With tensions rising daily in Burma as the country’s military continues to pillage the nation, Bedford resident Rev. Clifford Maung, pastor of the Overseas Burmese Christian Fellowship in Allston, and the New England Burma Action Group (NEBAG) are pleading with a U.S. senator to intervene.
“If possible, I want the U.S. to help us because we are helpless,” Maung said. “We don’t have any way to defend ourselves. The best thing we have is a slingshot.”
Last year, Burma, known [since an earlier coup d’etat in 1969] as Myanmar, held a general election, which occurs every five years. Since 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) ruled the country until the military seized power in a coup d’état on Feb. 1 of this year.
Maung said the military claimed there was “voter fraud” in the recent election, so they took control of Burma “one day before the new congress began.”
In an attempt to persuade the U.S. government to assist with his homeland’s situation, Maung helped found the collective NEBAG, which consists of seven or eight members who advocate for assistance from the United States government and advise that “better sanctions” be imposed on Burma by the U.S.
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, a member of NEBAG and chair of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s political science department, has recently been in contact with staff in U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s office who asked her to offer updates on the situation, as well as advice and guidance on how to help.
“We need to keep the momentum going, and I understand that Sen. Markey is the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee,” Thawnghmung said. “So, basically I have been communicating with them about our concerns as a group. “It’s one outlet we use in order to put pressure on the international communities to take more drastic measures against the military dictatorship.”
So far, NEBAG has asked for the protection of unarmed civilians and requested that the U.S. revoke citizenship for descendants of any Burmese military leaders who may be living in the U.S. “Most of the military leaders’ children are living in America … enjoying the human rights and all these things,” the minister explained.
For much of Maung’s life, Burma has been controlled by the military. From 1962 to 2011, the country was ruled by an oppressive military junta. A civilian government took over in 2011, which led to the NLD party’s victory in the 2015 general election.
The NLD won last year’s election but were overthrown by the military which is now “brutally cracking down the people” by killing, detaining, and looting from them, according to Maung.
“They don’t want to let go of their power,” he said. “So, they are trying to take that power back, and people can’t take it anymore.”
“We built our country from ash,” he said. “As a minister, I think only God can intervene and save us from this situation.”
Since gaining control in February, Maung said the military has been making death threats to citizens on national TV and killing people “one by one” every day. He said this is done with “heavy weaponry,” such as rocket-propelled grenades, grenades, and sniper rifles. With weaponry in Burma under total military control, citizens cannot possess firearms to defend themselves.
“The military can do whatever they want. They even killed a seven-year-old girl who was in her father’s arms,” said the minister. “They came in [her house] and they shot the girl while she was sitting on her father’s lap,” he added with a sigh of resignation.
Thawnghmung left Burma and came to the U.S. in 1990 to escape a situation similar to the one occurring now. “I feel like the history has repeated itself,” she said. Thawnghmung made the decision to leave her home country after the ruling junta shut down all colleges and universities for a few years because they were frequently the site of protests.
Although she no longer lives in Burma, Thawnghmung’s parents, niece, and nephews do. “I check on them every day,” she said. “It’s horrifying. The latest news was that they dare not go outside because there were explosions in some areas.”
Maung believes the current death toll in Burma has exceeded 550 people since February. In addition to murder, the Burmese military have also detained citizens, peaceful activists, and “all the leaders from the NLD party,” including 75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In the past, Maung said, detainees have been tortured, but now people “don’t even know” where the prisoners are or what’s happening to them. Maung said it’s rumored that over 2,700 people have been detained by the military and called it “very scary” since their whereabouts are unknown.
Burma is still home to the minister’s aunts, sister, and father. While he worries about them all, it’s his father he worries about the most.
“My father is blind,” Maung explained. “I talk to him [from] time to time, and he says, ‘Oh, most of the people run away from the city … but for me, even though I run, I won’t get that far. So, I will stay here in my house, and if I have to die, I’ll die.’ “So, I’m kind of worried and upset when I talk to him.”
The minister’s congregation, which is a branch of the Baptist Church, has roughly 120 members, almost all of whom also have family members or relatives living in Burma. For them, the oppressive military rule hits close to home on many different levels.
“Our country’s situation is not only an internal affair anymore, it’s become a humanitarian crisis,” Maung said. “The government who’s supposed to protect us is not protecting us anymore. They’re acting like terrorists.”
