The military coup in Myanmar has profoundly affected Australian Myanmar communities — from the young to the elders, many are suffering from anxiety, depression, anger, and emotional stress as they witness events unfold and try to keep in contact with friends and family still trapped in the country. According to 2016 census data, there are over 32,000 people born in Myanmar living in Australia, and many more among the second-generation who belong to the Myanmar diaspora.
Initially, the diaspora was apprehensive but quiet because they remained steadily informed about the tactics being used by Myanmar's military to intimidate, subdue, and attack civilians. Unlike the student uprising in 1988, the people are staying connected — thanks, in large part, to social media. Because of the high levels of connectivity among Myanmar's population, the military tactics deployed have not been as effective in consolidating the rule of this unelected military regime.
Little more than a month after the coup, with no sign of political progress and the ongoing detention of the democratically elected government, a new uprising initiated by the Gen-Z quickly spread across the country — from Myanmar's most populated cities to its rural corners, there continue to be daily protests staged against the coup. Thousands of workers, including health workers, public servants and others organised strikes and now face an uncertain future without jobs and income.
But now, the country has plunged into a full-fledged civil war. Renewed fighting has broken out between the civilian defence force and the military security apparatus in Chin state, Kachin state, Karenni (Kayah) state, and the Sagaing region. The civilian defence forces are determined to protect the people from brutal torture, arbitrary arrest, and the murder of innocent citizens across Myanmar.
With this outbreak of violence and seeing pictures of dead civilians, the fear among the Myanmar diaspora in Australia is palpable. Every day, they hear stories of people they know imprisoned, wounded or killed. Intermittently and without warning, communications in and out of the country are cut-off by the military, causing heightened levels of anxiety about what is going on inside. Then there are the reports of both communication and water supplies being cut off in Mindat in Chin state and the displacement of thousands of civilians. This leads to a pervasive fear over what the military junta might do next, what new level of violence and oppression to which they might descend.
We asked members of the Chin community in Australia how they felt about the events unfolding in their homeland. Many reported that they were experiencing a loss of appetite and weight loss. They also described some of the physical ramifications of the emotional stress and anxiety. Some described tensions within their families about the situation and what everyone should do about it; others worried about their productivity at work, and what this might mean for their already precarious jobs. One of the community leaders noted that the lack of Australian government response to the situation in Myanmar made him sick and he did not understand why other democratic nations were so muted in their condemnation of the junta and its unrestrained violence against its own civilians.
The lack of any substantive response on the part of the Australian government was a major concern for many Myanmar diaspora groups. Australia is clearly an outlier in this respect, as evidenced by their unwillingness to impose further sanctions — unlike the EU, the United States, Canada, and the UK. Foreign Minister Marise Payne simply observed before a Senate hearing that "no countries in Australia's region have taken such measures". This is puzzling to many observers, not least because sanctions were imposed following the 1990 coup and after a 2018 United Nations fact finding mission to Myanmar documented human rights abuses. Members of the diaspora are also disappointed by the lack of engagement by the government with them, as well as the lack of meaningful action to help their relations and friends.
Most people in Myanmar have largely given up hope of an outside intervention, and civilians have resorted to taking up homemade weapons to defend themselves against military take-over. The people of the Australian Myanmar diaspora sympathise with their struggle, but they feel their hands are tied. "We can only help them by donating some money to feed those running away from town and hiding in the jungles, to buy medical supplies and basic essentials for the use of children and women." In the diaspora many listen helplessly to anguished voices of their relatives. This helplessness is turning into hopelessness and despair.
For those from Chin state who live in Australia, it has been heart-breaking to watch the gains and development that took place in the region be destroyed. For decades, the military subjugated the Chin, seizing vast parcels of land, destroying Christian symbols, and forcing many to become porters, carrying heavy supplies across the mountains. The last 10 years saw real progress in Chin state with peace allowing investment to slowly trickle into this mountainous and impoverished state. The national civilian government included a Chin Vice President, Henry Van Thio, who made development in his home state a priority. Roads were upgraded and built; a new airport opened only last year, making the region more accessible. There was a sense of optimism for the future as some refugees began to return to Chin state and Sagaing region, spurring economic investment and building new lives in their homelands.
The recent return to fighting has had a devastating effect on Chin communities everywhere, including in Australia. Everyone has family, kin, and friends there and they know that some will have to sacrifice their lives in this fight. This is what is causing such anxiety and emotional trauma nights. The military coup has forced us all to struggle anew to find any hope for a future free from discrimination and persecution.
For now, the diaspora remains active in raising awareness, holding regular protests in major Australian cities, advocating our cause to Australian politicians, and raising funds for the thousands who have heroically taken strike action or have been displaced by the fighting. The role of the diaspora is crucial in finding a way out of the current impasse and diaspora engagement with their homelands is as important as the need for the Australian government to engage with the diaspora here and now.
Therefore, we call upon the Australian government:
to impose targeted sanctions on the military leaders who staged the Myanmar coup and members of the illegitimate cabinet;
to support the National Unity Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and civil society groups engaged in the defence of the constitutional order;
to engage with the diaspora to enhance mutual understanding of the situation in Myanmar and its effect on the Myanmar diaspora in Australia.
All of us can help keep this issue at the forefront of the government's and public's mind. In the absence of any material support from the international community so far, we appeal to everyone to attend rallies, voice your support for urgent action to your elected officials, and support the thousands of workers and public servants who continue to strike.
Simon Sang Hre is Executive Director of Australia Chin Communities Council.
Gerhard Hoffstaedter is Associate Professor in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland.