'We have no one on our side': From Thailand to Singapore, Myanmar nationals react to coup with shock and sadness

Myanmar nationals living in Japan at a February 3 protest against the military coup.
PHOTO: Reuters

The military coup in Myanmar came as a shock to Sai Purng, a 36-year-old from Myanmar’s Shan State who works at the Human Rights and Development Foundation in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

“Since the 2015 general election, those whom the military mistreated, including political prisoners, said they had forgiven the military so the country could have a new beginning ,” he said. “The people were counting on compromise and democracy.”

That expectation was shattered on Monday when members of the governing National League for Democracy, including its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained after the military alleged there had been irregularities in elections held in November.

Less surprised was Myanmar national Jack, who works as a translator at the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation in Samut Sakhon, Thailand. Still, when he heard the news, he said it felt like a “dream had collapsed in an instant”.

For the past month, Jack has been helping his compatriots who need to be registered as part of the Thai government’s effort to curb the spread of Covid-19 among migrant workers. About 400,000 such workers are employed in Samut Sakhon, the centre of Thailand’s seafood industry, which emerged as a cluster in December and was hit with a strict lockdown of seafood markets and migrant worker dormitories.

“Many workers, those who have been suspended from work because of the lockdown, have had no income to proceed with the registration,” said Jack, who asked to be known only by his first name, of the registration fee that is about 9,000 baht (S$400).

“Their feeling is that they are going to be ripped off in Thailand if they stay, and if they are deported because they carry no papers, they are going to be ripped apart in Myanmar because the coup is going to affect their living.

“Everybody feels their back is against the wall. We have no one on our side either in Thailand or in our country.”

Thailand is home to around 2.6 million registered migrant workers, and between 3 million and 4 million more who are unregistered. Around 80 per cent of all migrant workers in the country are from Myanmar, the kingdom’s western neighbour, according to the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation.

Thailand has long been a destination for those fleeing military oppression, political instability and fighting between ethnic groups and the Myanmar army. Now, news of Monday’s coup has left them feeling abandoned, stranded and betrayed.

“There is a great need for Asean to better protect and safeguard the rights of refugees and migrants,” said John Quinley, senior human rights specialist at NGO Fortify Rights. “The recent coup in Myanmar means that many will have a well-founded fear of returning to the country.”

Purng from the Human Rights and Development Foundation said workers from Myanmar who were based in Thailand refrained from expressing their political opinions as they did not want to risk being deported. However, he said, if the situation at home escalated, “we might have to take action because we have put up with the military for too long”.

People in Yangon on Wednesday once again banged pots and pans in an act of civil disobedience, a protest in which Purng said his friends would participate “just to see how the military would respond. I don’t think the military would be so harsh on cracking down because of social media and the internet nowadays”.

In Singapore and Malaysia, where a sizeable population of Myanmar nationals live, the coup has left most of them in a state of shock and worry. Around 340,000 Myanmar nationals live in Malaysia, according to United Nations data, while the Myanmar embassy has stated that there are around 200,000 living in the island nation.

With the disruptions in telecommunication services, a student at the University of Newcastle in Singapore said he was unable to call his family, though he was later able to speak to his brother via Facebook.

The student, who has been in the island nation for five years and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the news of Suu Kyi’s detainment was saddening and surprising.

Read Also
Days before coup, IMF sent Myanmar $470m in emergency aid it cannot get back
Days before coup, IMF sent Myanmar $470m in emergency aid it cannot get back

“We can’t believe that this can be happening in our time. We are worried about our parents and our people at home. The current Covid-19 situation does not make things better,” he said.

“But I think people need to stay calm. If they go out angrily into the streets, they might walk directly into what the military wants,” he said, adding that the civil disobedience movement could instead be a strong enough force for change.

In Malaysia , a 33-year-old freelance photographer who asked to be known as Yoyin expressed grave concern at the military’s seizure of power in his home country.

“Even in this century, the military still can cut telecommunications and do whatever they want. They don’t care about [the responses of] foreign countries or any sanctions. I’m personally very worried about them in control because then no one has the right, no one will be able to speak up.”

While most Myanmar nationals in Malaysia disapprove of the military’s actions, Yoyin said many of them felt helpless given their status as refugees or asylum seekers.

“As we have seen in other countries like Thailand or Japan , [refugees there] can protest and express how concerned they are. It is a bit difficult for some of the refugees here, as they don’t have such rights or anywhere else to go,” said Yoyin, who has been in Malaysia for 12 years and previously worked at the country’s UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

There were 154,030 registered refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar in Malaysia as of last December, according to UNHCR data.

In Japan, thousands of Myanmar nationals protested outside the foreign affairs ministry on Wednesday, calling for Tokyo to speak out against the military power grab.

“Free, free Aung San Suu Kyi, free, free Myanmar,” the red-clad demonstrators chanted in unison, hoisting aloft posters of the leader.

The Union of Myanmar Citizen Association, which organised the rally, said Japan should not recognise the newly formed military regime. It said nearly 3,000 people took part in the protest.

Demonstrator Mathida, 50, who declined to give her full name, said: “We want our leader and our mother Aung San Suu Kyi to be freed. The military is not the government.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.