Peter Thawnghmung is an entrepreneur, community activist, and current chairman of the Chin Community of Indiana. We learn more about his work, our Chin neighbors and how they are reacting to the violent military coup that is currently taking place in their home country, Myanmar.
Indianapolis is home to one of the largest Burmese and Chinese populations in the United States, many of whom are refugees. How did you get to the USA?
We emigrated here. My mother was a nurse in Burma and was miraculously able to get a work permit here. I’m the oldest of seven children, so the nine of us all got together in December 1980 and settled in Battle Creek, Michigan. When we arrived, my mother was unable to pass an English class so she could not practice nursing here, but she gave all of her children the opportunity to enjoy the freedom and opportunities we have in this country. We were one of those who got here – I’m pretty Americanized in that sense. I was educated in Michigan and then moved to different cities in the Midwest. I became involved in the Indianapolis community, which is the largest Chin population in this country and maybe in the world.
Are you still connected to your home country?
Yes, this is more the norm for people who have come to this country or to other countries from Burma. The Chin are very closely connected to our roots. People say “don’t forget where you are from” and we are a good example of that. I still speak the different dialects and still have a connection after 40 years. This is very common and we try to convey this to our young people as well. We encourage people to speak at home and parents to speak to their children in their own dialects. It’s difficult, and we’re Americans, so we get Americanized, but we try to remember our relationships.
After years of military rule, Myanmar has had a period of peaceful democracy since 2011. On February 1, the military resumed power in response to the controversial results of the recent democratic elections. The coup killed hundreds of civilians. Can you explain what’s going on in Myanmar right now?
What happened on February 1st came as a surprise to many people, but not really to others, as this military government has always practiced this kind of thing over the years. I’m 55 and they have done this three times in my life. If you [the military] lose power or when they feel their power is watered down they find reasons and excuses, they basically make up stories and lies to justify their actions. Not a big surprise.
They have since arrested all democratically elected officials and placed them under house arrest. We don’t know the status of some people. I personally know a doctor who was taken away in his sleepwear in the middle of the night. We don’t know where he is – he’s not home. We think he’s alive, but we don’t know for sure. It’s scary and unsettling.
How does it look different this time?
In 1988 there was a big riot and things like that, but it was much worse then because everything was closed to the outside media and you didn’t know what was going on. The government controlled all the news and media that came out. Today, even though the government is trying [to block information]Many of us know. Thanks to the internet and cell phones, we can get fairly timely information from across the country, good or bad. When there is an anti-government demonstration it is much easier to organize, firstly because of the technology and secondly because our young people are well versed and understand international laws and borders. For example, in peaceful demonstrations, they understand how to demonstrate their wishes and still be lawful. These things are very helpful in cracking down on this military.
You see that almost every day in Burma across the country. People get out and demonstrate peacefully against the military, and we support that. We call it a “Civil Disobedience Movement”, or CDM for short. We collect donations and advocate for the public involved in CDM. This is really our fight against the military now.
Does what is happening in Myanmar now remind you why so many fled the country as refugees in the past?
Absolutely, I would say that over 90 percent of the Chinese and Burmese people in Indianapolis and maybe even this country came here as refugees. My situation is unique, but as a community we came here as refugees, and we came here because of the military government, the dictatorship. They were bad for us. Instead of protecting us, they oppressed us, killed us, restricted us, and discriminated against us. Ethnic minorities in particular suffered severely from the discriminatory environment of the military government. So many of us became refugees and many of the ethnic population left the country because of it. That hits home.
How are the Chinese and Burmese communities in Indianapolis responding to current events in their home country?
The Indiana Chin Community supports CDM in Burma. Aside from fundraisers, we have held demonstrations in Monument Circle and the Indianapolis area, and have participated in other demonstrations in other areas such as Washington DC, where we supported the multi-ethnic demonstration against the military government. We now have a stronger network with all of these Burmese and Chin and other ethnic groups that live across the country. This situation in Burma has strengthened us in the sense that we are more united because we have a common enemy.
Indianapolis is considered to be the epicenter of the Burmese community in the United States. Do you think Burmese hoosiers have a responsibility to help restore democracy in Myanmar?
Yes, we are definitely considered an organization because of the sheer number of people in the Indianapolis area, over 20,000 people, and the strength of the Chin Community of Indiana. That is why we are increasingly taking an active role, not only in collecting donations, but also in distributing funds to the right people – people who are suffering, people who have no food due to the demonstrations, people who are sick or maybe were injured by the military during the demonstrations. We are working to provide help and support to these people.
At the same time we make our voice audible. Just last night we made a statement to Dr. Ngun Cung Lian sent. He’s actually a U.S. citizen, educated in Indiana, with a law degree, but somehow became an advisor to the military junta. As a community, not only are we disappointed with his actions, but we also disagree and find his actions unacceptable. We wrote him an open letter denouncing the military and its actions and asking him to resign immediately and make peace with the people. These are the steps we as a community are taking to ensure that people hear our voice, that we stand behind the people of Burma, the public, and are against the military, and that we support whatever it takes to bring it about Fight to win.
We call it a fight because when you deal with the military they know they are fighting. The whole country, all ethnic groups, are preparing for battle. That can be with weapons or with guidelines. It can be both.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference took place last weekend, but invited the military leader from Myanmar and no one from the Democratic National Unity Government. Did that hinder pro-democracy efforts?
That depends on your point of view. Many of us were disappointed that the military was invited to or participated in the process. The rightful government should be there, and in our eyes the military is not the rightful government. However, you have the power right now. A civil government cannot stop that. That’s the disappointing part of it, but the encouraging part is that ASEAN countries have not just recognized the problem in Burma as a Burmese problem, it has become everyone’s problem. They let the military know and discouraged the violence. They encouraged the military to sort things out. That is very encouraging. You’re against violence, but with that comes the realization that power lies with the military, so there’s the negative side again. It’s a double-edged sword, but it shows that other AESAN countries are paying attention and are not ignoring Burma.
How can the wider Indianapolis community help support the Burmese and Chinese communities here in their efforts to stop the violence in Myanmar?
I think the greatest thing all citizens of the world, citizens of the United States, citizens of Indiana and Indianapolis can do is realize number one: Realize that there is a big problem in Burma, and it is not just the Burmese people affects but affects everyone internationally. Number two: Our freedom is endangered in Burma as we recognize that the military has stolen all freedom from the people – I’m talking about political freedom, it’s a real military dictatorship right now. Number three: I think what we can do to fight this is through public recognition, public demonstration and influencing our representatives in the EU [United States] Those in power like the senators and congressmen, people in the State Department and the United Nations, people who have influence and authority to make a difference directly in Burma and Southeast Asia. Add volume to the sound that is already running. The more people speak, the louder the sound, the louder the sound, the more attention it gets, and more attention is followed by more action.