Myanmar’s ‘Army’ of Overseas Workers Join Fight Against Junta

By Shwe Zin 21 January 2022

“The youth are sacrificing their lives in the frontline fighting against the military junta, so those of us living in safety in our homes must contribute in terms of cash support. It’s not much to ask,” said Ma Sabel, a pseudonym for a Myanmar migrant in Thailand.

Ma Sabel, a shop assistant in her early 40s, is one of millions of migrants living overseas who want to see the Myanmar military junta fall and the dictatorship rooted out.

But her income? Recently it has been a mere 4,500 Thai baht (about US$136) a month, as work has been irregular during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she donates at least one-third of her monthly income to those in need in Myanmar, be they striking civil servants or People’s Defense Force units, or to fundraisers for the parallel civilian National Unity Government. She buys fundraising lottery and raffle tickets whenever the NUG or others sell them.

Like her, there are tens of thousands of Myanmar migrants across Thailand who voluntarily contribute to Myanmar’s democracy movement, known locally as the Spring Revolution against the junta. Every month they typically donate 200-1,500 baht from their salaries, which vary from 6,000 to 10,000 baht.

“We share as we want the turmoil in our country to end quickly, and want to see our country peaceful,” echoed U Lwin, a factory worker in Bangkok.

He has also initiated a community charity, sending the money raised to those on the frontlines. Their support is used for everything from food and basic items for internally displaced people (IDPs) to buying arms for the PDFs.

“I have seen that many of our people in Thailand are very active and united in support of our young Generation Z and the CDM,” he said, referring the Civil Disobedience Movement of civil servants who have gone on strike and are refusing to work for the regime.

Internally displaced families from Karen State’s Palu Village live in makeshift huts on the Moei River bank in early January 2022. / The Irrawaddy

In Thailand’s Mae Sot, a town on the border with Myanmar, migrants only keep enough to pay for their rent and food and donate the rest. With their incomes already unsteady amid the pandemic, they are simply eating fewer meals, added Ko Zaw, a pseudonym for a relief worker who also helps with donations.

In Thailand, an estimated 3 to 4 million Myanmar migrants work in various sectors, the majority of them undocumented. Before the coup, the remittances they sent home contributed hugely to the Myanmar economy.

Since the coup, those remittances have been directed to Myanmar’s democracy movement, making an extraordinarily significant contribution.

Most of them are ordinary civilians; neither well-to-do nor famous, they play their part in the struggle to overthrow the military dictatorship in whatever way they can, from providing cash donations and materials to participating in digital strikes.

Dozens of migrants and relief workers whom The Irrawaddy talked to shared that they want the democracy movement to succeed, the coup leaders to fall and Myanmar to be freed from the turmoil caused by the Feb. 1 military coup.

All they want, they said, is for power to be restored to the civilian government, the detained civilian leaders freed and the junta’s atrocities to cease. But they are concerned that insufficient resources—particularly a shortage of firepower on the part of the PDFs—and a lack of international action will see the struggle drag on for decades.

“We have seen their [the junta’s] atrocities, killings and burning of villages with our own eyes. It isn’t like in 1988 [when Myanmar saw a nationwide uprising against the coup of that year] this time. Then, pro-democracy protesters faced similar brutal crackdowns. Why aren’t the international [community] and human rights advocates helping?” said Ko Thar Kyaw, a migrant based in Ranong, in the south of Thailand.

A woman who asked that her identity be withheld for security reasons said straightforwardly that arming the PDFs is the fastest way “to annihilate the junta troops.” “Right now, we are hearing about the loss of life among resistance forces, and civilians are being attacked and killed. It is because our people’s frontline fighters do not have enough weapons,” she said.

Her thinking reflects that of many Myanmar people, not only in Thailand, but also inside the country and in other countries, who are driven by anger at the coup leaders who turned the country upside down on Feb. 1.

