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Stories of Myanmar people told via objects

Members of the Myanmar diaspora in S’pore share personal items that mean a lot to them

This photo essay is a look at the stories of the 200,000-strong Myanmar diaspora in Singapore through their personal items from Myanmar.

Through these objects, The Straits Times brings attention to what brought these people to Singapore, their thoughts on the political upheaval in Myanmar and their hopes for their country.

Some of the people featured here have chosen to use pseudonyms instead of their real names.

The military, also known as the Tatmadaw, overthrew Myanmar’s elected government in a coup on Feb 1. It was met with widespread mass protests. On Feb 9, the Tatmadaw fired for the first time on protesters.

As at Saturday, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) has reported over 971 civilian deaths. Thousands have also been detained and imprisoned.

Daily protests, abductions, torture and murders are still occurring across the country. Areas of unrest have emerged as the country’s multiple ethnic armed organisations and People’s Defence Force engage in battle with the Tatmadaw, leaving many from the ethnic communities homeless.

Cash is in short supply and bombings are still occurring. Like in every other country, the people of Myanmar are also battling Covid-19 – except with a barely functioning healthcare system.

Shouldering the emotional and mental toll of the critical situation back home, the Myanmar people here carry on with their daily lives.


PAPIER MACHE DOLLS: Symbol of protest against coup

PHOO MYET CHE, 22
Student 
Singapore permanent resident

I came here with my parents and brother after the Saffron Revolution in 2008. The country wasn’t stable and my parents wanted a better education for us.

I was shocked when the coup happened. I called my aunt who lives alone. I got so worried. I knew it was going to get bad, because the Tatmadaw is not a group of people who hold back. My dad went through two revolutions. He witnessed what they would do to retain power. They are very cunning and tactical.

I can’t imagine how people in Myanmar are coping. But I’m also inspired by their courage and resilience. They are still finding their own ways to protest and to resist.

I wish there is more international recognition for the National Unity Government. I hope there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s very nice to see the younger generation of the majority Bamar people recognising that there are also ethnic minorities we tend to overlook.

I also hope that Singaporeans can be more understanding towards the Myanmar diaspora during this difficult time.

Every Myanmar person I know has a family member who tested positive for Covid-19 and died. It’s a case of getting oxygen supply quickly, of knowing people, having connections and money to get medical equipment.

When the coup is over, I want to return to Myanmar and help out with the skills I have acquired here.

CHOSEN OBJECT

Pyit Taing Htaung – a papier mache doll that comes in pairs and is hung in Burmese houses to bring good luck. The doll bounces back when it is pushed down. To me it symbolises the protest and the resistance of the Myanmar people against the coup.


PRAYER BEADS: Praying for our leaders’ safety and for our people to win

THERESA KHIN, 55
Sole proprietor
Singapore citizen

I came to visit my husband in Singapore in 1994 – I missed him after he left.

My mother told me: “You struggle in the new country and don’t look back. Family life is important.” So I stayed on. My children and I have good opportunities here.

I first heard about the coup from a friend. I was shocked and didn’t believe it.

According to international law, we had to wait 72 hours to see what happens. No one went out. After three days, the protests started.

I was very unhappy and sad to see the military capturing and killing the Generation Z protesters. I keep an album of dead protesters in my phone.

Every day when I am eating good food, I think about the People’s Defence Force and how they are suffering. I dreamt about soldiers coming to catch me or robbing me in my dreams.

If I have the opportunity, I will return to protect the country. I don’t care about my life. Our children are adults now. Some children as young as seven in Myanmar have died in the coup. Some children’s family members are also missing.

My friend, a videographer who came to Singapore occasionally for work, died at a protest. Tear gas entered his eyes and he hit a wall. He lost a lot of blood but could not be sent to hospital because he would have been arrested.

In Kayah state, they used rocket-propelled grenades on the people. My friend’s brother died. I saw the bloody images on Facebook.

Now there is Covid-19, people are helping one another, but the military is capturing the volunteers. My brother and cousin have Covid-19, but cannot go to the hospital.

Our own pocket is not strong enough to support all the various needs. We need an honest and fair negotiator. Otherwise, with a civil war, a lot of people will die and properties will be destroyed.

CHOSEN OBJECT

Prayer beads from Myanmar. Every day I cook special food and pray to Buddha – and Jesus, because some of our leaders are Christians. I pray for their safety and for our people to win.


