As history repeats itself

Thelma tun thein, Country Facilitator for the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Program, shares her recent experience in Burma during the military coup. Thelma was born in Burma and raised in Thailand. She is a proud naturalized Texan and American citizen.

By now, most people have seen scenes of protests and violence resulting from the military coup in Myanmar. Those scenes and pictures are real and military continues their brutal attacks and inhumane treatment and murder of the Myanmar people. I was there and saw these events unfolding.


The morning of Feb 1, 2021 started like any other day. It started with a 6am class and walk in the park. About 7:30 a.m., a patient stopped me and said, “Aunty, I think you need to go home.” When I asked why, she replied “Mah Nyein Bhu,” meaning things are not quiet/ peaceful. As I walked home, things looked calm so I was not concerned. As soon as I arrived home, I learned that Aung San Suu Kyi and others had been arrested.


Sixty years of socialism and totalitarianism shapes a young mind to be prepared for disaster. I went into my “Burmese mode.” I knew immediately to procure food/water and supplies for the next month.  I called my social-enterprise business team to withdraw as much funds as possible from our bank account. Even as a 5 year old growing up in Bangkok, I was chastised with threats of Yangon relatives being arrested or killed, because I had told a family-friend that General Ne Win was a bad and evil man…the truth, but already being told that my opinions  could not be voiced and that the military was to be feared. By 9 a.m. that morning, the military channel was broadcasting programs with generals and soldiers showing off their might. My only thoughts were “how many people have you killed and how many millions of lives have you destroyed?” Sixty years of pent up feelings of anger, hatred, hopelessness and pain for the Myanmar people surged within me.


Things seemed “quiet” in Yangon for the first days but the CDM movement (Civil Disobedience Movement) and CRPH were underway. According to fortune tellers, General Min Aung Hlaing would succeed in his grab for power if his soldiers shot people’s heads and if he won in the cities/towns that started with an “M;” shortly, aggressive attacks started in Myeikyina, Mandalay, Monyua, Myeik, etc. With each passing week, each day became more dangerous and unpredictable with the military trying all types of techniques to scare people and incite disorder, destruction and death. Jailed criminals were drugged, given weapons and materials, and brought to neighborhoods to harm people, destroy property and cause fires. Paid persons were hired to cause trouble among the marchers during the protests.


From day one, the people had absolute resolve: we will not tolerate military rule and we will die fighting. Death is better than life under military rule. People had tasted life with freedom and now understood free speech, free thought, free enterprise and personal responsibility. This fight for freedom united everyone: the rich, poor, educated, illiterate, all religions, all ethnic groups, rural/urban communities, the young and the old, the successful, the homeless.  Everyone did whatever they could in every way to support and help with protests and daily survival. What I saw was the overwhelming sense of compassion people had for each other with the understanding that everyone had to sacrifice for this fight and had a role to play. The spirit of unity and shared commitment for democracy was amazing to witness.


The protests were about unity, victory in the revolution, well-being prayers for Aung San Suu Kyi and that “a country’s people are not for killing”. The movement was no longer about NLD but for the future of the young generation. As the protests gained momentum, the military started nightly arrests and the brutal shooting and killings escalated. They demonstrated their cruelty by returning tortured corpses to the neighborhoods each morning. The military has spared no one and no one is safe from their cruelty. The military gets stronger each day they stay in power with their goal to physically and emotionally destroy the people and bring destruction to the country. People are running from their homes to seek safety. I have friends, colleagues, relative who are now in hiding or on the run. There are now tens of thousands of Burmese refugees on the Thai border.


The military coup has pushed Myanmar into a humanitarian, health and refugee crises. Covid-19 destroyed thousands of businesses and millions of people lost jobs; millions were already on the brink of starvation at the end of 2020. The coup has quickly compounded poverty and hunger.  Covid-19 stretched the health care systems so that millions of people, including women, infants and children had no access to health care. With the CDM movement, government doctors and nurses stopped working in hospitals, limiting health service delivery. All public health preventative programs were largely stymied with Covid-19. With each passing day, people with chronic illnesses cannot receive needed care and medicines since the military now shoots into private hospitals and ambulances. People have limited access to food with the military roaming in neighborhoods. As a dietitian/nutritionist, the malnutrition disaster that is unfolding is frightening, especially for the children who may die or be irreparably harmed from lack of food, medicines and medical care.


The fight for freedom is a universal cry and the Burmese people are crying very loudly. If only the rest of the world could hear and lend a helping hand.