On The Trail of The Overseas Movement Resisting Myanmar's Military Junta

'We can't let the soldiers steal our country,' a Malaysia-based campaigner says.
By Yang Chih-chiang
2021.09.01
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On The Trail of The Overseas Movement Resisting Myanmar's Military Junta South Korea-based Myanmar activist Shwe Moe is shown in an undated photo.
Photo provided to The Reporter by Shwe Moe

Overseas groups of exiles from Myanmar are increasingly organizing to support unarmed protesters against violence by the country's police and military in the wake of nationwide protests sparked by the military coup in February 2021.

Myanmar solidarity groups have appeared in around 37 countries, including South Korea, Malaysia, the Czech Republic, and the democratic island of Taiwan, where RFA's Mandarin Service and The Reporter, a Taiwan-based magazine, caught up with them in a joint project published by both media outlets.

With an exodus of migrant workers and refugees in recent years, around one million Burmese are now living outside the country, and overseas activism is beginning to make a tangible impact, with aid money finding its way back to aid the political opposition to the military regime.

A government-in-exile, known as the National Unity Government, has united a number of overseas groups across 27 countries in a bid to reverse the coup and return to some semblance of democratic government.

Zeyer, a 44-year-old migrant worker who has been in Malaysia for 25 years, said the coup and subsequent violence in response to a mass civil disobedience campaign have had a profound impact on his co-workers from Myanmar at an electronics factory.

Along with compatriot Zed, Zeyer joined the "We Love Motherland" campaign group set up to resist the coup on Feb. 13, 2021.

"We can't let the soldiers steal our country," he told The Reporter. "I want to fight for my son's future here [in Malaysia]."

The group soon made contact with more than 20 similar organizations in Malaysia, and started coordinating with them to streamline the flow of money back into Myanmar from supporters overseas.

The alliance also provides a platform for exchange and communication between the groups and does some lobbying work.

"It can also persuade the Malaysian government to make policies that are beneficial to the national unity government," Zed said.

Some 20,000 Burmese migrants are currently living in South Korea, where they are concentrated in a few industries and cities, of which Pyeongtaek, about an hour’s drive from Seoul, is one.

34-year-old Myo Zin has worked in an auto parts factory in South Korea for the last seven years. He also runs a Burmese store near the Pyeongtaek railway station. He has previously served as chairman of the local migrant workers' association, which helps Myanmar migrant workers negotiate with South Korean bosses.

When the coup came, this usually slick businessman became the leader of migrant workers from Myanmar in Pyeongtaek.

It's quite a change of emphasis.

"Before, I used to think constantly about how to make money, but now I think about how to support the struggle all the time," he said, revealing that he donates around half of his monthly salary to the cause.

He says he won't stop until the junta is overthrown.

Hitting the streets

Shwe Moe, who has been in South Korea for 20 years, hits the streets of major cities in South Korea on weekends to explain what is going on back home in Myanmar to local people.

She has been working as an English tutor to primary school students, and recently cut back her hours to four days a week to give her more time for activism.

She now travels the length and breadth of South Korea, attending meetings with other exile groups and organizing petitions to the government on issues like visa extensions for Myanmar nationals too afraid to return home.

"Sometimes I have meetings from morning until night," Shwe Moe said.

The Overseas Burmese Union has organized a team of educators to design teaching materials for use in Myanmar's school system, so students affected by the violence can still attend classes online.

Linn Thant, who was officially recognized by the Czech government as the representative of the Myanmar National Unity Government in the Czech Republic on May 24, told The Reporter that his daily job is to deal with government officials in Eastern Europe and Asia.

"My job is actually very similar to Taiwan officials persuading other countries to recognize Taiwan," he says.

The democratic island, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), nonetheless faces the ongoing threat of invasion by Beijing, which puts huge pressure on its diplomatic partners to shut Taiwan's 23 million people out of participation in international agencies.

"The most important thing is to get them to recognize the National Unity Government as the legitimate government representing Myanmar," Linn Thant, a former leader of the 1988 student-led pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, said.

Anonymous death threats

But his work isn't without personal risk.

Linn Thant told The Reporter he has received numerous, anonymous death threats. But he has no intention of caving in to attempts to intimidate him.

In Busan, 27-year-old Pan, a member of the Kachin ethnic group from Myanmar, has repurposed her Facebook page previously reserved for pictures of her son and anecdotes about her daily life, to campaign for donations for those resisting the military junta, post-coup.

"I feel a great weight of responsibility on my shoulders," Pan told The Reporter. "I feel like I have to encourage everyone."

"I was rendered exhausted by this coup, and my heart is broken into pieces," she said, adding that she needs to limit her exposure to online comments amid tensions between the majority Bamar ethnic group and the Kachin.

There are other pressures, too.

An overseas Burmese who declined to be named said that he chose not to let his family back home know that he was engaged in the resistance movement overseas, for fear they would worry, and for fear that his identity could be revealed and make them a target of the military.

The Facebook pages of Shwe Mo, Pan and other overseas campaigners display photos of resistance, with people making the three-finger salute that characterizes the Myanmar democracy movement.

They too are aware that this could attract unwanted attention from the regime, but want to encourage public support for the movement nonetheless.

Reported by RFA's Mandarin Service and The Reporter, a Taiwan-based investigative magazine. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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