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“As an overseas Myanmar person, all I can do is to get the voices from Myanmar heard, noticed, and have foreigners come together to help my country,” Thomas Chen said.
Thomas Chen, a Burmese language teacher at Taipei’s Soochow University, stood out among the thousands rallying at Liberty Square in the capital late March to denounce the violent crackdown following the coup in Myanmar. He wore a light blue longyi, Myanmar’s traditional attire. A picture of Aung San Suu Kyi and a fresh rose he kept in his hair both paid tribute to the detained leader of the country.
The February 1 coup has galvanized mass protests across the world. In Taiwan, the Myanmar community first took to Huaxin Street, home to many of Taiwan’s 40,000 Burmese immigrants, to demonstrate five days after the military’s seizure of power.
Chen, 28, who witnessed bloodshed during the Saffron Revolution in 2007, said the people of Myanmar have never been more unified. “There are more than a hundred ethnic groups in Myanmar, and we have always been picking on each other,” he said. “But this time, we identified a common enemy and realized it is the cause of all problems.”
A rare sense of unity fueled optimism for the movement, but Chen told me he often feels “guilty” living abroad as fellow countrymen risk their lives on the ground protesting against the regime. This motivates him to organize and participate in events that raise awareness of Myanmar’s political crisis in Taiwan.
“As an overseas Myanmar person, all I can do is to get the voices from Myanmar heard, noticed, and have foreigners come together to help my country,” he said.
To show Taiwan-Myanmar solidarity, Chen plans to perform “Until the End of the World” (Kabar Ma Kyay Bu), the Burmese-language anthem emblematic of Myanmar’s 1988 uprising, with Taiwanese people and record a video to be uploaded to YouTube. He has translated the song from Burmese to Mandarin.
Last Friday, I sat down with Chen at a Burmese milk tea shop on Huaxin Street for an interview about the significance of the protests and his efforts in connecting Myanmar protesters and Taiwanese people. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve organized a number of events and hosted rounds of discussion on Myanmar protests on Clubhouse in Taiwan. What has been achieved so far?
I was surprised that many Taiwanese people have learned about the situation in Myanmar. They support the pro-democracy protests, but some might not know how to show their support.
Last week, I organized a photoshoot for local people holding up the three-fingered salute at Huaxin Street and Liberty Square. A lot of them came, hoping to stand with the people of Myanmar. I asked some of them if they have been to Myanmar, thinking it might be the reason they came, but most said no and admitted they knew little about the country prior to the coup. Still, they told me it’s their responsibility to come forward as Taiwanese when Myanmar is fighting for democracy. There are other Taiwanese who couldn’t make it to the photoshoot sending me pictures of themselves holding up the salute.
If they see these pictures on the internet, the people of Myanmar will learn that not only their countrymen but also foreigners are on their side, and they will have the courage to stick it out.
What’s the significance of the ongoing protests in Myanmar? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
The 1988 uprising failed because the protests didn’t last long. It ended with soldiers killing thousands of civilians on the streets. It’s different this time. Much more people come out to call for democracy. Their voices are being heard outside of Myanmar and there’s fundraising to help protesters in a mass strike.
Challenges are opportunities for change. We hope that after the people win, Myanmar will become a federal state, and this will solve the longstanding problems among various ethnic groups in the country.
If the junta continues to rule, life for civilians will become much more difficult. Myanmar might lose the opportunity to democratize, its people will run to other countries as refugees, and its economy will collapse. Becoming a democracy doesn’t mean the economy will thrive, but at least we will have freedom. People in Myanmar always say today’s Yangon is Bangkok from 30 years ago. During the five years when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led the country, we tried hard to catch up, but if we don’t succeed this time, the city will be much further behind.
The power of the people will prevail, and I believe this will happen, even though it means the protests will drag on. Personally, I know I’m on the junta’s blacklist after doing what I’ve done in Taiwan and showing my face in foreign media reports. If the military later seizes power, many Myanmar people living abroad will probably never be able to return. I can stay in Taiwan, but what about, say, students studying here?
What’s behind the perseverance of Myanmar’s young generation?
Living in a democracy, young people in Taiwan have probably never seen bloodshed in their life. In 2007, during the Saffron Revolution, I was in Myanmar, and monks and civilians collapsed and died in front of me after being shot by soldiers. At home, I often heard sounds of protests and gunfire, and one would be arrested going out at night. These are what happened during the protests, but during five decades of military rule, if you listened to foreign news media, you would do it secretly. You couldn’t even do it in your living room because your neighbors could probably hear it and they could be spies. I remember me and my family hiding in a room to listen to Voice of America or the BBC.
When I was little, my family always told me not to get involved in politics. Many people asked me why I’m so active in the pro-democracy movement, it’s not like I’m interested in politics, it’s for seeking justice. For the past decade, we people in Myanmar are finally leading a relatively normal life. Our economy is also growing. Before 2010, many were forced to work abroad and leave their family behind because there were no opportunities in Myanmar. After Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took office, these people came back to Myanmar with the hope that their country would be better again. The February 1 coup smashed it and the junta threatened to bring back the dark past. We are not going to surrender this time. Not a single government has come out and said they support the military. This gives us strength and we have to continue fighting.
What can Taiwanese people and the government do to help Myanmar?
To support the people of Myanmar, I hope Taiwanese people can continue following the situation in Myanmar and maybe donate to the CRPH if they could. [The CRPH is the opposition government consisting mainly of lawmakers elected in last year’s election.]
We see the Taiwanese government also support us, allowing us to gather at Liberty Square last week. Some Taiwanese journalists who used to be based in Myanmar prior to the coup wrote to the government. They didn’t say they support the protesters and the opposition government explicitly, but at least they told the journalists they’re keeping tabs on the situation.
I’ve been organizing these events to raise awareness because I believe that the government will see us when we gather. If Taiwanese people show up to support Myanmar’s democracy, Taiwan’s government may feel they need to say something. In fact, it’s a great time for the government to voice support. When the opposition government takes office, they will support Taiwan, too. Taiwan’s presence increased in Myanmar when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led the country. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Myanmar was set up during the time. If Taiwan shows support, I believe many other democratic countries will follow suit.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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