Until recently, Myanmar was little but a distant memory for Bawi Tin Par. The 26-year-old left her native Chin State when she was nine and was resettled as a refugee in the United States city of Indianapolis.
In the 17 years afterwards, her connection to Myanmar gradually faded, but when the country descended into crisis following the February 2021 military coup, she felt compelled to act.
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So in December of 2022, she went back.
Visiting armed resistance groups and camps for the conflict-displaced during her one-month trip, she became acutely aware of the vast differences between her life and that of her peers who had stayed.
“Our parents would always teach us that you need to care for your roots,” she said. “I think you’re immune to it if you live far from where you come from. But now, it hits home.”
Bawi Tin Par is part of a diaspora that has mobilised since the coup to sustain a pro-democracy movement that has received limited international support. Research published last December by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, identified diaspora contributions as the “single most important source of funding” for Myanmar’s anti-coup resistance.
As the military fights resistance with arson and bombings, diaspora groups have also been critical to the humanitarian response. A February 2022 study by Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination, a Danish non-profit, found that such groups had been able to access hard-to-reach populations and act relatively quickly while unrestrained by formal bureaucracy, meeting needs that were “impossible for the international community to address”.
For some, responding to the coup has also had a profound personal impact.
“The things that we used to prioritise have changed,” said Bawi Tin Par, who now volunteers with two diaspora-led groups. “All the things that we used to worry about aren’t as important as we used to think.”
Numbering more than 3 million people, Myanmar’s diaspora spans generations and continents. Many fled the military’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988, while others left over the following two decades, joining migrant workforces in countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan or being resettled in Western countries as refugees.
Struggle for the future
Although some people returned during the country’s political opening that began in 2011, the coup sparked another mass exodus. Nonetheless, Myanmar nationals living abroad are now striving to support what many consider to be the ultimate struggle for the country’s future. “We have to do something or we’re not going to have [a place] to call home,” said Bawi Tin Par.
They are contributing to a people’s movement that has faced an asymmetrical fight from the start. While millions joined peaceful protests in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the military’s deadly crackdowns provoked an armed uprising. Newly-formed resistance groups wielding hunting rifles and homemade explosives confronted a military with an arsenal of weapons costing more than $2bn.
The military has since received a further $1bn in arms and military equipment, mainly from Russia and China, while resistance groups remain reliant mostly on self-made and smuggled arms, in addition to those confiscated from military forces.
Still, they have substantially upgraded their supply, while also scaling up their provision of public services such as health and education.
These advances, as well as support for an ongoing civil disobedience movement and aid to some 1.6 million newly-displaced people, have largely been funded by diaspora contributions, which probably amount to tens of millions of dollars, according to interviews and a review of existing publications conducted by Al Jazeera.
“The Myanmar Spring Revolution is the People’s Revolution,” said Kyaw Zaw, a spokesperson for the President’s Office of the National Unity Government (NUG). Over the past two years, the parallel administration made up of politicians and activists who oppose the coup has raised more than $156m, of which a “significant portion” came from Myanmar nationals living abroad, he said.
To generate funds, the NUG has sold zero-interest bonds, held an online lottery and auctioned off shares of military-owned estates as well as mining blocks in anticipation of a future victory over the generals.
It has also raised millions through individual donations.
“I think I am responsible for the revolution as a Myanmar citizen. Therefore, I am paying my tax to the government,” said a Myanmar national in the US, who requested anonymity to protect his family from military reprisals. He told Al Jazeera that from his earnings working in the labour sector, he contributes several hundred dollars to the NUG each month, in addition to sending money home to his family.
Other resistance forces have also turned to creative fundraising methods – such as raffling off a domesticated ox to buy bullets and organising a donations “challenge” on social media for the purchase of M-16 rifles.
Many fundraising initiatives have started with diaspora communities themselves. In Japan, Hitotsubashi University student Hnin Htet Htet Aung joined other Myanmar nationals standing outside a Tokyo metro station with a collection box to raise money for humanitarian causes. “Although I am in Japan in person, my mind, my soul is in my country, with my family, my people,” she said. “I am always thinking about what I can and what I should do for my country.”
