Myanmar coup felt in Canada

Burmese-Canadians want their government to respond in helping democracy in Myanmar

By: Matias Brunet-Kirk

Large-scale protests have swept across Myanmar since the democratically elected government of Nobel Peace Laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) were overthrown on Feb. 1 in a military coup.

Ms. Suu Kyi, along with other NLD officials, were detained and put under house arrest.

The military claims that the recent 2020 election, which delivered a landslide for the NLD, was fraudulent, promising instead to hold elections after a one-year state of emergency.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets while many professionals and civil servants have gone on strike, paralyzing many government functions.

The military regime has violently cracked down on the protests, stationing armoured vehicles in the streets of major cities and firing on protestors. It has also imposed a curfew, banned gatherings and given itself broad powers to search and detain people.

Discontent not just in Burma

James Mong, originally from Burma, is one of the roughly 4500 Burmese-Canadians watching the situation unfold from afar.

Mong immigrated to Canada in 1988 and now lives in Canada. First involved in politics as a student at Rangoon University in the early 70s, Mong still feels it is his civic duty to support pro-democracy efforts in his home country.

“We never had any proper peaceful life in the country,” said Mong, further condemning the way the military regime has violently responded to peaceful protestors.

But Mong feels that the response from the international community has fallen short of helping the pro-democracy movement. “The international response is at a very slow pace,” said Mong, adding that this seems to be the general sentiment among much of the Canadian Burmese community.

International Response

The UN Human Rights Council along with all G7 countries have publicly condemned the Burmese military’s actions. The Biden administration has gone a step further by imposing sanctions on the Burmese military. Canada has not yet followed suit, rather calling on the regime to “refrain from using violence,” according to the CBC.

Mong did say he would prefer to see a more robust, military approach from NATO to quickly remove the junta. “The sanctions don’t work,” he said, adding that “if we have the sanctions it’s the people that suffer.”

Business as usual

Dr. Erik Kuhonta is a professor of political science at McGill University specializing in issues of political development and democracy in South East Asia. “The international community has been following the responses one might expect,” he said, adding that responses from China, Russia and ASEAN members, have been much more tepid.

Kuhonta agrees with Mong’s position that imposing sanctions often do little to enact lasting political change. “Not all countries will agree,” he said, adding that “it could lead to affecting the employment of everyday citizens.”

As for military action, Kuhonta was clear that this is not an option. “Of course it’s never going to happen,” said Kuhonta, referring to previous occasions when no action was taken even when the military regime killed thousands of protestors. “It’s not the way the western community works,” he said.

Kuhonta points to the recent coup as being what Oxford professor Nancy Bermeo calls a promissory coup. “This is a coup that promises something, that there will be something after this coup,” said Kuhonta, pointing in this case to the elections promised for next year.

“They are very unhappy with the election commission that they feel is biased towards the NLD,” said Kuhonta. This year of emergency rule would therefore allow the military to reform the electoral system in a way that will advantage them and their proxy party the USDP.

Nonetheless, Kuhonta said that the situation could change if the military were to respond more violently. “If they are very unhappy with the demonstrations, things could escalate,” he said, adding that this may determine future actions; “many governments are still waiting to see how this evolves.”

Desire for Democracy

This does not change Mong’s, and many Burmese-Canadians, view on the issue. “Everybody, I believe, is one way or another feeling sad or angry,” said Mong about the Burmese diaspora in Canada. He wishes more could be done but understands the pressures of international politics on such matters.

Mong hopes to see his native country can eventually grow into a full democracy like Canada’s.

He concluded on a thankful note, reiterating his foundational belief in democratic systems. “I had many opportunities to choose many countries for immigration,” he said, ending by saying that he, “chose Canada based on democratic values.”