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From Afar, Myanmar Migrants Lament Military Takeover, Fear Economic Ruin

Myanmar migrants hold up portraits of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they rally outside Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 1, 2021.

For the hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants who work in Thailand, a takeover by an army they loathe represents a dangerous collapse of a fragile democracy and the possible ruin of their route back home.

The fear for loved ones inside Myanmar, as the country steps into a future led by ruthless generals, is amplified by worries that the small economic gains of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration will soon be erased. The military took control of the government on Monday.

“We were so close to returning home because the government was trying to bring in investment for development and jobs,” Gant Gaw, a 43-year-old janitor in a downtown Bangkok shopping mall, told VOA. “But our dream just keeps fading away.”

That dream began taking shape in 2010 when the army released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and started the clock toward the first widely representative elections in half a century.

Those took place in 2015, when a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party ended 50 years of economic mismanagement and self-imposed isolation by the junta and its allies that sank Myanmar into poverty and turned the nation into a pariah.

The generals and their cronies became rich as they carved up the country’s vast natural resources. But the economic wasteland they wrought forced millions of Myanmar’s poorest to seek work abroad.

The majority moved to neighboring Thailand, where they continue to build the skyscrapers of Bangkok, work in its restaurants and navigate its fishing fleets to send remittances home.

Monday’s military takeover temporarily cut communications into the country. But for those abroad, it also severed hopes of economic progress and democracy eventually settling in.

“It makes me furious,” said Aye Mar Cho, 41, a labor rights worker for Myanmar migrants staffing the fishing port of Mahachai, outside of Bangkok. “My relatives told me that people are terrified. They started to stock up on food. They’re so remote from the world, they don’t know any other way but to be scared.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government had overseen growth as Myanmar opened up to outside money, technology and skills, offering Myanmar migrants a glimpse of a pathway back to a freer, wealthier homeland.

Now, the threat of U.S. sanctions in response to the takeover, prolonged instability and a return to isolation led by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, risks turning back the clock.

“We don’t need the military. We’re not fighting a war with anyone, but the Myanmar army are the ones who abuse the people,” Aye Mar Cho added.

Myanmar migrants hold up portraits of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they rally outside Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 1, 2021.
Myanmar migrants hold up portraits of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they rally outside Myanmar's embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 1, 2021.

‘Between a takeover and a pandemic’

In 2019, Thailand was home to nearly 500,000 documented Myanmar migrants, according to the International Labor Organization, as well as tens of thousands more unregistered workers and displaced people, mainly from marginalized ethnic groups who fled civil war decades ago but have never returned.

Aung San Suu Kyi was mobbed by gleeful crowds when she visited Thailand in 2012, her first trip abroad after being released from house arrest. The visit was feted as a reset for Myanmar and a symbol of progress and democratic change.

An election in November saw another landslide for her NLD Party, including votes from Myanmar’s overseas workers, some voting for the first or second time in their lives.

The military already held extensive power, with control of all security matters and 25% of all parliamentary seats — gifted by a constitution it wrote.

The latest win by the NLD, however, appears to have been the catalyst for the takeover, after the military raised allegations of massive fraud. Experts doubt the strength of the allegations.

On Monday, Myanmar workers rallied at their embassy in Bangkok, many wearing red masks with a peacock print in the color and symbol of the NLD.

Their protest dovetailed with discontent spilling over in Thailand, where a military-aligned government is facing widespread discontent from a youth pro-democracy movement.

But the likelihood of Southeast Asian neighbors pressuring the military is thin, said Dulayapak Preecharush, a scholar of Southeast Asian studies at Thammasat University.

“ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders aren’t going to take that much interest because the majority are also dictatorships,” he said.

The uncertain and dangerous days ahead are bringing anxiety to Myanmar’s legions of migrant workers, with the border to home already heavily restricted by COVID-19 controls. The COVID-19 disease is caused by the coronavirus.

“People are stuck between the coup and the pandemic, “said Ko Han Gyi, of ND-Burma, a human rights organization based in Thailand.