By Associate Professor Dr. Gerhard Hoffstaedter
About two years ago I travelled to Chin state via Kalay. I rode up the steep hills into the Chin hills to visit Falam and Hakha. The road was under construction, part of a multi-million development project, to bring Chin state closer to the rest of Myanmar. A new airport was being built in Falam that would significantly cut down on travel times and attract more business. I witnessed the inauguration of the new Hakha bus terminal and scouted for a new site to build a college in Hakha. I visited college and university representatives with plans to increase social science teaching and skills transfer. There was so much hope and purpose in everyone’s plans, including by some former refugees I had worked with in Malaysia and who had decided to return to Myanmar and their homeland of Chin state to help rebuild and be a part of opening Myanmar, economically and politically.
The coup earlier this year reversed years of painstaking and hard-won freedoms and reforms. People protested and have now turned to armed resistance against the military. In ethnic areas and the major cities people have continued to resist and the military, long schooled in the violent repression of the voice of the people in Myanmar, responds with overwhelming force. The fight is becoming more deadly and violent by the day and is increasingly looking like an all-out civil war. Pictures from Thantlang show the bombardment of the civilian centre of town. All residents have fled, displaced once more and many are making their way to India to be refugees again. The cycle of violence, repression and displacement is playing out in thousands of individual stories. Most ethnic minorities have fought the Myanmar military at some time or continue to do so or have been the subject of genocide as in the case of the Rohingya.
Myanmar is on that precipice to war and, sadly, no one seems to care.
Southeast Asian countries have been mired in their own political tussles and the pandemic has focussed everyone’s attention on domestic issues. Australia and the United States, too, are preoccupied with post-Afghanistan security alliances in which Myanmar does not feature. However, Myanmar is directly in the crosshair of both Chinese and American interests in the region. Chinese investment in Myanmar has driven large scale development projects like the Kyaukphyu deep seaport. China continues to support Myanmar military with material and politically. The United States has been engaging China more directly since the Trump administration and Biden has stepped up the pace of confrontation verbally. Myanmar may yet play a crucial role in these geopolitical games between empires, but that will likely not help the thousands who have been displaced, who have fled or taken up arms against the interim military council.
A first step must be more visibility of the conflict, which is largely only covered by freelance journalists and citizen journalists in Myanmar and social media abroad.
Secondly, the diaspora has been successful thus far in raising awareness with local politicians and some national legislators in the West. This must continue and more pressure brought to the Myanmar military through these channels.
Thirdly, Myanmar must not become a pawn between great powers, where China and the United States fight a proxy war. Southeast Asia has suffered too much from such confrontations and gained precious little.
But, the big picture is always experienced on a local level, by people, individually and in community trying to fend off the military aggressors and fleeing their homes. People I chatted to only two years ago are now running from bombed houses and destroyed homes – the places I was then enjoying afternoon tea and chatting about the prosperous future these returnees were building in the Chin hills and in Kalay.
Today, I worry everyday about the next bad news from people I love and a place I long to see again – in peace.
Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is an Associate Professor teaching anthropology at School of Social Science in University of Queensland. He is senior adviser of The Chindwin Media.