by Diana G. Mendoza

When Thida posted on her Facebook page a photo of her message, “Don’t forget us,” written on the side of a lantern during the Tazaungdaing light festival in a township near Yangon, she immediately took it down.

“It was meant as my appeal to whoever will see it across the world,” she said. But her friends warned she might get into trouble, so she deleted the post.

But the message, written in bold black ink on white paper pasted below an image of the Buddha, stayed on the lantern, along with more messages on hot-air balloons, kites and other motifs crafted by people participating in the festival held annually on a full moon day in November.

Also called the “festival of lights,” Tazaungdaing is similarly held as the Loi Krathong festival in neighboring Thailand, where people gather in pagodas, light up candles and release balloons and lanterns or float images and artistic creations along the river as a form of worship and offering to the heavens or a plea for forgiveness to Ganga, the goddess of water.

Thida, 25, an office worker in Yangon, said she is happy that the festival was held two years after the lockdowns to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and more than a year since the Tatmadaw or Myanmar military grabbed power from the government through a coup d’ etat.

A Burmese family / Photo: Pinky Serafica

But behind the festive mood, she said, “We are struggling; there is violence in much of the country,” in replies to emailed questions. “Being in the festival made me cry because many Burmese are still suffering and they want freedom to live their own lives.”

Continuing repression and killings

Thida said one of her male cousins is still in prison since the military conducted arbitrary arrests and detention of thousands of civilians a few weeks after the coup in February 2021, when the military junta detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior members of her political party, the National League for Democracy. The party won the elections but the military claimed it was fraudulent.

One of Thida’s uncles was killed last July by armed pro-junta militias who stormed his home and business outside the capital on accusations that he was supporting and funding groups that are leading the anti-military junta protests in Yangon.

Making a living in Myanmar / Photo: Pinky Serafica

Thida said her family is fortunate to be in touch with her cousin, while other families don’t know whether their detained relatives are dead or alive as they cannot locate them.

Despite the escalating violence, Thida still lives on the outskirts of Yangon with her parents and two younger siblings who are in school. Work and school are slowly normalizing but she said, “there are days when we don’t go out because we’re really scared; we continue to witness and hear about a lot of atrocities.”

Women hold it together

As the arrests and killings mostly target the men, Thida and many other Burmese women have to hold their families together. Some of them leave their homes to seek safety in other states and townships, seeking the help of friends, relatives and co-workers, but this is even more difficult for marginalized women.

One of them, Khin, 41, who lives in a state far away from Yangon, said daily life has not been normal since pro-junta henchmen torched more than 20 houses in their neighborhood last June. “There were women and children who died because the men did the burning at night when everyone was asleep,” she said.  “We didn’t even know why they did that.”

Women buying cooked food in Myanmar / Photo: Pinky Serafica

With her husband and their three children, Khin lives in an extended house with her brother and his family. “We are terrified to even wake up every day with the thought that something bad will happen,” she said.

Myanmar crisis in the eyes of the world

To date, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said the humanitarian and economic crisis worsened since the February 2021 military takeover led by military commander Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Deaths among innocent people continued to rise as atrocities committed by the junta have caused the displacement of 1.3 million people and the destruction and burning of 28,000 homes and villages.

The UN body said more than 5,000 women and more than 13,000 children have been killed in military offensives, and with many people left without access to food and other means to survive.

In the recent 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits and related Summits held in Phnom Penh, leaders of the regional bloc where Myanmar is a member-state only issued a warning to the junta to adhere to and implement the peace plan, called the five-point consensus formulated by the body last year. That would seem like a slap on the wrist for the junta.

Myanmar was not represented during the summit as junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was banned from attending and because he rejected ASEAN’s recommendations.

Beyond ASEAN, many other countries put pressure on Myanmar to stop the violence, but the UNHRC said “the people of Myanmar are deeply disappointed by the response of the international community” for not understanding the crisis and for not helping to resolve it.

“Don’t forget us”

Despite untold suffering, Khin said she and her family strive to live day-to-day “with high hopes that people out there are watching us and will help us.”

“We live in a remote area but I know that people are trying to go back to their normal lives, but even from where I am, I still hold on to the thought that someone somewhere will come to rescue us,” she said.

Thida said she feels fortunate to have a break from difficulties such as attending the festival, but she always goes back to thinking about the loss of their freedoms, such as the freedom to cry for help on social media.

She remained hopeful. “I will say this again and again to anyone around the world who is listening – don’t forget us,” she said. WWW

Praying for peace at the Shwedagon Pagoda / Photo: Diana Mendoza