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'My family is back there': Myanmar protests resonate with Orange County refugees

Demonstrators hold up signs during a rally at the Peace and Justice plaza on Franklin Street against the coup in Myanmar on March 6, 2021.
Buy Photos Demonstrators hold up signs during a rally at the Peace and Justice plaza on Franklin Street against the coup in Myanmar on March 6, 2021.

On Thursday, the streets of Yangon, Myanmar, filled with the sound of clanging pots and pans as citizens continued the protest against the military coup d’etat that took control in early February.

On Feb. 1, armed forces known as the Tatmadaw, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, staged a coup and declared a year-long state of emergency in Myanmar, also called Burma. The coup followed the democratic election of members from Myanmar’s civilian ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

North Carolina is home to over 8,000 refugees from various ethnic groups within Myanmar, including Karen, Chin, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Wa. As of 2016, over 1,000 of those refugees live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

On Feb. 20 and March 6, Orange County refugees gathered on Franklin Street to protest these events in their home country and demand that local representatives speak up for Myanmar. 

“These are my people and my country that are dying,” Gan Poo, a Burmese-American who participated in the March 6 Chapel Hill protest, said. “My family is back there, and we want to help save them.”

On the day of the coup, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto head of government, and President Win Myint, as well as many other members of the NLD, were detained by the military.

Since then, citizens of the country and refugees from Myanmar across the world have held protests against the military rule and demanded the release of political leaders. They also began a civil disobedience movement, with staff from the Central Bank of Myanmar, commercial banks, hospitals and police stations on strike.

Frances O’Morchoe is an instructor at the Parami Institute in Yangon who studies Southeast Asia and spoke at a panel hosted by the Carolina Asian Center in February. O'Morchoe said she’s heard the sound of pots and pans every night since the coup. 

“My hope of hopes is that these protests will keep the momentum going, and that the eyes of the world will be kept on Burma because of the protests on the street,” O’Morchoe said.

In response to the protests, the military has spread misinformation, restricted media and press and attempted to suppress protesters. Thousands have been arrested and over 200 killed by the Tatmadaw, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Myanmar has suffered years of authoritarian military rule, civil war and isolationist global policies leading to nationwide poverty. The military junta held power until 2011, when it dissolved and gave way to civilian rule, ushering in a hopeful period in Myanmar’s history.

But when the NLD achieved an overwhelming victory over military leaders in the November election, the Tatmadaw claimed the results were fraudulent, leading to the coup in February.

Sarmuna Wei, a Karen refugee and volunteer with Refugee Community Partnership, said for refugees who fled to the U.S. during the military rule prior to 2011 — especially those from minority ethnic groups — watching the coup unfold can bring back traumatic memories.

Wei said many of these refugees were more focused on leaving — and their own safety — than the violence taking place around them, so they are now seeing this type of violence for the first time on social media and TV.

“Twenty years ago, this was their life, and they didn’t see it like that,” Wei said. “They didn't see the destruction and the death and all that horrific stuff.”

Violence has escalated in recent protests in Myanmar, with police using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons on protesters. On March 14, the military declared martial law in six areas after gunning down at least 22 unarmed protesters in Yangon and at least 16 in other areas.

On Feb. 10, Biden announced his plan to sanction specific Burmese military leaders. The U.S. imposed additional trade sanctions as violence escalated. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., wrote in response to a text thread that calls for action in Myanmar that he supports the sanctions and the protection of human rights. 

Wei said in an email that she was encouraged by Tillis’ response and knowing that local representatives are aware of what’s happening in Myanmar and advocating for North Carolina’s refugee community. 

“To have my voice being heard is a big step for me and all the ethnicities in Burma," Wei said, "because we have been silenced for way too long."

Ira Wilder contributed reporting. 


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