A song for freedom

An activist reveals the situation of disabled people in Myanmar's civil war
Illustration of a person's silhouette in Myanmar's landscape, covered with splashes and scribbles of red and crimson. The person walks with crutches and from them shines a ray of yellow light. The ray is in the foreground and filled with musical notes, leaves, a bird flying and the three finger salute. The background is in shades of green and magenta, with golden pagodas peeking through towards the skyline.
A song for freedom, by Sonaksha

Dear Debriefers,

Myanmar has been largely neglected by international attention since the military coup in 2021. There's not much information in general, let alone about disabled people.

Thanks to the Debrief community, I was able to connect with a disability activist. Given the dangers to anyone who speaks out, this edition is only possible through anonymity.

We talk about life before the coup and progress made by the disability rights movement. They reveal how the coup has interrupted this, and disabled people are caught in crackdowns and spiralling civil war. And in those conditions, how they are striving to make a better future.

It's a conversation with insights into a situation almost completely overlooked, and that makes an emotional call to freedom.

For further resources on disability in the country, see the Debrief library page on Myanmar.

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Disability Debrief is supported on a pay-as-you can basis. Thanks to Say and Rémi for new contributions.

Join me in welcoming a new artist to the Debrief: the brilliant Sonaksha is a queer, disabled illustrator-designer-comic artist from India.

“I wanted to be together with them”

Peter: Without giving your biography away, can you introduce yourself?

Anonymous: I have a mobility difficulty. When I was student in my high school, the class teacher didn't include me in the student association or student club. They thought it would be difficult for me. But it isolated me from other students and made me really lonely. In my mind, in my heart, I wanted to be together with them.

Of course, I cannot do many things physically, but I can contribute in other ways. I can do a lot. For example, students are going to the school gardens and planting the trees. I was left behind, sitting alone in the class. My teachers and classmates thought I would be happy because I don’t need to do uncomfortable things.

I cannot carry heavy things or plant trees, but I can sing a song for them. Entertainment, or maybe I can be monitor or watching something. I can do a lot.

I was just a student, and my voice was not strong, not heard by others. At that time, Disability Rights Movement is very silent in my country. The organizations of persons with disabilities emerged only after my high school senior's life.

“Together we made a lot of advocacy”

Peter: That’s a powerful example. Say a bit about how disability rights have grown since you were in school.

Anonymous: It is really challenging for people with disabilities in the country. Even in normal conditions, children with disabilities, persons with disability have been facing a lot of barriers and negative attitude from other people.

If we compare with previous decade, we have some significant progress because of the Disability Rights Movement in the country. After 2010, so there emerged a lot of organizations of persons with disability.

Cyclone Nargis hit in Myanmar in 2008. At that time, more than 100,000 people died. Many international organizations enter for emergency assistance. They often ask, “How many persons with disability in Myanmar?” And so finally, the Ministry of Social Welfare conducted the first National Disability Survey in the country.

In parallel, many persons with disabilities come up together and are trying to help each other. They founded small groups of persons with disabilities in many places. Now, we have more than one hundred self-help groups and between five to ten stronger organizations of persons with disability in the country.

Together we made a lot of advocacy. Before the military coup, we approached to the parliament, cabinet and different government ministry, advocating for the Disability Rights Law and also disability mainstreaming in the different sectors.

We learned from the overseas country. We learned about the right based model of disability, social model of disability, and then we disseminated this. Now, I think 80% of organizations of persons with disability already standing on the right based and social model disabilities. A few organizations are still helping with the charity activities. They show that the persons with disabilities are very pitied, they need a donation.

In 2015 we got a Disability Rights Law. And in 2017, a National Committee on the rights of persons with disabilities. But all were gone together with the coup.

“A lot of explosions and shootings”

Peter: … the military coup has changed life for everyone.

Anonymous: It heavily impacted the population with disabilities. And everyone, with or without disability, is facing challenges in daily life. It’s particularly difficult to access food and also the security issue.

Even in Yangon City, there’s a lot of explosions and shootings. I often face such kind of risk. We have to be clever and skip other ways. We don't know where will happen what. We are living with the insecurity.

