Several hundred Myanmar pro-democracy protesters gathered outside their country’s embassy in Bangkok Wednesday, two years after a coup by a junta that has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes and military massacres, and now wants to hold elections across a broken nation.
Shouting slogans, waving flags of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government and holding portraits of their jailed democracy heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, the demonstrators made a loud but peaceful statement of their anger at a junta which seized power on February 1, 2021, throwing the country into violent chaos.
“We are together, we are united, and I think the people will win in the end,” said Aung Sen, a 25-year-old from Myanmar’s Sagaing region, who left the country after the coup.
Thailand hosts around 2 million migrant workers from Myanmar, according to the Labor Ministry, with their ranks boosted by people fleeing the coup for work and safety in the neighboring country.
Like many, Aung Sen vowed to boycott any elections held under junta rules, which critics say fall well below the standards of genuine democracy.
“We will not vote in the junta elections or participate in anything with them until they free Daw Suu Kyi — our leader — and our friends,” he added, using a title of respect for Suu Kyi.
Led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta seized power claiming that voter fraud drove the landslide November 2020 election win of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party at the expense of military-aligned parties. The allegations have never been substantiated.
The military leader wants to end a nationwide rebellion and hold elections. But the election laws published last week say no parties or personalities linked to “terrorist” forces can take part — the government has labeled the pro-democracy resistance as terrorists, while Suu Kyi is behind bars.
Min Aung Hlaing has failed to convince the country of the army’s right to rule and faces a stubborn, wide-ranging rebellion by an alliance of often young pro-democracy activists and well-armed ethnic rebel groups.
Suu Kyi, 77, has been jailed while rights groups say around 2,600 pro-democracy protesters have been killed by the junta since the coup, with thousands more detained including teachers, medical workers and minors.
Over 1 million people have been internally displaced since the coup, the United Nations says, with hundreds of thousands more fleeing for safety or work into neighboring countries.
Many of them are young men and women running from the threat of arrest or seeking to find an income for their families as Myanmar’s economy falls apart.
“I’m sad, life’s been hard since the coup,” said Ko Ko, a 30-year-old who also fled to Thailand after the coup. “Min Aung Hlaing is an awful man.”
The coup wiped out a decade of small but incremental economic and democratic gains in a Southeast Asian nation that the military has controlled for the majority of the seven decades since independence from British colonizers.
Rights groups have urged the outside world, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to increase pressure on the military leadership.
Several Western nations introduced new sanctions — including on the provision of fuel for Myanmar’s air force — in a message timed with the coup anniversary.
A joint statement also released by the U.S. State Department on behalf of foreign ministers from the EU, U.K. and New Zealand, among many others condemned the junta’s crackdown and demanded a return to genuine democracy.
“There are mounting reports that air strikes, bombardments and the mass burning of villages and places of worship have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. Reports of torture and sexual violence by the security forces are widespread,” the statement, published on the eve of the coup anniversary, said.
“We reiterate our call for the return of Myanmar to a democratic path. The military regime must end violence and create space for meaningful and inclusive dialogue to allow for any democratic process to resume.”
But in a sign of the complexity of forging a united diplomatic front on Myanmar, China has refused to condemn its ally at the U.N., Russia has increased arms sales to the junta, and companies from Singapore to the EU remain engaged with the junta-run economy.
“While the junta’s reign of terror continues, the people of Myanmar’s resistance never stops.” advocacy group Fortify Rights tweeted. “U.N. member states should support the people and deny the junta access to: Finance, Weapons, Political Legitimacy.”
For those forced to flee, it has been two years of pain and loss watching their country burn and worrying about families left behind.
“All dreams and plans are broken already,” said one 29-year-old Myanmar self-exile in Thailand, requesting anonymity over emigration status concerns.
“I feel guilty that I left the country but I’m supporting the people from where I am [in] the safest way. I won’t stop until the revolution wins.”