Japan’s Myanmarese Diaspora a Year After the Coup: Ongoing Worries for an Oppressed HomelandPolitics Society World
Helping People Know What’s Really Happening
February 1, 2022, marked a year to the day since the Myanmar Army coup d’état that seized control of the nation from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. On this day more than 200 Myanmarese residents of Japan gathered in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in central Tokyo. After observing a minute of silence in memory of the more than 1,500 of their countrymen who have been killed by the Myanmar Army since the coup, they faced the ministry building and raised their voices:
“Government of Japan, don’t recognize the Myanmar Army junta!”
Alternating between Burmese and Japanese, the demonstrators chanted their appeal time and time again. Holding up photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi, now held under house arrest and suffering from unjust persecution back home, they called on the Japanese government to officially recognize the NUG, the National Unity Government established by the democratic forces driven out by the military regime, as the legitimate government of their country.
“Over this past year so many people have been killed, so many lives destroyed. And yet we must still fight on,” says Han Sein, a member of the “88 generation” of refugees who sought asylum in Japan at the time of the Myanmar Army’s previous repression of their country’s democracy movement in 1988. Today he is best known among the Myanmarese expatriate community in Japan as the coach of the resident Myanmar soccer team MFC Tokyo.
For some 30 years since, Han has watched the transformations in his homeland from afar in Japan. As the democracy movement gained strength in Myanmar, he witnessed the rising number of foreign exchange students and other Myanmarese immigrants to Japan with views akin to his own, although they hailed from younger generations. And then came the coup.
“I feel so sorry for them what different futures they could have had waiting for them back in Myanmar were it not for the coup,” says Han.
Instead, Han’s players could be persecuted by the junta if they returned home now. They might never have a second chance to travel freely outside of their country. These are anxieties that all Myanmarese living in Japan share. And as they wait for change to come, the long days of separation from their families and friends back home drag on.
”Today we’re holding this demonstration in front of MOFA,” says Han, “but we didn’t come here to fight. Japan is a country we have had strong ties with from long ago. That’s why we want the Japanese government to apply pressure on the junta and tell them what they are doing is wrong. We want the Japanese people to know more about what is happening on the ground in Myanmar.”
Military Oppression and Soaring Inflation
Ten Ten, another member of the “88 generation,” works in Japan as a medical interpreter. She says that even here, far from their homeland, life has become more difficult for Myanmarese like those participating in the demonstration.
“More and more people are seeing their work opportunities shrink and their incomes dwindle because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.
Their already difficult position is further complicated by the resident visa categories the Japanese government grants to exchange students, technical intern trainees, and others in similar positions. These categories all come with a cap on working hours of 28 hours per week, making it hard for them to earn enough to live on.
“That’s why, even when they’re feeling ill, they won’t go to a hospital,” says Ten Ten.
When Ten Ten learned about this situation, she took it upon herself to use the knowledge she has gained on the job to provide health consultations and help out her fellow Myanmarese in any other ways she could. Yet even while dealing with these harsh conditions, she and other Myanmarese residents in Japan have been cutting their own lifestyles to the bone and saving whatever money they can in order to send it to relatives back home.
“Life is even harder back in Myanmar than it is here,” she says. “Prices have soared since the coup. Even eggs and cooking oil are getting more expensive. There are frequent electrical blackouts, and sometimes the military cuts off electricity to keep people from sharing information on social media.”
Ten Ten’s brother works as a taxi driver for tourists in Mandalay in northern Myanmar, she told me. But the combined impact of the coup and the pandemic has devastated his business.
“That’s why I want to support him as much as I can,” she says.
For all the differences in their backgrounds, Ten Ten says that she feels great promise and trustworthiness in the young Myanmarese exchange students and working adults who have been the driving force behind the demonstrations and actions in Japan.
“Unlike all of us in the 88 generation, they make very effective use of social media, and they’re excellent at appealing to the traditional media as well,” she says. “I’m so impressed by the way they think.”
On this day those young people, megaphones in hand, were out front of the ministry, sharing their thoughts with the gathered throng. “My family has fled to Thailand,” explained May, who on a normal day would have been working at a convenience store. “There are lots of other refugees like them. We have to support them and do everything that we can from here.”
Rohingya Join the Demonstration in Solidarity
The mounting wave of resistance to the junta here in Japan transcends ethnic as well as generational barriers. Aung Tin of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan was also there in front of the ministry.
