Thousands of miles away in South East Asia, a brutal military regime has been wreaking havoc on the citizens of Burma for the past year and a half as residents there fight for democracy.
And the impact of that brutality is being felt right here in Orange County.
Ii Maung, a Burmese American living in Anaheim Hills, and her family have experienced the wrath of the Tatmadaw – the Burmese armed forces – first hand.
“One of my cousins was part of this revolution. He was only 18 years by the time he got arrested, he got interrogated, tortured and killed,” Maung said on Saturday. “Because he was part of this revolution, he was supposed to tell them the other people involved and he didn’t say any names.”
“He took it to the grave.”
Maung said her cousin was a scholar, a tutor who helped his mother and supported his family.
She also said her family’s home was confiscated and that her brother – a famous author who writes about the revolution – had his publishing house confiscated too.
In February 2021, the military seized power of the government in a coup just months after the 2020 election and detained leaders, activists and reporters. Even before the coup, the military has had a tight grip on power and life in Burma.
People and students immediately took to the streets in protest and members of parliament formed the National Unity Government in opposition of the coup.
But the Burmese Military has a reputation for viciously silencing opposing voices.
“The security forces responded by committing offenses amounting to crimes against humanity against the civilian population, including torture, severe deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances, rape and other sexual abuse, and inhumane treatment,” according to the Human Rights Watch Report on the Country.
The police and military have killed 1,200 protestors including about 75 children and have detained 8,700 people between Feb. 1, 2021 to Nov. 1, 2021, according to the same report.
Burma has become the second biggest jailer of journalists in the world following the military overthrow of the government in 2021. According to Reporters Without Borders at least seven journalists were tortured there last year, three were killed and 115 were arrested.
Despite the danger, Maung and Burmese people across Southern California are continuing to speak out.
“We’ve already suffered enough. If we don’t do it, who will do it,” she said.
Maung spoke out against the military junta at a democracy rally she helped organize on Saturday in Stanton and said she has organized around 70 rallies in Southern California since the coup.
“The military is now killing civilians, destroying properties to terrorize the people into submission. But we will never (submit),” she said in front of a small crowd outside Stanton city hall.
Members of other communities came out to show their support including representatives from Formosan Association of Public Affairs, Hong Kong Forum La and Association for Thai Democracy who spoke at the rally.
An ethnic Muslim Burmese minority – the Rohingya community – who have faced genocide, violence, rape and persecution at the hands of the Burmese military also spoke at the rally.
“I’m here today to stand not only for democracy, but also to stand to end genocide,” said Ko Ko Naing, co-founder of the Los Angeles Rohingya Association.
The rally was held one week after global protests in solidarity with the Iranian people.
Burmese Community Call For International Support
Last year a similar rally was held at Stanton City Hall to bring awareness to the vicious and brutal military crackdown in Burma on peaceful protesters and civilians fighting and even dying for democracy.
Alfred Tun, a Burmese American who helped organize Saturday’s protest, said the situation in Burma has only gotten worse since last year’s rally.
“Burma has started to devolve into internal conflict and civil war,” he said in an interview. “We do not ever want to live under dictatorship again. That’s why the people are fighting as hard as they can. A Lot of sacrifices have been made. A lot of lives have been lost.”
Tun said not much action has been taken by the international community beyond statements of support. He said true support can come in four forms.
“The first thing is sanctions on Myanmar oil and gas enterprises, the second thing is the recognition of Myanmar’s national unity government, the third thing is retention of Kyaw Moe Tun who is Myanmar’s current permanent ambassador to the UN and the fourth thing is for more direct assistance and aid,” he said.
Tun worries without international support the situation in Burma will continue to drag on and more people will die.
He is not the only one calling for support.
Banny Hong, the owner of Taste of Burma restaurant in Stanton, is another vocal voice in Orange County against the Tatmadaw.
He said he would like to see the U.S provide military assistance for the resistance.
“Not really boots on the ground, but we are requesting military equipment. They don’t have weapons,” he said. “These Burmese generals are killing people, they destroy your business. If you’re against them they take your home. They can imprison you. They can kill you.”
Hong and others question why the Ukrainian people have gotten substantial support from the US while the Burmese haven’t.
“If we got 1/100th of the aid going to Ukraine, we could win,” James Shwe, one of the speakers at the rally, said in an interview.
In his speech, Shwe called for an international arms embargo on the military junta.
“We need to cut off sources of funds for the military,” he said. “We are still waiting for the US to help us restore democracy and human rights. We need tangible and effective actions.”
OC’s Elected Officials Respond
Stanton Mayor David Shawver, perhaps the most vocal elected official on this issue, has helped host two rallies for Burma now and spoke at the rally too.
He said in a Sunday phone interview that his city is very diverse and home to many residents from Burma.
“They are very much a part of our community,” he said. “I think we forgot about what’s going on there, but also in other parts of the world, because it doesn’t directly affect us and so I wanted to rekindle the awareness.”
“It’s the right thing to do.”
Also in attendance at Saturday’s rally were Congressman Lou Correa and OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee. Representatives from Congresswoman Michelle Steel and Congresswoman Young Kim also spoke at the rally.
Both Correa and Chaffee left before the rally was over. A planned question and answer session with elected officials on what actions they’re taking to help the Burmese people never ended up taking place.
“What is going on in this part of the world is important to you and it should be important to all of us in democracy, who care about human rights and religious freedom,” Correa said at the rally Saturday.
For people like Maung it is also important as Americans to speak out on atrocities like the ones taking place in Burma.
“These are our fundamental rights,” she said. “As an American – we have this democracy for over 200 years, we have taken it for granted and we should not. People are dying and risking their life to save this and to get these kinds of rights – to be able to speak freely, to be able to get their basic needs.”
“I think we take it for granted too much here.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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