Peter Thawnghmung is an entrepreneur, community activist, and current board president of the Chin Community of Indiana. We spoke with him to learn more about his work, our Chin neighbors, and how they are responding to the violent military coup currently taking place in their home country of Myanmar.
Indianapolis is home to one of the largest Burmese and Chin populations in the U.S., many being refugees. How did you arrive in the U.S.?
We emigrated here. My mom was a nurse in Burma and she was able to—miraculously—get a work permit here. I am the oldest of seven kids, so all nine of us came together in December of 1980 and settled in Battle Creek, Michigan. When we arrived my mom couldn’t pass English classes so she wasn’t able to practice nursing here, but she provided opportunity for all of her children with the freedom and opportunities we have in this country. We were one of the to arrive here – I am quite Americanized in that sense. I was educated in Michigan, and then moved around various cities in the Midwest. I became involved with the community in Indianapolis, which is the largest Chin population in this country and maybe even the world.
Are you still connected to your home country?
Yes, that is more of the norm for people that have come to this country or people that have gone to different countries from Burma. The Chin people are very connected back to our roots. People say “don’t forget where you came from,” and we are a good example of that. I still speak the different dialects and still have a connection after 40 years. That is very common, and we try to instill that in our young people too. We encourage people to speak at home and parents to speak to their children in their own dialects. It’s difficult, and we are Americans so we are going to be Americanized, but we try to remember our relationships.
After years of military rule, Myanmar has had a span of peaceful democracy since 2011. On February 1st, the military seized power once again in response to disputed results of recent democratically held elections. The coup has killed hundreds of civilians. Can you explain what is going on right now in Myanmar?
What happened on February 1st was somewhat of a surprise a lot of people, but not really for others because this military government has always practiced this kind of thing over the years. I am 55, and in my lifetime they have done this three times. When they [the military] are losing power, or if they feel like their power is diluted, they find reasons and excuses, they basically make up stories and lies, to justify their actions. It’s not a big surprise.
Since then, they arrested all of the democratically elected officials and put them on house arrest. We don’t know the status of some people. I personally know of one doctor who was led away in the middle of the night in his sleeping clothes. We don’t know where he is—he’s not at home. We believe he is alive, but we don’t know for sure. It is scary and unsettling.
How are things different this time?
Back in 1988 there was a big uprising and similar things happened, but it was a lot worse back then because everything was closed to the outside media, so you didn’t know what’s going on. The government controlled all the news and the media that gets out. Today, even though the government tries [to block information], a lot of us know. Because of the Internet and cell phones, we are able to get pretty timely information, whether it’s good or bad, from all over the country. If there is a demonstration against the government it is a lot easier to organize, first because of technology, and second because our young people are very savvy and understand international laws and boundaries. For example with the peaceful demonstrations, they understand how to demonstrate their desires and still be lawful. Those things are very helpful in going against this military.
That is what you see pretty much daily in Burma, all over the country. People are getting out and demonstrating peacefully against the military, and we are supporting that. We call it a “Civil Disobedience Movement,” or CDM for short. We are raising funds and speaking out in support of the public involved in CDM. That is really our fight against the military right now.
Is what is happening in Myanmar now reminiscent of why so many have fled the country as refugees in the past?
Absolutely, I would say more than 90 percent of the Chin and Burmese population in Indianapolis and maybe even this country here 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 to us. Instead of protecting us they were suppressing us, killing us, limiting us, discriminating against us. Especially ethnic minorities suffered greatly form the military government’s discriminating environments. That’s how a lot of us became refugees, and a lot the ethnic population got out of the country because of that. This hits home.
How are the Chin and Burmese communities in Indianapolis responding to the current events in their home country?
The Chin community of Indiana is in support of CDM in Burma. Aside from fundraising we have held demonstrations on Monument Circle and in the Indianapolis area, and been involved in other demonstrations in other areas like Washington D.C., where we supported the multiethnic demonstration against the military government. We have a stronger network now with all these Burmese and Chin and other ethnic groups that live across the country. This situation in Burma has made us stronger, in a sense that we are more united because we have one common enemy.
Indianapolis is considered the epicenter of the Burmese community in the United States. Do you think Burmese Hoosiers have a responsibility in helping regain the democracy in Myanmar?
Yes, we definitely are looked upon because of the sheer number of people living in the Indianapolis area, over 20,000 people, and the strength of the Chin Community of Indiana as an organization. So we are taking more and more of an active role because of that, not only in fundraising, but distribution of funds to the right people—people who are suffering, people who don’t have food because of the demonstrations, people who are ill or maybe have been injured by the military during the demonstrations. We are working to channel help and support to those people.
At the same time we are making our voice heard. Just last night we sent a statement to Dr. Ngun Cung Lian. He actually is a U.S. citizen, educated in Indiana, has a law degree, but somehow became an advisor to the military junta. As a community we are not only disappointed in his action, but really disagree and find his actions unacceptable. We wrote an open letter to him denouncing the military and his actions, and asked him to resign from his post immediately and make peace with the people. Those are the kind of steps we are taking as a community to make sure people hear our voice that we are behind the people of Burma, the public, and we are against the military and that we will support whatever is needed to win this fight.
We call it a fight because when you are dealing with military, what they know is fighting. The whole country, all ethnic groups, are preparing for the fight. That may be with guns or it may be with policies. It may be both.
The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) conference took place this past weekend, but invited the military leader from Myanmar, and not anyone from the democratic National Unity Government. Has that hindered the pro-democratic efforts?
That depends on your point of view. A lot of us were disappointed that the military was invited or participated in this process. The rightful government should be there, and in our eyes the military is not the rightful government. However, they have the power right now. A civilian government cannot stop that. That is the disappointing part of it, but the encouraging part is that ASEAN countries realized the problem inside Burma in not just a Burmese problem, it has become everybody’s problem. They let the military know that, and discouraged the violence. They encouraged the military to work things out. That is very encouraging. They are against the violence, but with that comes the recognition that the power is with the military, so there is the negative side again. It is a double-edged sword, but nonetheless this shows that other AESAN countries are paying attention and they are not ignoring Burma.
How can the greater community of Indianapolis help support the Burmese and Chin communities here in your effort to help stop the violence in Myanmar?
I think that the biggest thing is that all citizens of the world, citizens of the United States, citizens of Indiana and Indianapolis can do is to is, number one: recognize that there is a big problem in Burma that affects not only the Burmese population but affects everyone internationally. Number two: our freedom is at risk in Burma, realizing that the military have taken all freedom from the people—I’m talking about political freedom, it is a true military dictatorship right now. Number three: I think what we can do to help fight against that is through public acknowledgement, public demonstration, and influencing our representatives in the [United States] powers-that-be, 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. Adding volume to the noise that is going on already. The more people speak, the louder the sound gets, the louder the sound gets the more attention it gets, and more attention will be followed by more action.