“The junta has been persecuting the people of Myanmar for years,” he told me. “I want the Japanese people to understand what is going on.”
The Rohingya people are a Southeast Asian ethnic minority who have long suffered from persecution. They are viewed as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh by the government of Myanmar, while within Myanmar itself they are often discriminated against by the ethnic Burmese who account for 70% of the nation’s population. Myanmar’s Rohingya had been subjected to repression by the Myanmar military even before the coup d’état, and it is still common for Rohingya villages to be razed to the ground and their inhabitants massacred. Sometimes they are even bombed by Myanmar’s air force. More than a million Rohingya, like Aung Tin, are said to have sought refuge overseas.
“For my people, every day is like a war,” Aung Tin told me. “We have no nationality, and all our movements are restricted.”
Following the military coup, however, the NUG began calling on the Rohingya to join them in a “united front” to the fight the junta. Even the attitudes of people of Burmese descent who had previously rejected the Rohingya have been changing since the military takeover.
“I had never realized how much the Rohingya were suffering,” Ten Ten told me. “There is a lot of soul-searching that we Burmese must do.”
For his part, Aung Tin think it is time to work together. “I am taking action together with you today as a fellow citizen of Myanmar,” he declared in his speech in front of the ministry. “I want the government of Japan to recognize the National Unity Government!”
After demonstrating in front of MOFA, the marchers moved on to Tokyo’s Shinagawa, where they held another demonstration in front of The Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Two Myanmarese diplomats who were assigned to the embassy at the time of the coup protested against the army’s repression, and were fired. The diplomats working at the embassy today are thought to have been dispatched by the junta, but it was the Japanese government that agreed to accept their credentials. For this reason, many Myanmarese have the impression that there is a close relationship between the junta and the government of Japan.
In sharp contrast, the administration of US President Joe Biden has issued a strong statement criticizing the junta and calling for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. In October 2021 the European Parliament added its own resolution in support of the NUG, which has established representative offices in numerous Western countries, as well as in South Korea.
“Compared to them, Japan has been so slow,” fumes Aung Tin, noting that the Myanmarese are calling on Japan to behave like a democratic nation.
Support Spreading Across Japan
When Myanmarese residents held their first demonstration in Tokyo a year ago, they were criticized by many Japanese for “bringing foreign squabbles to Japan,” playing politics despite their foreign nationality and demonstrating in the middle of a pandemic. Yet even in the face of such criticism, the Myanmarese steadfastly continued their protests. They stood on street corners every weekend soliciting donations, and organized charity fundraising events. They have also been posting heavily on social media, with many of their posts written in both Myanmarese and Japanese.
And as they have soldiered on they have finally begun receiving more and more donations from Japanese, as well as from their own community. On this day in front of the ministry, there were many Japanese among the demonstrators. One of them was Ishikawa Wataru, a university student who is the founder of the Japan Myanmar Future Creative Society, an organization where young people from both countries can meet and interact.
“We have Myanmarese members who are using their paid vacation days to take part in today’s demonstration,” Ishikawa told me. “When I see them out there soliciting donations, not just today but every week, striving on without ever giving up out of a belief in the future of their country, I feel the strength of their commitment and will.”
Planning from the start to work in international cooperation, Ishikawa majored in Burmese in college. He has visited Myanmar many times, and when the coup occurred his mind conjured up the faces of his many Myanmarese friends. Unable to sit still back and do nothing, he began to support the campaigners, standing in front of train and subway stations around Tokyo, soliciting donations together with his friends from Myanmar.
“Recently we’ve been hearing more words of support from passing Japanese,” says Ishikawa. “I think the seeds planted by all the Myanmarese who have continued to broadcast their message to the Japanese people are finally bearing fruit.”
All the donations the volunteers collect are sent to Myanmarese refugees, who use them to buy food and other essentials.
Back home the military’s oppressive rule drags on, though, and the situation on the ground remains dire. Ishikawa says he can only guess at what Myanmarese living in Japan are feeling inside, able only to watch from afar what is happening to their country while living in a foreign land. “And yet,” he marvels, “with me they are always so considerate, and show me just their smiling faces. I’m the one who is constantly learning from them. I think they are a people who combine both great flexibility and strength.”
Will Japan’s Myanmarese residents ever be able to change the stance of the Japanese government with the resilience of their national character?
(Originally published in Japanese February 3, 2022. Banner Photo: What Myanmarese want most from the Japanese government is official recognition of the NUG. All photographs by the author.)