Two years after the military coup in Burma, a young laborer who joined the armed resistance mourns the loss of his leg in battle. A former diplomat has not seen his family for four years. A pageant winner adjusts to a new life in wintry Canada. And an exiled teacher dreams of returning to school.
The February 1, 2021 coup that overthrew the elected government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi left a trail of shattered lives.
Conflict monitoring group ACLED says around 19,000 people died last year when the regime’s crackdown on protests led many to take up arms against the military.
About 1.2 million people have been displaced to other parts of the country and more than 70,000 have fled Burma, according to the United Nations, which has accused the military of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Myanmar’s military says it is taking legal action against “terrorists”. He did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The stories of four people reflect the crisis that the UN says is having a “devastating impact” on the population.
The resistance fighter
Aye Chan heard the ra-ta-tah of gunfire and then an explosion.
“I didn’t know if I had been hit or not,” the 21-year-old told Reuters as he recalled the attack last year that left him without a leg.
When he tried to get up, his legs wouldn’t respond. A friend rushed him to a hospital, where he woke up with a leg amputated from the knee down.
Before the coup, Chan worked in an instant noodle factory. He was part of the huge crowd that took to the streets demanding democracy after the coup.
When protest groups took up arms, he joined them.
The first time on the front line, his heart was beating fast. “Then I looked around at my companions and they were laughing. I wasn’t scared,” he said.
If morale was high among the resistance, they were more than a well-equipped army.
“When they shoot, they shoot all the time, you can’t even raise your head,” he said. “We also need to save the bullets.”
Now, he spends most of his days sleeping, cooking and sharing food with friends. “I try to live my life as happily as possible,” he said, from a location Reuters could not share for security reasons. “I can’t do the things I used to do.”
Chan has no regrets about joining the resistance. “If I recover enough, I will go back to war. That’s it until the end.”
Aung Soe Moe, 52, was the first secretary of the Burmese embassy in Japan when the coup took place.
A month later, he joined hundreds of thousands of civil servants and government employees who resigned to join the civil disobedience movement, which aimed to undermine the military’s ability to govern.
His wife and daughter, who were unable to leave Burma after the Covid-19 pandemic, encouraged him to speak out. They later fled across the border to Thailand, where many Burmese sought refuge, but where they were blocked without documents. I haven’t seen them since 2019.
Alone in Tokyo, he had to leave his three-bedroom apartment in the embassy compound. And with no source of income, other Burmese living in Japan offered to pay for accommodation on a small floor and cover basic expenses.
The Japanese government has extended Aung Soe Moe’s diplomatic visa so he can remain in Tokyo, but he cannot work and the visa expires in July. Japan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on his future status.
“I suffered a lot, but there is nothing worse than losing the future of the Burmese people,” he told Reuters.
A few days a week, Soe Moe volunteers with administrative tasks such as writing social media posts for Burma’s government of national unity, a political “shadow government” created after the coup.
But Soe Moe fears that the world will forget Burma, especially after the war in Ukraine.
“But the Burmese people have not given up on the truth,” he said. “We will never give up!”
The pageant queen
When the military took over, Han Lay, 23, was a model and about to enter a beauty pageant in Thailand. Last night, he couldn’t sleep because of excitement and worry.
On stage, he fought back tears when he spoke of military violence on a day when more than 140 protesters were killed. The clip went viral.
In Burma, he was charged with sedition. She was detained at a Bangkok airport, where she stayed for several days, appealing on social media not to send her back to Burma.
He ended up flying to Canada and living in London, Ontario with a Burmese-Canadian family, refugees from the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was also crushed by the military.
When she arrived in Canada she felt alone, but she is getting used to it. “I was born in Burma and my family, my friends, my future, everything is in Burma… I didn’t get a chance to meet them. I miss them every day.”
A teacher has been living in a town on the border with Thailand since she fled to avoid arrest in Burma last year.
A petite woman with long black hair joined the civil disobedience movement that emerged after the coup. She asked not to be identified by name, fearing reprisals from the military.
“I knew my life would be difficult if I joined the civil disobedience movement,” he said. “But if we don’t rebel, it won’t be good for our future.”
She participated in the protests wearing her green and white teacher’s uniform and fled the country when the crackdown began.
Like many refugees in Thailand, he is undocumented and lives in fear of arrest.
She supports herself by selling clothes and crocheted bags, which bring in less than $10 a week, and food donations from the political shadow government.
“I will be a political disobedient to the end,” he says. “A man must go through good times and bad.”
His uniform is safe in Burma, in order, he says, if he returns.