Now because of the security issue, there are a lot of checkpoints, in the country, or even in the city areas, downtown. The military, the soldiers, check the persons with disabilities whenever they cross. They think we are like anti-coup and that because of the current armed conflicts, we became the persons with disabilities. They check many things, a lot of inquiry and investigation…

Peter: Asking questions or they are grabbing people or what kind of thing?

Anonymous: First they ask, “Where do you come from and where do you live and why you have a disability, when happened? When did you became disabled? What is the reason for becoming disabled?” They suspect persons with amputees were the People's Defense Force members.

Peter: So disability awareness is life and death issue, actually.

The degree and level of danger, depends on the officer, their attitude and ways of thinking. There are no rules or law. If the checkpoint officer decided that this person is from the armed conflict background then you can be arrested.

In some mountain areas, persons with disability face this a lot. So they are afraid to go outside, to move place to place, because they don't want to face such kind of investigation at the checkpoints.

“We lost the channel”

Peter: How else has the conflict changed things for disabled people?

Anonymous: Advocacy is important for us. But now, we lost the channel. We lost the legal rights and also the access to the government facilities and services. And second is, even the persons without disabilities are facing challenging things. So if we raise our issue, many think that it is not so important. Disability is put behind in consideration, behind in benefits.

We often receive telephone calls from persons with disabilities in rural area and poor area. They have challenges to access food. The so-called government control the transportation and also carrying the food from place to place, and they like to cut off the food supplies for People's Defense Force.

Peter: When you get a phone call like that, is there any way to help?

Anonymous: We try to engage with civil society organizations who are working for food security issue. But they have a waiting list, limited target area, so many things. Organizations of persons with disabilities include some kind of cash for food program. Of course, no big amount, like 50,000 Kyat per person [USD $23].

We are trying to cover as much as we can. But the demand is challenging. And more so from mountain area. It is a border area close to Bangladesh, close to India. One challenge is transportation. And there are a lot of armed conflicts there.

And NGOs from Yangon city area are afraid to engage with those groups of people with disability in the area. Some of the groups are People’s Defense Force. Even though we receive many calls for help, we cannot support them.

Another one is Kayah State, close to the Thailand border area. Because of the landmines and armed conflicts, many persons became disabled. They need crutches and other mobility aids. But we don't have a supply of assistive devices in the country. And even if we had, they're difficult to transport because it's very far. A lot of checkpoints between their place. Definitely we would be investigated.

Running away

Peter: Have you heard stories of disabled people that have had to flee where they are living?

Anonymous: Yes. I have two recent case happening on this. One is border area between Bago region and Kayah State. It's a big weapon hitting there. [Editor’s note: Junta troops bombarded villages with heavy artillery and shells.]

All the people in villages, they have to run away, including persons with disabilities and their families. So now some are temporarily living in the mountain area. It’s difficult for shelter and also food.

Another case is Demoso Township in Kayah State. There is a small organization of persons with disabilities there. All the members are running away. Whenever they are in the mountain area, we cannot make a phone call. They have to come to the urban area to communicate with us, crossing a lot of checkpoints. They don't want to take this risk.

Persons with disabilities and their families are together with other people. Now rainy season in Myanmar is a real challenge, because the roads in rural areas are very muddy, not accessible. So family members put the person with disability on their back and then and move to the mountain areas. They think that it is more safe.

Politics of disability and disability organizations

Peter: I guess some disabled people have been supporting the new government, some disabled people have been supporting the defense forces?

Anonymous: Some organizations of persons with disabilities are actively involved in the meetings and national committees of the coup. Especially veterans with disabilities, and their organizations, are supporting more to the coup [junta].  

But the majority of organizations of persons with disabilities don’t support the coup, but don’t want to express that. We have to be silent. And some stay in the neutral role, because it is like another issue, doesn't belong to the disability.

The coup also likes to show that they don’t forget about persons with disabilities. They founded disability-related committees. But there’s no budget... they’re just showing.

Peter: Tell me more about people that are becoming disabled in the violence.

Anonymous: Whenever armed conflicts or fighting will happen, we often see those cases. The news mentions how many died or got injuries like a disability. But we don't have a nationwide data collection system here, so it’s just hearing from the news.

“Conflict is getting severe...”

Peter: Myanmar is in deep conflict. Maybe it will go on for some time. How do you see the future?