Maung not only supported but also encouraged the US to deploy troops in Burma but acknowledged it’s unrealistic since “the U.S. has their own problems.”
Thawnghmung was unsure whether the U.S. government should deploy troops in Burma but said it’s what “the majority of people would like to see.”
“We have seen in other circumstances where U.S. military intervention worsened the situation,” she continued. Thawnghmung believes other strategies could be “just [as]effective” as military intervention. “My heart has always been on diplomacy,” she said, explaining how the U.S. should attempt to talk peacefully with Burma and its surrounding countries.
Although the United States already imposed multiple sanctions on Burma, Maung said that isn’t enough. “Sanctions are good, but as long as China is working with Burma, it won’t affect those military people,” he said.
Thawnghmung “completely agrees” with the minister. She said in the 1990s, Burma’s government was subject to the same type of sanctions from the U.S. but still received support from neighboring countries. “The military has superior technology, and they have been using fighter jets provided by Russia and weapons provided by China,” she said.
While many countries around the world have condemned the military coup in Burma, some have actually helped the situation progress. “China and Russia are covering the military people,” Maung said. “China is the worst.”
According to the minister, China vetoed a statement by the UN Security Council which censured the acts in Burma. China also refused to intervene, claiming the situation is an “internal affair.”
But Maung said the real reason China wouldn’t get involved is that, historically, “China can manipulate and take all the natural resources from Burma by working with the military government.”
Since the Burmese military “doesn’t have any idea” how to develop the country using their own natural resources, they sell them to China for profit. Prior to the NLD gaining power in 2015, Maung said the military was selling offshore natural gas to China via a pipeline that ran across the country.
“That’s the China control,” Maung concluded. “China has more of a chance of manipulating our country with the military government.” After referring to the military rule as a form of government, the minister quickly corrected himself. “I don’t want to say military government,” he interjected. “I want to say, military terrorists.”
Maung said in a sense, it’s as if the military has been committing genocide for years in his country. “For the past 50 years, they’ve been killing people left and right,” he said. “They have been torturing, burning the villages, killing people, raping the women. … All these ethnic groups suffer.”
Even while the NLD was in office, Maung said a prominent lawyer was assassinated in broad daylight. “He was gunned down at the airport while he was waiting for the taxi to go home,” Maung said. This led citizens to infer the military was responsible for the assassination, since they are the only ones with access to weaponry in the country.
“Even then the NLD cannot do anything. They can’t really rule the country,” Maung said. This is because military members head the Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs ministries – which are all crucial to the NLD’s jurisdiction.
From the beginning, the NLD knew Burma’s constitution was “the most difficult to change in the world,” but Maung said leaders hoped to reconcile tensions between citizens and the military. “They [NLD] are the only party that we have trust and we have hope for.
“The leaders … were overestimating the military,” he added. “Within all these five years, whatever they tried didn’t work. The military is so stubborn and cunning.”
Maung said that while live television coverage brings attention to the situation, it also gives people a biased view because reporters are only allowed to visit certain parts of the nation.
However, the minister did credit social media for spreading the word about the military’s unjust rule. The only issue he raised was that internet connection in Burma is “not really good,” and military leaders have completely shut down the internet for citizens in the past.
“After they cut off [the internet], they can do whatever they want to the people. We will lose communication with our families,” Maung said. “I’m so glad … that I can be the voice for my people.”
The main reason it’s so difficult for a legitimate political party to gain power in Burma is due to the country’s constitution. In 2008, a new constitution was ratified, which gave the military the leading political role in Burma.
The constitution stated that a quarter of the seats in parliament must be controlled by military, the remainder by elected officials. Military officers who hold a seat in the legislature are not voted into their position.
“It is so hard to amend the constitution,” the minister said. At least 75 percent of parliament must vote in favor of the proposed changes. Then more than half of all eligible voters in the country must approve the changes.
Although the NLD is a democracy, Maung said “it’s not really a democratic government” because the constitution is so controlling. “They have been in power for many years and they got a taste of having power,” he said. “They don’t want to let go of their power, so they came back and took over again.”
While the minister did admit there may have been voter fraud in last year’s general election, he said it’s difficult to even keep track of who’s who in Burma because “even the census is not correct. I’ve been in this country with my family for more than 10 years already. My family registration is still alive back home in Burma.”