Bawi Tin Par, a 26-year-old who resettled in the United States as a refugee, had gradually lost touch with Myanmar, her homeland, over the 17 years since she left at the age of nine. However, when Myanmar faced a crisis following the military coup in February 2021, she felt a compelling need to take action. In December 2022, she returned to Myanmar.
During her one-month trip, Bawi Tin Par visited armed resistance groups and camps for those displaced by the conflict, gaining a profound understanding of the stark differences between her life abroad and that of her peers who had stayed in Myanmar.
Bawi Tin Par is part of a diaspora that has mobilized since the coup to support the pro-democracy movement, which has received limited international support.
As the military responds to resistance with arson and bombings, diaspora groups have played a crucial role in the humanitarian response. A study by Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination in February 2022 found that these groups were able to reach difficult-to-access populations and respond quickly, free from formal bureaucracy, addressing needs that were “impossible for the international community to address.”
For many in the diaspora, responding to the coup has had a profound personal impact, leading them to reprioritize their values and commitments. Bawi Tin Par, now a volunteer with two diaspora-led groups, said, “All the things that we used to worry about aren’t as important as we used to think.”
Myanmar’s diaspora, numbering more than 3 million people across generations and continents, has a deep connection to the country’s struggle for democracy. Many fled the military’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988, while others left in subsequent decades, seeking work in neighboring countries or resettlement in Western nations as refugees.
Despite some returning during Myanmar’s political opening in 2011, the military coup prompted another wave of emigration. Nevertheless, Myanmar nationals living abroad are determined to support what they see as the ultimate battle for their 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 actively contributing to a grassroots movement that has faced an asymmetric fight from the beginning. While millions initially joined peaceful protests after the coup, the military’s violent crackdowns led to an armed uprising. Newly-formed resistance groups, armed with hunting rifles and homemade explosives, confronted a heavily armed military with weapons costing over $2 billion. The military has since received an additional $1 billion in arms and equipment, primarily from Russia and China, while resistance groups rely on self-made and smuggled arms, as well as those seized from the military.
However, the resistance groups have significantly improved their supplies and expanded their provision of public services such as healthcare and education. Much of these advancements, as well as support for ongoing civil disobedience movements and aid for 1.6 million displaced individuals, have been funded by diaspora contributions, which likely total tens of millions of dollars.
Over the past two years, the NUG, a parallel administration comprising politicians and activists opposed to the coup, has raised more than $156 million, with a “significant portion” coming from Myanmar nationals living abroad. To raise funds, the NUG has issued zero-interest bonds, organized an online lottery, and auctioned shares in military-owned estates and mining blocks in anticipation of a future victory over the military junta.