'On thin ice': How some Filipinos in Myanmar are coping with coup

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 06 2021 06:44 PM | Updated as of Feb 06 2021 09:43 PM

'On thin ice': How some Filipinos in Myanmar are coping with coup 1
Protesters hold up the three finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 6, 2021. Ye Aung Thu/AFP

MANILA— When soldiers seized power in Myanmar early Monday, Jane, a Filipino who works in main city Yangon, woke up to a day she knew was going to be the start of a “tough” time ahead. 

Her phone line and internet connection were cut. Media channels were shut. She got news the military had taken over, and her immediate concern was her safety and that of her team at the agency where she worked.

They have long been battling a crisis— the COVID-19 pandemic— and have gotten used to being restricted at home. But a military coup? 

“Honestly, I was frazzled last Monday because I thought it was going to be a normal Monday morning, when I chanced upon this news shared in our township group,” Jane, who asked that her real name be withheld for security reasons, told ABS-CBN News via a Zoom call from her place in Yangon. 

She was referring to the chat group with other Filipinos in her district. Such consular channels, grouped by townships, are usually for COVID-19 updates for over 1,200 Filipinos in Myanmar. But the alert on Monday was for a different warning altogether. 

“At the end of the day, first and foremost, our concern is to keep everyone safe and check on each and everyone. Obviously this is a different scenario than COVID," Jane said.

"COVID is an experience shared globally, but this one is different,” she said. 

Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country of about 54 million people grappling with poverty and fledgling institutions, is seeing a political upheaval a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Feb. 1, the military took power from the civilian government, detaining leaders elected in parliamentary polls held last year, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. 

It was the start of yet another chapter in Myanmar’s tumultuous history, plunging the country back under military rule just 10 years since the people won democracy. 

The military established checkpoints in capital Naypityaw and main city Yangon, where Jane has been living since she arrived in Myanmar over a year ago. 

And so as soon as she got the news, she scrambled to get cash and supplies. 

“First instinct would be you need to go to the bank, get emergency money,” said Jane, who is experiencing a military takeover for the first time. Her home country is no stranger to political crises, but even in the Philippines, the 30-something had never lived through junta rule. 

Once she got some cash, Jane headed to get supplies, making sure she got what she needed before stores closed at 6 p.m. under shortened business hours. 

She also checked on her team- all Gen Z Burmese now confronting uncertainty and yet doing their share to make noise on social media against the junta.

“It was still different for my team. I was looking at their faces, parang [it was as if] someone had died,” said Jane of a video call she had with her team on the day of the coup. She has been circumventing military web blocks via VPN. 

Her colleague Anne, a Filipino who has been in Myanmar for 10 years now, shares the sentiment. She said she commiserates with the Burmese people, having been deprived, again, of the democracy they fought long and hard for. 

Anne, who also asked that her name be withheld for her protection, arrived in Myanmar when it was going through a democratic transition. 

“We saw the progression from military rule to becoming democratic with Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Anne. 

“Now, parang (it’s like) we’re going back to the past eh,” she said. 

Given the country’s restive history, she said, she knew that a military move was “not unlikely” to happen, but news of Monday’s coup “was still a huge shock.”

“After 10 years, balik na naman tayo (we’re back to this). Myanmar’s close to my heart, it’s welcomed me, it’s home to me already… I felt so sad for the people, they have to go through to this again,” she said. 

She said she had heard rumors as early as Thursday and Friday last week that something big might happen. Her boss told her not to worry, she said, but advised that she’d “better stock up.” It has long been routine, anyway, because of the COVID-19 crisis. 

So when indeed such a major event unfolded on Monday, Anne had her supplies ready. Still, she said, she was worried, mostly because of the disconnection. 

“[I was worried]… for my safety in the sense that, first thing, I’m disconnected. How do I tell my family back home because first thing is, my parents will worry,” said Anne of her family in the Philippines. 

Anne was also initially concerned that riots might flare up in the streets, but later felt “things are not gonna be as violent”— at least as of the time of this interview on Friday night. 

“I think we’re all walking on thin ice. Either ends. As a foreigner living here, we never know whether the military side is gonna do something, or it’s the citizens, the civilians. That’s what I feel, what’s this party gonna do? Kasi there’s a lot of suppressed emotions, naturally, right now. I don’t know if this is something they could really express just on social media,” Anne said. 

The military has been blacking out Internet connection in Myanmar to suppress dissent, as people opposing the junta has been doubling down on drumming up support on social media. Protests are also growing, with people holding noise barrages and taking to the streets. 

On Saturday, Myanmar saw its biggest anti-coup protest since the military takeover, with some 3,000 gathering near Yangon University, most holding up their hands in a three-finger salute as a symbol of resistance, Agence France-Presse reported. 

FILIPINOS CAN LEARN FROM THE BURMESE

Such courage of Myanmar’s young people has impressed both Jane and Anne, who noted that in the face of their fear for their future, the Burmese youth are intent at fighting the junta. 

Jane, who works with Anne in the marketing and advertising industry, noted the people’s unity in opposing military rule, as they worked around Internet blockages to air their sentiment. 

When the military banned Facebook, the main online arena in Myanmar, the people moved to Twitter.

“Everyone flocked to Twitter. They figured it’s the better way to reach out to the international community,” Jane said. 

“I just felt humbled. There’s so much on the line that everyone is there to rally, to fight for their democracy,” she said, noting that the resistance cuts across social classes. 

Anne observed how social media became a place to vent for a people who lost “something they just got”— democracy, that is. 

“Until when will you be able to suppress the feeling of the people who feel something was taken away from them? Something they just got? It’s like snatching something that’s been given to them for such a short time,” she said. 

She noted how social media platforms were still not around in previous upheavals in Myanmar. And now, young people are making full use of the Internet’s power to amplify their resistance and their global call for help. 

“I think and I hope that this will turn out for the better. This (social media) is a tool that they did not have in the past. I’m very proud, even the young people in my team, they’re using their voices to be heard,” Anne said. 

She said for many young Burmese, it was their first time to vote in 2020— votes effectively invalidated by the military takeover.

“Those people who are really voicing their thoughts, first time kasi nilang bumoto then biglang na-snatch their right to vote (it was their first time to vote then their votes were suddenly snatched away),” she said. 

Anne said Filipinos should express support for the Myanmar people, as the Philippines had gone through its own battles against military rule. Later this month, it would be 35 years since a peaceful uprising- the EDSA People Power revolution- dismantled martial law in the Philippines and ousted a dictator. 

“I think Filipinos can also learn from the Myanmar people. It’s a nation that has gone through so, so much, their leader Aung San Suu Kyi has gone through so much. How have they surpassed these trials as a nation undivided?” she said. 

“I think we have to be empathetic din eh, we’ve been through this also in the Philippines. This is something not new to us… And Myanmar, a nation that’s not really popular, they need to be heard.” 

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