in the refugee camps.

While my parents sheltered us children from the physical reality of the war they were fighting, we grew up with horror stories. Burmese soldiers burning down villages as they please. Raping our children and wives as they please. Mutilating and beheading as they please. Taking our daughters as sex slaves, and our sons as child soldiers. As if that were not enough, setting up land mines around the villages so those who escaped cannot return. When I was younger, we all knew someone without a limb. We weren’t scared of the Boogey man or the monster in the closet. We were scared of the Burmese soldier. Us children learned this fear as soon as we entered the world that we never questioned it. We learned to live in constant fear — of soldier raids, of being deported, of being kidnapped, of being sex trafficked. We learned to keep our voices low, and to never stray far from home.

Shwe Zin as a child and adult (about). Photos courtesy of Shwe Zin.

I have not been able to sleep these past few days. Throughout the day, I am either on the verge of tears, or feeling numb. Perhaps what I am experiencing is intergenerational trauma. A reoccuring nightmare from my childhood dreams. My body is heavy with anxiety for all those abroad and in the country who are reliving their traumas. My heart aches for those in the country who are stricken with fear right now, who cannot live, eat, or sleep in peace — especially the journalists, the peace activists, the freedom fighters. I cannot stop thinking about my aunts and uncles who have already endured so much only for it to be taken away in one morning.

The history of Burma is complicated. I admit I do not know everything. Burma is a country of many ethnic groups with many languages, cultures, and religious beliefs. It is what makes Burma so diverse and beautiful. But in a country where its people do not have the rights to their basic needs — this diversity creates chaos and conflict.

Instead of focusing on the common enemy that is the Burmese military — the one that calls all the shots, the one that takes away their resources, the one that strips away their rights, the ethnic groups are pitted against each other. These deep rooted conflicts between ethnic groups is one of the greatest challenges on the road to democracy. There are many areas in Burma that need work — education, healthcare, economy, etc. But until we as a country recognize our differences as something to be celebrated instead of something we need to get rid of — it will be a long hard road to democracy.

Aung San Su Kyi [Burmese politician, diplomat, author, and a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who served as State Counsellor of Myanmar and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2016 to 2021] was my idol growing up. I admired her immensely for her courage and loyalty. I was always drawn to her calm demeanor in the midst of chaos and violence. She was the epitome of everything I aspired to be as a woman — graceful, bold, intelligent, articulative, compassionate, and so much more. I was also just as disappointed when she stood in front of the International Court of Justice and defended the Burmese military against accusations of the Rohingya genocide.

Something I have learned as a grown up is that you cannot idolize human beings without first acknowledging that they are human beings. No person in the history of mankind has had a pure record to their name. The greatest humans that ever lived have made questionable choices — whether it was publicized or not. I do not support or agree with Aung San Su Kyi’s stance on the Rohingya conflict in Burma. I believe she should have leaned on the International community and exposed the true nature of the Burmese military. The Burmese military has always been the one in power and the one calling the shots. It is the Burmese military who executed the killings and she took the blame for it. We need to be able to acknowledge the complexity of the situation, while also holding her accountable. At the end of the day, those who suffered were the civilian Rohingyas and Aung San Su Kyi’s reputation, and the Burmese military got away.

The worst thing that can come from the recent military coup is for nothing to happen. Our cries for help will be drowned out, and everyone will return to their rat races. A majority of civilians will return to their lives as almost normal. The international community will forget about the people in Burma and their fight for democracy. Burmese soldiers will continue to come and go as they please. Rape our women as they please. Torture as they please. Kill as they please. Do all of these things as they please without any repercussions. Burma will fall back into military rule where its citizens do not have a say in their livelihood. The Burmese military will quietly kill off ethnic groups so they can establish an all Burman-Buddhist country. I wonder what is worse — to be killed right away, or to live in constant fear all your life.

The struggle of Burma is not unique. It is happening in India. It is happening in Thailand. It is happening in Russia. It is happening in Hong Kong. It is happening in the United States. Our pain and strives are the same. We want the same opportunities for liberty, life, and happiness. If you enjoy the freedoms of a Democratic country, it is because your ancestors once fought the same wars we are fighting today. Please use your liberty to promote ours.

To my friends in the United States and abroad, I need you now more than ever. I know it has been a long year. I know you are probably exhausted from the never ending fight against evil forces in this world. You may also be watching things unfold and feel unsure which to believe. You may feel that you cannot make a difference. But stay with me. As I am writing this, I am thinking of each and every one of you I call a friend or an acquaintance. I have never needed you more than I need you now. Please do not let this be another headline that you forget about tomorrow. Behind these headlines are real people experiencing real pain. It is the story of my father, step-father, mother, aunts, and uncles.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, with whatever time and energy you have, raise awareness of this issue. Even if you might not be able to do something about it, it may reach someone who can. Bullies get away with bullying because they think they are invisible. Let them know they are not. We see them. We are against them. And we will rage on.

Shwe Zin is a refugee from Burma that resettled in Kennewick, WA in 2005. Her parents fled from Burma into Thailand after the 1988 uprising in Burma that resulted in a large population of refugees along the Thai-Burma border. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of Washington in 2018. She will be starting the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Washington in Autumn 2021. She currently works as a medical scribe and a medical interpreter.

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