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Myanmar Immigrants in Israel Stay Put, Citing Safety Woes Back Home

Myanmar residents in Tel Aviv during a Zoom interview. Clockwise from left, Jacob Benjamin, Ingyin Naing of VOA, Khun Aung and Win Ko.
Myanmar residents in Tel Aviv during a Zoom interview. Clockwise from left, Jacob Benjamin, Ingyin Naing of VOA, Khun Aung and Win Ko.

As the Israel-Hamas war intensifies in Gaza, many foreign nationals living in Israel are being evacuated. Most of the Myanmar immigrants living in Israel, however, do not have plans to return to military-ruled Myanmar, as they told VOA in recent interviews.

"I feel safer here. Here, at least we hear the warning sirens of rocket attacks in advance, so we have time to prepare and find shelter. In Myanmar, there is no such warning, and the attacks come from our own military. I just don't feel safe in Myanmar ever since the military took control," restaurant worker Khun Aung recently told VOA via Zoom.

Aung has been in Israel since 2019, when he came to study agriculture at a school in the Negev Highlands. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, he opted to stay and now lives in Tel Aviv.

When he lived near the border with Gaza during his internship, rocket attack warnings were commonplace. However, the sudden attack by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, Aung said, was "surprising because of the sheer size and brutality."

His sentiment is echoed by many Myanmar citizens living in Israel.

Win Ko, a businessman living in Tel Aviv for four years with his family, also emphasized his reluctance to return to Myanmar.

"Of course, we are concerned about the dangers posed by Hamas militants, but the Israeli army is fully dedicated to protecting its people. In Myanmar, the military is using force against its own citizens, making Israel feel like a safe haven in comparison," Win Ko said.

Myanmar junta and NUG statements

An official from the Myanmar Embassy in Tel Aviv told VOA that there are 200 Myanmar people in Israel and, "all are presumed safe."

According to the embassy's website, Myanmar people living in Israel are advised to contact the embassy through its assistance hotlines. The embassy website also states that arrangements are being made for a “relief flight” for Myanmar citizens who want to return home.

A brief statement by the junta issued on Oct. 11 said, “Myanmar urges the relevant parties [in Israel] to exercise restraint and to resolve the issue peacefully.”

Similar statements were made by other mainland Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, expressing concern about the conflict without supporting either side. Other ASEAN members such as Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia have come down strongly on the side of either Israel or the Palestinians, leading to a divide among ASEAN member nations.

A screenshot of Burmese residents in Tel Aviv Win Ko, top left, and Santos, bottom, during a Zoom interview with VOA reporter Ingyin Naing.
A screenshot of Burmese residents in Tel Aviv Win Ko, top left, and Santos, bottom, during a Zoom interview with VOA reporter Ingyin Naing.

The National Unity Government, or NUG, composed of members of Myanmar's former democratically elected government and other opponents of the junta, has expressed sympathy for those affected by the Israel-Hamas war and concern for the Myanmar people who are living and working in Israel.

"The acting president is deeply distressed by the horrific loss of life in Israel and Gaza, and the dire humanitarian situation" said Kyaw Zaw, a spokesperson for the NUG president, during a Zoom interview Sunday. "In Myanmar,” he added, “people are dying every day due to the oppression of the terrorist military junta, so we sympathize.”

“Both Israel and Hamas have a responsibility to protect civilians," he said.

“International Humanitarian Law "must be respected by all parties. I urge the immediate delivery of humanitarian relief, and the protection of all civilians including Myanmar & other foreign nationals,” added the NUG acting President Duwa Lashi La, in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Daily life in Israel

Life in Israel during wartime can be challenging, with rocket attacks causing anxiety and disruptions to daily life.

“We have 90 seconds to take cover when we hear the warning sirens,” said Santos, another Myanmar resident living in Tel Aviv whose real name has been withheld for his safety.

"There is no such thing as a completely safe place here. It’s really scary.” Indeed, his interview Thursday with VOA via Zoom was cut short as the shrill warning sirens could be heard in the background. “I’m sorry, but we must go to the shelter immediately!” he said.

Because of the Israeli-Hamas war, businesses are facing economic uncertainty and many have been forced to close for days at a time. Israelis aren’t leaving home due to the rocket attacks, and combined with the higher prices of goods, it has been especially difficult for immigrants like Santos to make a living.

“It's been two weeks now since the war started,” Santos told VOA by phone later that day. “For now, the situation is bearable, but if a month or two goes by and things stay the same, we won’t even be able to afford food.” Despite the difficulties, Santos says he would rather stay in Israel than return to his own war-torn homeland.

Myanmar people volunteer in Israel

Many Myanmar immigrants in Israel are demonstrating their gratitude to the country.

This sentiment, Santos said, has motivated a group of them to take action. "At the moment, we have around 10 individuals, and in the coming week, we are planning to put our plan into action," he said.

"We've identified a camp where we can assist in preparing food for Israeli soldiers at the front lines,” Santos explained. “Additionally, there's a need for laundry services and packaging various essential items. The Burmese [Myanmar] community residing in Israel is joining together to offer their support by providing their labor where it's most needed."