Between Feb. 1, 2021 and Jan. 20, 2022, the Myanmar junta killed 1,488 innocent civilians, arrested 11,651 and sentenced 635 people to prison for opposing it, according to monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. According to the UNHCR, as of early January more than 377,000 people had been internally displaced by the junta’s lethal crackdowns, including air and artillery attacks.

Immediate need

Crossing the Moei River, which marks the international border, Myanmar IDPs in Karen State fetch food boxes, drinking water and other essentials donated by well-wishers in Thailand in early January 2022. / The Irrawaddy

While they are concerned about the larger pro-democracy struggle, many of them are currently focused on providing immediate assistance to those in need along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

In Thailand’s Mae Kon Ken Village close to the border with Myanmar, a small two-story wooden house has been bustling with volunteer cooks every day since fighting broke out more than a month ago between the Myanmar military regime and Karen National Liberation Army troops in nearby Karen State’s Myawaddy Township. Mae Ko Ken is in Tak province’s Phop Phra district, next to Mae Sot.

“We come here every day, and whenever needed, to cook for the refugees. It’s the least we can do,” Ma Moe, a Myanmar migrant in her late 30, said in January.

The seasonal agricultural worker was among a number of volunteers spoken to by the author who have given their time to help the war-displaced. She and dozens of others routinely gather at the house of their chief volunteer, U Soe Paing.

U Soe Paing, also a farm worker, and his friends have been providing daily lunch and dinner for the war-displaced in Myawaddy’s Lay Kay Kaw new town, Palu and surrounding villages since Dec. 14.

For the first few days in mid-December, about 50 friends from U Soe Paing’s neighborhood cooked and sent food boxes to thousands of scattered displaced people on the border, paid for out of their own pockets.

Later, support from well-wishers in other areas arrived, enabling them to continue their relief effort. They cook 2,000-3,000 meals twice a day—for lunch and dinner—for the IDPs stranded on the Myanmar side of the Moei River, which marks the international water boundary.

Myanmar migrant volunteers in Mae Kon Ken, in Thailand’s Phop Phrap district, prepare vegetables for food boxes to donate to war-displaced people on the Thailand-Myanmar border. / The Irrawaddy

In mid-January, junta air raids in the Palu area injured civilians and caused displaced villagers to flee again, leaving them without food and shelter.

“It was heartbreaking to see the helicopter gunships flying around near the border and firing at the civilians. How could they attack civilians?” said U Soe Paing, his voice cracking. Everyone in his community witnessed the airstrikes and has heard the sound of artillery fire day and night since last month.

In normal years, after harvesting crops, U Soe Paing sells corn and earns a reasonable amount of income. At the moment, he is devoting all of his time to volunteer work. As long as the IDPs are there, he and the others will continue to donate, he told the author.

Migrants working in local plantations earn some 150 baht per day, less than Thailand’s official minimum wage, but still donate at least 100 baht of it to support the refugees or striking civil servants.

“When we were collecting donations last year, we were overjoyed at their attitude and contributions to our people in need. Even if it is not a huge amount of money—50 baht, 100 baht or 1,000 baht, depending on what they can afford—we share what we can,” U Soe Paing said.

Ko Thar Kyaw also gives whatever portion of his income he can spare to support IDPs in Myanmar.

He said thousands of other migrants in his community continue to contribute their hard-earned money, as “We don’t accept the military regime or acknowledge them.”

A well-known volunteer in Ranong, Ko Thar Kyaw was at the forefront in helping out other migrants until a year ago. He stopped working with the new, junta-appointed labor attache and said his cooperation “will only resume once the civilian government is restored to power.”

While contributing as much as they can, they all keep the faith that the resistance against the junta will soon succeed, pointing out that opposition to the junta by Myanmar people at home and abroad is still strong and has maintained its momentum.

One year on, Myanmar’s pro-democracy supporters still oppose the junta in many ways, including holding daily street protests, continuing to boycott military-produced goods, refusing to pay taxes or work for the regime, and mounting armed resistance.

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