PHOTO OF PARENTS: The people most important to me

THURA, 38
Facility engineer
Employment pass holder

I am a graduate but I couldn’t find a job so I came to Singapore in 2007.

I found out about the coup in the morning when I was making coffee, and confirmed it with friends in Myanmar through Messenger.

I felt really down and was in no mood for anything. Even though I am staying here, my future plans are in Myanmar. We enjoyed democracy for five years and I was expecting the next five years to be even better. I was hoping to start my own trading business after my 40s, to take care of my parents. There were a lot of opportunities.

I have no words to describe how I feel. The protests, the shootings and the killings – people got shot even though they were at home. A lot of my friends went to the protests – they did not commit any crimes but are in jail. I worry about them. I am staying here, far away from bullets – there is nothing much I can say. Am I frustrated, angry, sad? All the emotions come together.

I call my family every day to remind them not to go out, not to let people into their house, and to disinfect everything.

You can say I am dreaming, but I hope we get our elected government back.

My second hope is more important, for people to be safe from the virus. If the Tatmadaw can supply oxygen, they can stop the gathering of people, but they are closing down oxygen factories and have ordered the factories not to supply oxygen to the public.

Instead of crying, I am thinking about what can be done for the people.

CHOSEN OBJECT

A photo in my mobile phone of my parents, because they are most important to me. (Photos have been edited to protect identities, in a style used by Myanmar citizens who post photos on Instagram.)


WOMEN’S SARONG: A tribute to brave women protesters

HAZIN, 30
Business owner
Singapore citizen

I came here when I was three, with my family.

My family were shocked and upset when we first heard the news. Up till today, we have been keeping up to date with the news. We raised personal funds to help supply gas masks to impoverished townships.

I have also helped to translate news and letters for coverage in English. I am quite disheartened right now. The Internet cuts and raiding of news outlets have resulted in less coverage in the international community.

I really hope our people will triumph and that justice will prevail.

CHOSEN OBJECT

Htamein, a traditional Burmese sarong that is worn by women. I choose this because of the strong presence of females during this period. They have bravely taken to the streets in Myanmar and participated in the protests. Many of them have been arrested and face the danger of torture and sexual abuse in captivity.


PHOTO OF MY VILLAGE: Showing the damage the military did

SHEW NYAR, 37
Sales manager (second-hand goods)
Work permit holder

I came to Singapore in 2015 to earn money for my family.

I was working when I read about the coup on Facebook. I was so sad. I want democracy. I don’t want a military coup. There is no freedom. They use their power every day, they use armed forces, they use guns. There is torture and robbery. Two months ago, they came to our village and destroyed two houses. Everyone ran into the forest.

I worry about my family and call them every night. My mother sometimes cries.

The city is now open again. I can send money back and my family can receive it. I can provide only monetary support to the people in Myanmar.

I hope there is democracy, the military gives up their power and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returns.

CHOSEN OBJECT

I didn’t bring anything special when I came to work in Singapore, but I want to show a photo of my village and the damage the military did to it.


BOOK ON BUDDHISM: Sharing teachings with kids and crew

AW, 63
Part-time ship captain 
Permanent resident

I came here in 2003, when I was 45, for the opportunities and stability for my family.

I read about the news back home from a friend on Facebook at around 7am when I was working on the ship. I was surprised, but it wasn’t unexpected because, although Myanmar had a more civilian government in the last five years, military men were in it.

We suspected a coup one to two months before it happened, but we didn’t believe it could happen. We had hoped that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could handle the situation.

I am both angry and sad. More than 90 per cent of the Myanmar people don’t like this.

The Tatmadaw is selfish and doesn’t do any good to the country. I have known the group since 1962, when I was five years old.

We understand that Myanmar has a lot of potential, whether in terms of people or natural resources. Our people are not so dull – we can learn and improve ourselves. But the system and our leaders? I don’t know what to say.

Myanmar has a long history, many of our people are not united – this is a problem. I hope we can forget our differences and be united. I pray, hope and trust that one day, we can triumph over the current system.

I pray seriously for God’s help. I am Buddhist, but I respect other religions. I am praying to all the gods.

CHOSEN OBJECT

A book on the essence of Buddhist teachings. I have had this book since I started sailing in my 20s. It contains verses teaching us to respect our parents and teachers, and to keep the company of good people, among other things. I share what I learn from the book with my children and my crew.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2021, with the headline 'Stories of Myanmar people told via objects'. Subscribe