Myanmar's misery has energised a new generation in the diaspora

Demonstrators gather during the protest "Global Protest Revolution Day for Myanmar," at Raspberry Island in the Mississippi River, on March 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - A daily diet of depressing news, pictures and video footage emerging from the military's crackdown after the Feb 1 coup d'etat has energised a new young generation in Myanmar's diverse diaspora.

Many in the diaspora, in some cases born abroad, have not been particularly political up to now.

But the coup and subsequent events - over 500 civilians, some children, have been killed under the military's brutal crackdown - abruptly changed that.

Myanmar's history has, in effect, come back to afflict a new generation.

And one of the legacies of army commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing's coup may be something new in Myanmar's recent history - unity among ethnic minorities.

Because it is so diverse and drawn from many ethnic identities, the diaspora is difficult to quantify. But according to Pew Research, in 2015 there were roughly 175,000 people of Myanmar origin in the United States.

Like many in the diaspora whose parents or even grandparents fled Myanmar's wars and dictatorships, 21-year-old student Jan Jan, a Kachin American, was born in the US. In 2018 she had an epiphany when she saw a documentary film featuring her people, who have been at war with the Myanmar military for decades.

Feb 1 catalysed her activism. Jan Jan (who did not want her full name used) co-founded the Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy (GM4MD), a platform designed to bring various diaspora groups and their skill sets together.

Suddenly the stories she had heard from elders, and that she was born in the US, made sense: "Everything is so interconnected. Burma's history, and my life.

"Understanding those links is so important, because if you don't, why are you even here."

The answers go to the roots of the issue - conflict, dictatorship and poverty in Myanmar.

Jan Jan has had an identity crisis her whole life: "Am I Kachin, am I American, it's always a tug of war, an internal struggle.

"How to relate my own struggle to the situation back home is so important. When you see the bigger picture, everything makes so much sense."

Many in the younger generation want to move beyond ethnic divisions. Solidarity across ethnic groups is notoriously fleeting on the ground in Myanmar but implicit in GM4MD.

A common refrain in the two months since the coup is that young Burmese now better understand what minorities - like the Muslim Rohingya, subjected to repeated pogroms by the military - have been going through.

And the young activists are also looking beyond State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi - again detained by the junta, which calls itself the State Administrative Council (SAC).

"What we are fighting for is a future for Myanmar that is non-discriminatory, anti-racist, and inclusive of all ethnic organisations" US-based student Sandra, a co-founder of GM4MD who did not want her full name to be used, told The Straits Times.

Sandra said: "It's not about the military and Myanmar, it's about ethnic groups. The military has... for decades capitalised on the divisions and exacerbated them.

"When organisations join our network that's what we all agree on. Among youth of Myanmar descent a lot are from ethnic groups and feel there should be unity; we are seeing this more so than ever."

The activists drawn to GM4MD range in age from high school students to young professionals, but there are older mentors as well. "It's not a youth network, but it's definitely youth-led," Sandra said.

Ms Pwint Htun, Non-Residential Myanmar Program Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation, said: "A lot of the young diaspora are from ethnic communities. There's the Chin community that usually circulate amongst themselves. There's the Kachin community, Karen community, Kayah community.

"But the common thread, the reason why they all became refugees, was the military."

The resistance from young people in Myanmar - where half the population is below 30 - as well as this young diaspora, comes from the realisation that "if we don't overthrow these guys now, we are done", Ms Htun said, herself in her mid 40s.

"There is no chance in the future to overthrow them. This is like now or never. This is why people are not giving up.

"For the younger population and people inside the country, this is neither about (Tatmadaw Commander in Chief General Min Aung Hlaing) nor Aung San Suu Kyi. This is about a completely different future that they want.

"And the fear of going back to the dark days is a much, much bigger fear than even dying."

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