New York, United States – A student leader during the 1988 uprisings against Myanmar’s previous military dictatorship, Nay Myint was imprisoned and tortured for his efforts.
“I gave a speech to the public about democracy, human rights and freedom. Shortly after, the military intelligence arrested me and then they gave me a life sentence. I stayed in the prison for 15 years, 10 years in solitary confinement,” he told Al Jazeera.
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Last weekend, rather than giving a speech to crowds in Yangon, the US-based activist addressed the Myanmar community in New York City, which had gathered at Union Square to protest against February’s military coup.
The power grab ended a brief experiment with democracy and removed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide victory in November’s election; a result the military says is fraudulent. The coup sparked a significant protest movement and a brutal crackdown, with the military still unable to secure full control over the country more than three months later.
While in prison, Nay Myint was subjected to harsh treatment including physical torture.
“Between my legs they put iron shackles for two years,” he said, which caused permanent damage to his left leg. “But I believed I was in the right position. My people supported me. I am a Buddhist, I meditated to calm my body. That’s how I survived,” he said.
A few years after his release, people began to mobilise again in what became known as the 2007 Saffron Revolution, which was a reference to the colour of the robes of the monks who had led the demonstrations. The military rulers began preemptively arresting activists involved in the 1988 protests, so Nay Myint fled to the Thai border and was resettled in the US in 2008.
According to Pew Research, there were nearly 200,000 people of Myanmar descent living in the US as of 2019. From 2010 to 2020 Myanmar contributed more refugees to tuhe US than any other country. Most Myanmar people settle in Minneapolis but New York has about 7,000 people of Myanmar descent, making it the state with the fifth-largest population of Myanmar people in the country.
Me Me Khant has been studying in the US since 2016 but the 25-year-old remembers attending a protest near Yangon’s Sule Pagoda during the Saffron Revolution with her mother when she was a child.
“I remember hearing some gunshots and then the police started beating up people so then my mom and I just ran. Everyone was running,” she said. “I think the one thing that’s driving us is just the outrage and how many people had fled the country after ‘88 and 2007. This has to be the time it ends; this has to be the final fight.”
Me Me Khant was at a beach in California the day of the coup, celebrating a friend’s birthday. She had turned her phone data off to avoid distractions.
“I was trying to show my friend a video on my phone. I turned on the data and all these messages flooded in … I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We knew that people were going to protest, we knew that things were going to turn ugly going forward.”
On February 28 this year, after about three weeks of mostly peaceful protests, security forces opened fire on demonstrations, killing at least 18 people. It was just a taste of the carnage to come. By May 23, the military had killed more than 800 civilians including dozens of children, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is keeping track of the deaths. Some of the victims have been burned alive or tortured to death in detention.
“When the crackdowns started that was the hardest part,” Me Me Khant said. “Every morning we’d wake up and watch videos of violence. There’s a feeling of guilt and you always want to know what’s happening. I couldn’t detach myself from it. It was a few weeks of just being consumed by the news of the violence.”
The horrors in Myanmar have inspired many members of the diaspora to do what they can to fight back, including a woman named Shin, who helps Nay Myint organise events in New York.
“You have a type of survivor’s guilt, I think that’s the best way to describe how I’m feeling. Because your life doesn’t really change. You can still do whatever you want here. You can still have your comfort and your safety. But my friends who are there are losing everything,” she said, asking to use only part of her name for fear of retaliation.
Shin said as soon as the coup happened, she started going to protests in New York and has continued going “every single time”. “The more they oppress there the more we have to rise from here because we can rise safely,” she said.
The protests, which take place roughly every two weeks, usually attract a few hundred people, although a march with the Milk Tea Alliance, a pan-Asian democracy movement, attracted about 3,000 supporters according to Shin.
The US has taken the strongest stance against the coup in the international community, sanctioning the State Administration Council – the governing body set up by the coup leaders – and many cabinet members, children of senior military officials and military-linked companies.
But Shin wants greater action, including for the US and others to recognise the National Unity Government – a government in exile – as the legitimate government of Myanmar. Members of the NUG were appointed by a group of legislators elected in the November election and include representatives from the NLD, ethnic minority groups, civil society and other minor parties.
But the NUG has also been brought into disrepute because of its Rohighya policies. In 2017, the military engaged in a brutal campaign of violence against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, driving some 700,000 across the border into Bangladesh, which has since been described as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were condemned for failing to adequately stand up against the atrocities. In 2019 Aung San Suu Kyi even defended the country from allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice.
Earlier this month, Democrat members of the US House of Representatives grilled Myanmar’s UN representative, who has remained loyal to the civilian government, asking to guarantee the Rohingya be granted citizenship and a Rohingya representative appointed to the NUG.
“The US should not support the National Unity Government in Burma unless it includes Rohingya representation,” said Ted Lieu, a representative from California.
Shin says she understands why some might not like the NLD but compares the situation to former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supporters voting for President Joe Biden to defeat his predecessor Donald Trump.
“They might not like everything about the NUG, but we voted for them,” she said, calling the stance “condescending”.
“Rejecting the NUG is rejecting and undermining democracy.”
Shin believes the NUG will soon put out a statement on the Rohingya crisis that will satisfy some of its critics but urged foreign powers not to delay their recognition.
In addition to staging demonstrations and lobbying the US government, members of the Myanmar diaspora have also been raising money.
Aung Moe Win, with Support the Democracy Movement in Burma, says his organisation was able to raise over $100,000 in a single day during a fundraising bazaar in New Jersey over Burmese New Year.
“I think that’s the most that’s been raised outside of Burma in any city in the world,” he said. Another fundraiser is planned for June 19, Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday.
One-third of the funds was sent to support striking civil servants who have refused to work for the military but in many cases have lost their income or been evicted from government housing. One-third has gone to the representatives of the parallel civilian government. The final portion was donated to civilians who have been displaced by conflict, after some major ethnic armed groups rejected the coup which led to several civil wars breaking out across various parts of the country.
Like many involved in the pro-democracy movement abroad, Aung Moe Win was forced to flee the country.
“I left Burma and I worked for The Irrawaddy magazine in Thailand in Chiang Mai. That was a big shift, once I worked for The Irrawaddy, I became an exile. I could never go back,” he said, referring to a news outlet that has long been critical of the military.
He spent a few years in Thailand, moving to the US shortly before the Saffron Revolution.
“We are trying our best to help the people of Burma even though we are far away. We can live our own life here; we don’t have to worry about anything,” he said. “But still, we care so much about the country and we want the people of Burma to have the same freedoms and rights that we have in the United States.”