Burmese protest against the military government in Myanmar. [Image: Saw Wunna / Unsplash]

One Year After the Coup, Burmese Americans Fight for Awareness and Support

ASEAN The Mekong Asia

February 1st marks the one-year anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s civilian government. Last year, Myanmar’s parliament prepared to approve and endorse the results of the election granting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy 83% of the available parliamentary seats. The military declared the election illegitimate, citing widespread voter fraud, and used these claims to overthrow the national government and imprison Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. The Asian Network for Free Elections, and independent elections observer, has rejected the Myanmar military’s claim of voter fraud.

Since then, the United States and the international community have condemned the coup, while civil disobedience strikes, sanctions, and military repression have brought Myanmar to near economic collapse. Regardless, the military has continued to assert its authority on claims the election was fraudulent. While large-scale protests and strikes have diminished due to the military’s lethal crackdowns, many are continuing to defy the military government in “silent strikes” to commemorate the one-year anniversary and guerrilla fighting by anti-military groups. To maintain control, the military government has embarked on a nationwide campaign of repression to stop civil disobedience and resistance against the military. The military has called the National Unity Government (NUG), created by elected lawmakers who consider themselves to be the legitimate government, a terrorist organization. Over 8,800 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced – including journalists, doctors, students, activists, community leaders, political opponents, and critics of the military and over 1,000 people have been killed so far.

For Burmese Americans, the coup has instilled fear that the country’s recent moves towards democracy might be lost. Burmese American communities are an integral part of America. Burmese immigrants have come to the United States since the 1960s and from 2002-2019 became the second-largest refugee population coming to the United States, resulting in a nationwide community of roughly 200,000 people.

Since the coup, Burmese Americans have staged rallies and lobbied the United States government to sanction and companies to divest from military-owned Burmese companies in order to deprive the military of its income and increase pressure to restore the civilian government. There have been many rallies throughout the United States, particularly in areas with large Burmese American populations, such as Texas, Indiana, and Minnesota, where Burmese American communities have continued to protest human rights violations by the military junta. Many have also turned to fundraising through organizations such as Support the Democracy Movement in Burma, raising over $100,000 in a single day in New Jersey during Burmese New Year.

Many Burmese Americans who have ties to Myanmar face the excruciating reality of being unable to contact family members and friends still inside the country who are at risk, hiding, or may have already been arrested. Many feel frustrated at the lack of media attention being given to the ongoing situation, citing that 25% of Burmese Americans live in poverty as a large factor in not being as influential as other Asian American communities. Still, they continue to hold onto hope and continue raising awareness for Myanmar.

Aaron Chan is a Research Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington. He recently graduated with a master's degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs concentrating in Conflict and Conflict Resolution. He received his bachelor's degree in Global Studies from UCLA.