Charity music concerts are another popular fundraising method, particularly among Myanmar’s ethnic Chin minority. ChinTube, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis, has raised nearly $150,000 by hosting concerts across the US, largely attended by Chin refugees. “[Chin people] don’t have a lot… but because it’s needed, they’re taking out everything they have,” said Rosie Bawitha Par, ChinTube’s founder and a second-generation Chin-American.
In February, the group also produced an advocacy-focused music video cover of We Are the World, which has since gained more than 4 million views. “We are trying to get people interested, invested, motivated for this revolution,” Rosie said. “We are in debt to our brave resistance fighters who sacrificed their lives for victory.”
Sense of solidarity
As time goes on, however, some in the diaspora are concerned that it will become increasingly difficult to sustain the current levels of support.
“Diaspora people are trying to survive but we have limits. We are not a government,” said Vanceuuk Khenglawt, a Chin-American community leader who serves on the board of directors of Chin Baptist Churches USA.
Since the coup, these and other Chin churches in the US have raised more than $10m for the pro-democracy movement and humanitarian response, but budgets are increasingly strained, according to Vanceuuk. “The fighting is still going on and the situation is going from bad to worse. We really need international assistance,” he said.
Maintaining standards of accountability poses another challenge. “[I had] a lot of passion but not real skill in ensuring that I was doing the right thing,” said a university student who resettled in a Western country as a refugee and participated in a diaspora youth-led activist and fundraising committee in the months after the coup. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was concerned about a backlash from other members of the committee.
Initially an enthusiastic organiser, he told Al Jazeera that he quickly felt he was in over his head when distrust and infighting broke out among the group’s members over how to distribute the funds. “As soon as the money got involved… that was the start, the real turn where everything went wrong,” he said.
At the same time, Myanmar’s diaspora has been able to adapt to the military’s attempts to stop the flow of money to resistance groups or the delivery of humanitarian assistance at a time when the United Nations and international aid organisations have struggled to reach affected populations.
“Not bound by the need to seek consent and acquire access from those causing the humanitarian catastrophe, diaspora contributions go far into hard-to-reach areas and communities severely affected by the crisis,” said Adelina Kamal, the former executive director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) and now an independent analyst and strategist focusing on international policy development. Diaspora groups’ sense of solidarity over shared hardships, she added, has helped them to “build strong bonds and trusts with front-line responders and local communities”.
According to Salai Van Thang of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, one of the largest local humanitarian providers in the state, diaspora groups have also been able to respond relatively quickly and flexibly to specific needs. “The nature of their support with less restrictions and constraints has made their response efforts more effective and meaningful to the people in emergency need,” he said.
Members of the diaspora have also been at the forefront of activism in response to the coup.
In Japan, which is home to more than 35,000 Myanmar nationals, diaspora groups have staged demonstrations calling on the government to deny legitimacy to the Myanmar military and stop channelling official development assistance through military-controlled entities.
Hnin Htet Htet Aung, the student at a Japanese university, said she focuses on raising awareness and empathy among her Japanese peers. “That is my responsibility to contribute to my country,” she said.
In the US, diaspora groups played a critical role in lobbying for the passage of the BURMA Act, which broadens the US government’s support to Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and its authority to impose sanctions against the military. In the months leading up to the act’s passage in December 2022, Chin churches across the country aired a video explaining its significance and offering instructions on how to write to members of Congress.
“They made a kind of force to pass the BURMA Act,” said Ro Ding, a Chin-American activist and politician who helped organise the campaign.
Other members of Myanmar’s diaspora have taken more drastic measures. Jonathan, a US military veteran who left Myanmar as a child and resettled as a refugee in his teens, returned to the country to join a local armed resistance group. Al Jazeera has given him a pseudonym in consideration of his family.
“It makes my blood boil,” he said of the coup. “To not do anything is just a waste of my abilities and my skills.”
Since going back, he has had to adjust to a rugged landscape and a scarcity of nutritious food, while also relearning Burmese. Nonetheless, he expressed a commitment to the cause. “They’re still my people and nobody from the outside is helping them,” he said.
“The least bit I can do, I’d like to do.”
Hpan Ja Brang contributed to this report.