Anonymous: Not only me but also many people evaluate the situation that for the next three years it will be still same or getting worse…

Peter: Getting worse?

Anonymous: Yes, because conflict is getting severe, between coup and anti-coup bodies. Increasing day-by-day, man-by-man, place-to-place. The People's Defense Force may need more time to win, because they have to start everything from the beginning. Budget, resources and weapons and materials.

We are struggling and moving ahead, but the expectation is for some years we'll not see the tangible success. We will still face the similar challenges or worse conditions. Currently our future is still dark.

But one day, many people believe that we will win and then could remove the coup and make a new nation. We hope that we'll have a bright future, and opportunities to start everything with a new trend, a new normal life.

Peter: I really hope you can make that new nation safely.

Anonymous: We lost opportunities now. We don't have a space for advocacy, for legal support, for complaint mechanism. We don't have a space for almost anything. So now it's better to manage our life, manage our individual life better.

Sometimes I'm thinking that I should do more, or support the people’s movement. If I stay in the city it's risky or dangerous for me. If I voice out something on the medias or on my social media, I can be arrested anytime. I cannot voice out stuff as I like.

“Singing those songs, as much as I can...”

Peter: At the beginning, you said that when your classmates were planting a tree you could have sung a song. So in these days, what is your song?

Anonymous: For the development or humanitarian sector. I'm still singing those songs, as much as I can. I share my experience, how disability issues should be addressed from right based approach.

But for political sector, I cannot. I really want to sing a song. But it is risky and dangerous now. I have to be safe first, then I have to compose the song. This makes me uncomfortable every day. I'm feeling that I am not dutiful, I'm not a good citizen yet, I’m not able to contribute for political transformation.

If I'm a person without disability, I already would have become part of the defense force. But my disability doesn't allow me. I have to consider intellectually, in some ways and how I can contribute to the people’s movement.

I can sing a song now, but I'm not dutiful yet.

Peter: I want to say… it's my reaction, but I'm sure that it'll be the reaction of every one of my readers: you are doing a lot, in impossible circumstances. There are many forms of fight. Don’t feel guilty.

Anonymous: I try my best… but sometimes it’s a kind of shame. Just this morning I talked with someone who said that her family makes prayers to thank God for grace and enough food and keeping them safe. She got angry because she feels guilty like me. She said that she'll not praise the Lord until the people win.

Peter: You are seeing awful suffering, and you are surviving when not everyone is surviving. I understand you feeling guilty, and in your position I would as well. But I do not agree with it.

Anonymous: Yes, you are right. Actually, I wanted to say like this, but because of my poor English, I cannot express. Now you've completed this. Thank you.

“Look at the freedom of all our people”

Peter: Thank you for sharing the situation and your feelings. I'm moved, and now I also feel guilty I cannot do more. Do you have any other message for us?

Anonymous: Please remember, pay attention to the conflict happening in my country. The international community may not hear our voice, but we are facing severe difficulties in our daily life. We stay hopeless and our future is still dark.

So of course Ukraine, Russia issue is very important and also other global issues are very important. But the situation here is also important to save many lives of the people.

If the international community stay thinking our issue is just a national issue we'll be helpless. It is not like a local issue, it is a human rights issue, a humanitarian issue. Don’t look at only the national benefits of each country, but consider the global collective benefits for everyone.

Don’t be silent. Amplify our voice and take our issues more seriously. Look at the freedom of all our people.

Peter: How do you feel talking about such heavy things?

Anonymous: I feel a little bit lighter, a little bit relaxed. We don't have opportunity to share like this, I really thank you for listening, because we need the person who really take attention or listen our issues.

Peter: Thank you. You touched my heart with your words.

Anonymous: Thank you, Peter. Thank you so much.

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Thanks to Sonaksha for a beautiful illustration.

I am grateful to and humbled by the person I have to call “Anonymous” in this interview. Without the risk they took and their clarity in sharing, this would not have been possible. I hope that one day we can give a name to such a strong singer.

I am grateful to the friend of the Debrief who made this unique connection possible and helped me approach this conversation. I also got help in preparation (not to mention years of chat about Myanmar) from my guy J.B.

The Debrief is supported by the individuals and organizations that read it.