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"May our country be our own": An open letter from Myanmar

On 1 February 2021, the military in Myanmar staged a coup. Claiming widespread electoral fraud in last November’s elections — allegations that were rejected by the election commission in late January — they detained Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, and other democratically elected leaders, and declared a state of emergency that will last for a year. Power has been “handed over” to (or, more accurately, seized by) the military’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing.

In cities like Yangon and Naypyidaw, people have been protesting in the streets, rejecting the coup. They’ve also been showing their displeasure by banging pots and pans, or honking car horns, every night.

I received an open letter written by a young person in Myanmar, with a message they would like to get out to the world. For security reasons, this letter has been kept anonymous. Feel free to share it and forward this email on to others.

Dear Reader,

I was born in 1994, under the shadow of the previous military regime. It was a time when a picture of General Than Shwe would hang in the offices of every business, ministry, school, and hospital, much like an unholy saint.

My father, who was born in 1961, also grew up under this same shadow; his saint was General Ne Win. For those of us who have grown up living under the watchful eyes of the Tatmadaw [the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces], we know life is unfair, we know it is unpredictable, we know what is taken from us was never ours to begin with, and understood to leave some things as unfortunate events and not pick at the issue — just or unjust. These ideals have been passed on from generation to generation as simply the way life was.

My father and I have been lucky to vote a total of two times in our lives. My grandmother, who is currently 98, has been fortunate to vote twice, too. With the two votes we cast in 2015 and 2020, we did not forget those who have died for the cause of democracy, those who have sacrificed everything, including their families.

I remember the day that they took down General Than Shwe’s photo from my father’s office. No one had the nerve to do it at first; it seemed ungodly, cursed to even think of removing it. But day by day that fear faded, and the glare behind his gold frame glasses did not burn so deeply. The photo was removed, but kept in the backroom, just in case.

Before 2015 we had survived, but not yet lived.

In the early years of the democratic transition, there were shadows of doubt, but what lingered more heavily was the fear we had grown accustomed living with. The fear to speak, the fear to act, the fear to want more than we were allowed.

But the more freedoms we were allowed, the more we believed, the more we dared to hope that all people would have equality in society, access to better healthcare, opportunities to make a living, and the dignity to live the life we chose.

Our democracy is not perfect, it is fragile as any democracy is — there have been injustices, untruths, and unfulfilled promises, for which there are no excuses to be made. But I write to you as someone who comes from a people who have been broken down generation to generation — who has learned to live in fear for nearly four generations.

A democracy, mighty or meagre, is an opportunity to live free from oppression, not for some, but for all.

I will not call on you to condemn the injustices unleashed on us on the 1st of February. I will not request for you to post on social media on behalf of Myanmar citizens. However, I will ask you to defend the democracy of your country and every country around the world, for tyranny needs no companions. Our friends in Thailand, Hong Kong, India, and Taiwan are all fighting for an opportunity to live a life of dignity. There is no higher honour than fighting for your rights and the rights of others.

When you hear our stories, take heed, and remember the fragility of life under a fair and democratic system. We, too, wake up in the morning. We, too, work to feed our families. We, too, have felt the light of freedom in our lives.

Secondly, I ask the United Nations, the World Bank and world leaders to not legitimise General Min Aung Hlaing and his pseudo government. The man with a stick, the man with a gun, the man with his finger on the trigger is not a man with the best intentions of the people in mind.

The people of Myanmar will do all we can with our personal agency. We will boycott him, we will keep our money out of military businesses, we will drum our pots and pans every night, we will remember those who legitimised him despite our suffering. Legitimising the General and his acts of tyranny delegitimises the votes cast in November of 2020.

Let our votes be counted as they were given, let our vote speak our will.

I write this letter knowing the very real repercussions I and my family may face. I will end this letter with the wishes of our people:

May all people of Myanmar break free from this cycle of oppression.

May we live with basic human rights and dignity.

May all our votes be respected.

May no one have to flee their country for fear of violence.

May all communities heal from the atrocities that have been afflicted on us by the military.

May all children be free to remember those who have fought to uphold our democracy and those who have fought for our independence.

May our generation be the last to suffer under this military.

May our country be our own.

May the military regime fall.

If you’re looking for journalists and sources to follow to find out what is happening in Myanmar, here are some people and outlets:

Frontier Myanmar produces amazing work. Follow them on Twitter, but more importantly, become a member to keep them going.

Then there’s the unstoppable Cape Diamond. You can follow him on Twitter, or on his Telegram channel.

Andrew Nachemson, who I worked with during my New Naratif days when he was based in Phnom Penh, is now in Yangon. Follow him on Twitter.