One year after Myanmar’s military coup, the country has been plunged into civil war. Facing escalating violence and an uncertain future, tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since the February 1 coup. FRANCE 24 spoke to refugees trying to rebuild their lives abroad, from Thailand to France.
“The hardest part was learning French!” says Yadanar with a laugh. The 34-year-old Burmese artist has spent the last three months learning her way around Perpignan, a mid-sized city on France’s Mediterranean coast, near the border with Spain. She divides most of her time between work projects, administrative appointments and her grammar textbooks.
Yadanar left her native Yangon for Germany on April 21, 2021. A few weeks later, she settled in France. “I already travelled a lot, over the last ten years or so, to exhibit my work internationally,” she told FRANCE 24. “The coup just made up my mind to leave for good.”
When General Min Aung Hlaing first staged the coup in Myanmar on February 1, Yadanar wanted to fight. But after three months of protesting almost daily, she decided she would rather leave it all behind. She was able to get a visa quickly thanks to her job.
“At that time, all the foreigners were trying to leave the country. The hardest part was to find a plane ticket,” she says. “But I was among the lucky ones who left early. Today, it’s much more dangerous. The junta makes you fill out a ton of documents to keep track of who’s leaving.”
‘I wanted to learn how to handle weapons. I wanted to fight’
Recently, one of her best friends, Kolat, joined her in France. For a long time, he held out against the idea of fleeing Myanmar. Around the time Yadanar got a on a plane to Germany, “I was leaving for the jungle to train with ethnic armed militias”, he tells FRANCE 24. “I wanted to learn how to handle weapons. I wanted to fight.”
Kolat left his familiar city surroundings for a rebel camp. “Training started at dawn every day. It was extremely demanding, physically. Sometimes, they made us stay three hours in freezing water to test our endurance,” he recalls. “But I was motivated. I thought it was the only way to get rid of the military.”
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His hopes faded on returning to Yangon. “We simply didn’t have the weapons to fight,” he says. Anxious that the military would come looking for him, he cut off contact with his family and went from one hideout to another. “I couldn’t do anything. I was stuck.”
With Yadanar’s help, he eventually found a way to follow her to Perpignan. “Thankfully, I had used my artist pseudonym all year,” Kolat says. “Otherwise I could never have showed up at the airport with a passport bearing my real name. I would have been arrested.”
“Today, all my friends have left or want to leave,” Yadanar says. “For those who have stayed, life is hell. The military reigns by fear, prices keep going up and most public services are still shut down by strikes. Children can’t go to school, hospitals aren’t operating….”
International observers share her concern at the economic crisis brought on by Myanmar’s coup. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost and inflation is spiralling. The World Bank expects virtually no growth in 2022, after an estimated 18 percent contraction of the economy in 2021.
Hundreds of thousands displaced
Yadanar and Kolat are among relatively few Burmese citizens who own a passport, a precondition to get on a flight. But across the country, hundreds of thousands have found other ways to flee. Altogether, at least 19,000 have left the country since last February, while more than 400,000 people have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Myanmar has been plunged into civil war. In several states, especially in border regions, there is daily fighting between the military and ethnic rebel groups, aided by citizens’ militias. The military has confronted these pockets of resistance with brutal force, sometimes attacking entire villages.
On December 25, a local militia discovered the charred remains of more than 30 people including two members of Save the Children on a highway in eastern Kayah state, which borders Thailand. The massacre shook the international community, but human rights groups say it is far from being an isolated incident.
“The situation has severely deteriorated since the fall. War crimes and crimes against humanity have become common,” says Salai Za Uk, executive director of the NGO Chin Human Rights, in a video call with FRANCE 24. The organisation documents attacks on the Chin people, a Christian minority living along the border with India.
“On the ground, our volunteers have seen villagers kidnapped by the military, used as human shields or forced to guide soldiers into the jungle,” he says. “Those who stay are fighting for survival, fleeing from village to village as troops advance. And the military is blocking humanitarian convoys, making it very hard to access basic necessities.”
‘We’re headed straight for a humanitarian catastrophe’
Za Uk, 44, was one of the first to leave his village for the neighbouring Indian state of Mizoram after the February 1 coup. “I lived through the 1988 coup. I knew what to expect,” he says. “I knew the military wouldn’t hesitate to attack the population. And as a defender of minority ethnic rights, I was a target of the junta. It was leave or die.”
Immediately after the coup, he ordered the NGO’s offices closed and packed his bags to leave with his wife. They took refuge among resistance fighters, steps from the river which separates Myanmar from India.
“We spent several weeks there,” Za Uk says. “We didn’t want to go to India, which was in the middle of its Covid-19 crisis. What good would it do escaping the military to die of disease?”
Since then, his village has been entirely destroyed. Watchdog groups say the military has targeted it 14 times, destroying nearly 800 homes and burning down multiple churches.
In Mizoram, Za Uk joins his brother, who stayed there after the 1988 coup. He has resumed his work from a safe distance. Every day, he sees a “continuous flow” of refugees crossing the border. “At first, we saw people like me arriving: politicians, NGO leaders and activists, as well as police and military who defected from the junta,” he says. “Now, we’re welcoming many civilians, especially families, who wanted to flee the violence.”
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While the numbers are difficult to count with any precision, Chin Human Rights estimates that 20 percent of Chin state – one of seven states in Myanmar where ethnic minorities predominate – have fled their homes over the last twelve months. That would amount to 80,000 people, of whom 30,000 are now in India, according to the group.
Officially, the Indian authorities do not recognise them as refugees, leaving them without any government assistance.
“In practice, Mizoram has a long history with the Chins. We share a common culture, and many people have family here. A large mutual aid network has taken shape and the local authorities look the other way,” Za Uk says. “But if this influx of refugees continues, we’re headed straight for a humanitarian catastrophe. We won’t have the resources to help everyone.”
‘Even after leaving, we don’t feel free’
Hundreds of kilometres away, Sophia* is hiding out in Thailand. She, too, left Myanmar out of fear, along with her brother and boyfriend.
Lacking documentation, she spoke to FRANCE 24 from a building maintained by the Red Cross, not far from the border.
“I don’t have any money so I can’t buy anything. I eat only what people bring me, often rice,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Anyway, leaving here would be too dangerous. I could be arrested and sent back to my country.”
Before being brought to the small house, she was one of hundreds of villagers living in tents along the Moei river, which separates the two countries.
Thailand has categorically refused any new refugees, with authorities stepping up surveillance along the border in an attempt to stop crossings. In January, the UN Refugee Agency called on the Thai government to allow it access to the area, in order to provide much-needed humanitarian aid.
“From one day to the next, I found myself without anything – no work, no money, no clothes, no home,” Sophia says. “I’m 26 years old, and I no longer have any hopes for the future. Who knows when I’ll be able to leave here?"
Sophia, like all the refugees who spoke to FRANCE 24, hopes for only one thing: to see the junta dissolved so she can return to Myanmar.
For now, besides adapting to her new life, she has to grapple with being far from family and friends, and worrying for their safety. “I’m terrified at the idea that my mother could be arrested, or worse. Soon, it will be the rainy season and it will be even harder to find food and shelter,” she adds.
Yadanar, for her part, is convinced that her parents “never could have adapted to life in France”.
“Even after leaving, we don’t feel free,” she says. “In reality, we are people on the run, stuck in this situation that we didn’t really choose.”
Za Uk tries to stay optimistic, despite everything. “I’ll return to Myanmar soon. I’m sure of it,” he says. “For me, this anniversary brings hope. It shows that, a year later, the population is still resisting. The military doesn’t have control. They won’t win.”
This article has been adapted from the original in French.