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Burmese communities across Michigan protest military coup in Myanmar

Burmese communities of West Michigan gather to protest military coup in Myanmar
Kylie Ambu

Tens of thousands of demonstrators continue to take to the streets across Myanmar to protest the military coup of the government there last week — despite the military declaring martial law in cities across the country and banning public gatherings larger than five people at once. But as the aftermath continues to unfold, people in the U.S. with deep ties to the Southeast Asian country can only watch and wait.

Protests have sprung up, advocating for democracy and freedom, including one in Grand Rapids last Friday which brought around 200 Burmese community members from across the state.

"Fear of the unknown of what can possible go wrong, the least we could do right now is show our support and stand in solidarity," said one of the protest organizers Ruby Tiancer.

Tensions have escalated between demonstrators and security forces following the Myanmar military's take over of the civilian government on Feb. 1, citing fraud in the country's November general elections. Since taking power and detaining ruling party leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has cut off the Internet twice and blocked various social media platforms for four days. Those moves effectively eliminated communication between the Myanmar diaspora and their friends and family. 

"Most of us still have parents, grandparents aunts uncles and relatives who are still living in Myanmar and when they lost contact for a couple of days, it put us all in the dark," Tancier said.

Burmese communities of West Michigan gather to protest military coup in Myanmar
Credit Kylie Ambu

Tancier and the crowd of protesters gathered at Calder Plaza to voice their opinions, where they brought signs that read "Free Myanmar" and "Myanmar want democracy" among other phrases. Min Tun, another protest organizer and owner of Amazing Myanmar Asian Cusine in Grand Rapids, said the gathering was about Burmese communities everywhere making noise for the world to hear.

"Where is the right and where is the wrong? Because of our protest American people will know what’s going on in Burma, and we can spread the information to the world," Tun said.

While the 2010 Census puts the number of Americans of Burmese descent at some 100,000, more recent surveys put the number higher. The largest communities can be found in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas-Fort Worth and New York City.

Aung Min Naing, who wrote a report for the U.S. Census on his community, sees the migration of Myanmar immigrants into the U.S. in three phases.

The first wave came after the 1968 military coup, which ushered in one-party rule and more than a decade of martial law. The second wave, he says, arrived after the 1988 student uprising and subsequent military coup, during which thousands of protesters and soldiers are thought to have perished though official numbers will likely never be known.

A flood of refugees entering the U.S. from Myanmar starting about a decade ago makes up the third wave. Refugees fled to refugee camps near the border Myanmar-Thailand border to escape the unrest in 1988, Aung Min Naing says.

Parents and kids had to wait 10 or more years to be resettled and they really started coming over to the U.S. in 2005 and 2007, Aung Min Naing says. Between 2008 and 2017, roughly one in four U.S.-bound refugees came from Myanmar, reports PRI's The World, citing Department of State data.

Aung Min Naing himself left Myanmar after 1988. He says during the unrest that year the military junta brought in troops from the borderlands into the cities to quell the massive demonstrations.

"They have no sympathy for people, they just shoot, right?" Aung Min Naing says. "Right now we see the police are cooperating but if they're going to start using the playbook like from back in 1988, it's going to get bad."

While he hopes history does not repeat itself in 2021, Aung Min Naing also knows there's little he and others in the U.S. can do other than continue to bring awareness to the situation on the ground in Myanmar.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
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