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“My Country Needs Help”: UCalgary student speaks out about the Conflict in Myanmar

By Krishna Shetye, May 7 2021—

Since Feb. 1, 2021, the country of Myanmar has been plagued by violence and chaos after its military staged a coup d’état and removed the democratically elected National League for Democracy Party from power. This included the arrest of the party leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi.

International reactions have been mixed in reaction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest in particular, due to her lack of response during the Rohingya Genocide. The minority Muslim population in Myanmar had to flee persecution from strong and violent military forces. Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused of enabling the genocide by refusing to condemn the military and later defending them before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This same military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, believed the November 2020 election results to be invalid despite protest from its people and has declared a year-long state of emergency until another election is held. This demand from the military was justified by alleged voter fraud, although no evidence has been offered to support such claims. 

The coup resulted in widespread pro-democracy protests across the country that have escalated into violent confrontations between protestors and the military. Over 550 protestors have been killed and thousands have been detained, many of whom are young, unarmed citizens. 

 In an interview with the Gauntlet, Leslie Han, a second-year student at the University of Calgary and member of the Calgary Burmese community, spoke about her family’s frustrations which reflect that of the protestors in Myanmar, who are fighting to protect their short-lived democracy. 

“Democracy had only been in Myanmar for five years. The military had control of the constitution and 25 per cent of the seats in parliament,” said Han. “They were not elected but appointed by the general, Min Aung Hlaing. He is the man who is orchestrating all of this. The people’s blood is on his hands.”

The situation in Myanmar has become a global concern, with refugees from previous conflicts in the country angered and horrified at the bloodshed in their home country.

“The European Union, England, Canada, the US, Australia, Japan, Thailand and South Korea have asked for the release of the detained leaders and protesters immediately and the restoration of the democratic party in government. There have been sanctions from the US and Canada,” said Han.

“My father was the first to be aware of the coup. His friends from Myanmar who are residing all over the world were recently back in contact and they called him letting him know what happened,” Han continued. “My grandma, who is in Calgary, called my mom. The first reaction we all had was anger.” 

Han’s father was among the protestors over 33 years ago in Myanmar during a student uprising in 1988 against the military, forcing him to sacrifice his university degree. This event, known as the 8888 Nationwide Popular Pro-Democracy Protests, was in response to increasing economic strain caused by government actions and corruption and similarly resulted in a violent military coup.

“Those who fought in 1988 went to other countries as refugees and most of my family friends protested as well,” said Han.

Today, Han’s family has engaged in protests both abroad, in Canada and in Myanmar. 

“There have been protests in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Saskatoon. My family attended Edmonton’s and Calgary’s. There have also been online protests on Facebook,” said Han, speaking on Canadian involvement in the protests. 

Despite the dangers, Han has family actively engaging in demonstrations in Myanmar. 

“One of my cousins is on the frontline protesting every day. My other cousin is a student at [the University of Calgary]. He is in his apartment in Myanmar — where the protests are mainly and there are shootings happening on his street,” said Han. 

From communications with her family in the thick of the conflict in Myanmar, Han and her family have received horrific reports of violence and human rights violations. 

“The military government has taken everything from the people of Myanmar. They have taken peaceful protestors to prison and people are being abused, mentally, physically and sexually. There are snipers hidden in the city waiting to shoot people. People are supposed to be getting their COVID vaccines and now the people in the military have taken all of them,” said Han.

Offering advice on how students can help, Han highlighted the importance of spreading awareness. 

“The best way for other students to get involved is to continue spreading the word online. Many people don’t know about our small country and its fight for democracy. The more attention and awareness we bring to this coup, the better,” she said. 

Han and her family are among thousands of Burmese-Canadians who are fearful for their friend’s and family’s lives, as well as the wellbeing of their country. 

Han concluded the interview with a plea: “Myanmar is said to be 10 years behind the real world. This is putting the country back 50 [years]. The military has declared that they would be in power for a year but if we cannot get control back, that year will become decades. My country needs help.”

For more information on the conflict in Myanmar and how to help, check out petition e-3213 and e-3158 introduced to the House of Commons. You can also learn more from resources posted here and you can donate to Mutual Aid Myanmar here.

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