Ontario’s Burmese community calls for more action from Canada following Myanmar coup

Like many in Ontario’s Burmese community, Thamain has been watching anxiously as a coup unfolds in his native country, endangering not only democracy but the safety of his family.

He says he’s worried for relatives who were detained not long after the military moved against the government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) on Monday and protesters took to the streets of the country’s largest city. 

“I was in shock. At first it didn’t sink in yet. It took a day for me to realize what was really going on in Myanmar,” he said in an interview with CBC Toronto. 

CBC News has agreed not to identify Thamain to protect his relatives in Myanmar. He says his family has close ties to the now ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. 

“I was really concerned because my brother-in-law has been detained … So has my younger sister’s brother-in-law,” Thamain said.

“We don’t know the whereabouts.” 

Thamain’s family members were among multiple detainees in the early morning raids that took place on Monday. The military seized power from the democratically elected government of the NLD, accusing the party of “election fraud.” The coup happened hours before parliament was due to sit for the first time since the country’s election in November, when the NLD won by a landslide. 

The military takeover derailed years of efforts to establish democracy in the poverty-stricken country and has raised even more questions over the prospect of returning a million Rohingya refugees.

Now, members of Ontario’s Burmese community are calling on Ottawa and the international community to do more to restore the elected government in Myanmar. 

Experts unsure if condemnation is enough

Canada has condemned the actions of the military in Myanmar, with Foreign Minister Marc Garneau demanding the “release all individuals who have been detained as part of this operation,” in a statement released on Twitter.

The Group of Seven (G7) largest developed economies, including Canada, issued a joint statement condemning the coup on Wednesday, saying the election result must be respected.

“We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law,” the G7 said.

However, experts like Jacques Bertrand, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, say while the military doesn’t want to be alienated from the G7 and other western countries, it’s unclear whether these actions will be enough. Bertrand says economic sanctions might be necessary.

“It is a military that has tended to not be very influenced by these kinds of international condemnations,” he said. “We saw that with the Rohingya crisis, where they completely ignored the whole criticism. But they will be sensitive to sanctions.” 

Soldiers stand guard on a blockaded road to Myanmar’s parliament in Naypyidaw on Feb. 1, 2021, after the military detained the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s president in a coup. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Bertrand says this coup is different from others around the world, because ever since the military initiated the transition to civilian rule in Myanmar a decade ago, it has essentially acted as a parallel government. It still controls 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, which aren’t contested during elections. 

“What we saw happening on Monday was a coup, of course, overriding the democratic process, but from a military that has been in a tug of war in some ways with this elected government.” 

When the NLD won the November election by a large margin, “the military suddenly saw that the government … might use this new majority to try to have even more leverage to push them out of formal politics,” Bertrand said. 

“They’ve now seized control … of the election commission, which means they’ll be writing the rules for the next election next year.” 

Canada must act quickly, do more, Burmese Canadians say

Meanwhile, for Burmese Canadians like Tin Meung Htoo, who lives in London, Ont. but has many relatives in Myanmar, the response from the international community, including Canada, has been “quite encouraging” for the people who are risking their lives for freedom.

Nevertheless, he says he has a message for the federal government: consult with the Burmese community and other Asian countries. because they might have better ideas about what gestures and measures will benefit Myanmar. 

As for Thamain, he also hopes Canada will work with other countries to keep the pressure on while he continues to wait for daily updates about his relatives. 

“I’m really concerned of the safety of my family and moreover the safety of the Burmese people,” he said. 

“I really want to see the Canadian government take quick action on the matter. This is not a joke. It is happening.”

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