By Madison Morgan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A hand outstretched, three fingers up and pointing toward the sky. In Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy, it’s a gesture symbolizing thanks, admiration, and goodbye. But in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, it’s become a symbol of protest.
On Feb. 1, elected leaders in Myanmar (also known as Burma) were deposed through a military-backed coup d’état. What should’ve been the country’s first parliamentary session of the year instead became the day Myanmar returned to military rule, a system of government the country had had from 1962 to 2011.
“When I first read that ‘Hunger Games’ series, I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, maybe [the author] wrote this about Burma,’” Pwint Htun, co-founder of Mobilizing Myanmar and a member of Seattle’s Burmese community, said. “There were so many parallels … that’s exactly what has happened in Burma over the last 60 years … and now people in Burma are using the ‘Hunger Games’ defiance symbol of the three-finger salute.”
Htun is one of an estimated 4,000 people from Myanmar living in Washington state, many of whom came to the United States as refugees, and are now using their platforms to advocate for a free Myanmar.
In the aftermath of Myanmar’s coup, police began arresting hundreds of democratically-elected members of parliament, removing State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint from office, detaining them with no access to outside communications.
“It is worse than the scariest dystopian movie,” Htun, also a non-residential fellow in Harvard’s Myanmar program, said during the Harvard Ash Center’s Feb. 19 panel “Myanmar After the Coup.”
At the same time as Myanmar’s government was being purged, communications in the country were disrupted, and everyday citizens became the enemy of the state.
“The first thing we had to do [was] teach them how they can get on VPN and how to get back online,” Htun said. “But the thing is, the military is closing that space, even more and more, so I feel like we’re doing the best that we can to counter that.”
Through her position at Mobilizing Myanmar, Htun works to connect people in Myanmar—especially low-income women, to the digital world. But with the military’s internet shutdown, years of her work within the country are being purposefully undone. And the atmosphere of fear and insecurity the new government has created, Htun said, has made her prepare for the worst regarding friends and family still in Myanmar.
“It’s not easy at all to contact them, but I stay in contact with them every single day just so that they also know I’m keeping an eye on them … Anytime I don’t see someone come online, I think the worst of, ‘Oh my gosh, have they been picked up [by the police]? Is it just the internet cut off, or are they picked up?’ … I mean that’s kind of how you live with this uncertainty,” she said.
The Burmese community in Seattle and King County, accounting for almost two-thirds of Washington state’s Burmese population, hopes to bring awareness to the free Myanmar campaign through civil disobedience movement events, such as Feb. 21’s anti-military protest at Westlake Park.
Involved in the planning of the Feb. 21 protest in Seattle was Nu Nu Nuam, the president of the Burma/Myanmar Student Association (B/MSA) at the University of Washington. Nuam was born in Myanmar, but fled the country as a refugee when she was in kindergarten—since then, she hasn’t returned.
“Hearing news constantly was very difficult for me,” Nuam said. “It made me tear up multiple times just hearing about it … We have international students in our team who come from Myanmar and their parents are back at home and they couldn’t communicate with them. They don’t know what’s happening … They don’t know what’s next.”
At first, only the UW B/MSA was involved in organizing the protest, Nuam said, but other Myanmar activism groups and ethnic communities reached out and offered their support—activist organizations like the 8888 Activists, Free Burma/Myanmar Seattle, and marginalized ethnic groups like the Karen, Kachin, and Rohingya communities. Another protest hosted by Free Burma/Myanmar Seattle was held at Westlake Park on Feb. 27.
But this world of fear Nuam mentioned is nothing new for members of the “88 Protest Generation,” such as Htun. Growing up in Myanmar, she was subject to the violence of the country’s 8888 Uprising, and her family was forced to flee to America in 1988 when her mother was caught treating demonstrators wounded by police—back then an arrestable offense
“At the time, our apartment was overlooking the area where the soldiers massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters … As a 14-year-old, at the time you see all these injustices and you feel powerless to change it,” Htun said of the experience.
Gim Lalramlian, like Htun, was also forced to leave Myanmar due to his involvement in a protest. After participating in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, he left Myanmar for Malaysia, coming to America in 2011, eventually relocating to Seattle.
Lalramlian said he feels a responsibility to use his platforms to share information regarding online campaigns for Myanmar, doing what he can for people in the country without a voice.
“There, they don’t even have the full right to social media platforms,” he said. “So living in America, here [and] now I have all this access, so I can freely talk and show my emotions about the military and everything, and I am able to share this with the whole world.”
During the Feb. 19 Harvard panel, Htun asked participants to imagine living in a country under siege. This hypothetical world, she said, her voice quavering with emotion, is the reality for over 54 million unarmed citizens living across Myanmar.
“Once people are telling you that these people exist and you just don’t pay attention or anything, it’s pretty much like not acknowledging other people’s existence,” Lalramlian said.
“So as a human being, that’s not very nice. We just want the whole world to recognize our existence and what is going on inside our country.”
For the demonstrators in Seattle, that existence was displayed through the color red, which was the unofficial dress code of the Feb. 21 event.
“So red, in general, it represents bravery, and love, and kindness,” Lalramlian said, adding that it was also the color of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s political party. According to Lalramlian, he and other Burmese in Seattle were trying to spread the truth—that the government, not Suu Kyi, were at fault for ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses toward minorities in Myanmar.
“There’s no way she can make changes overnight,” he said, referencing the 2016 Rohingya genocide that began in October, only six months after Suu Kyi was approved as State Counsellor. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi has faced criticism over her objectively lax attitude toward these abuses (domestically and internationally), and in 2019 appeared before the UN International Court of Justice for the genocides in a trial against the government of Myanmar.
“When we know the truth, what really happened, and who started the ethnic cleansing, and the whole world’s attacking our only hope, our mother Aung San Suu Kyi—let’s just say we’re the children, of course we got outraged and very angry, and we tried to protect her,” Lalramlian said.
However, organizing a protest amid a pandemic wasn’t easy. To protect demonstrators, organizers included safety guidelines in the protest agenda, including precautions such as getting tested for COVID-19 before and after the protest if possible.
“It was trying to navigate ‘How do we put this together in spite of COVID?’ … It was a conflicting thought,” Nuam said. “For me personally, it was that ‘We want to do something, we want to be a voice for the unheard who does not have that right, and also for family members back at home.’”
The snowy weather also posed problems for the protest, delaying it for a week until Feb. 21. The reason why Nuam decided to go forward with the protest, she said, was the resolve she saw within the Burmese community. Protestors as far away as Portland indicated that rain or shine, they would make the trip to Seattle to participate in the event.
“This isn’t just a fight for now, it’s a continuous fight that we want to continue fighting,” Nuam said.
She added that while the protest contained messages of anti-military and human rights condemnations, to her, its central meaning was even deeper.
“This is about fighting against any entity that decides to [say], ‘You know what, let’s treat people as if they’re not human. Let’s take their rights away,’” she said. “That’s what I want people to understand.”
Morgan can be reached at email@example.com.