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Seeking asylum from Myanmar: an interview with Jack Sanga

He was a student when Myanmar’s military launched a coup against its sitting government in 2021 and has since had to flee after protesting against military rule. He currently volunteers with the charity Asylum Welcome and is seeking to raise awareness of the ongoing violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by the present regime in Myanmar.

In spring of 2021, Jack was in his third year of university studying psychology. On the 1st February 2021, Myanmar’s parliament was scheduled to meet for the first time since the election in November 2020, in which the incumbent National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide victory. Instead, to the surprise of many living in Myanmar including Jack, the military seized power from the civilian government on that day in a coup, bringing to an abrupt halt a decade-long transition away from full military rule towards democracy.

Jack woke up that morning and turned on the television to find that all channels were out of operation except the military channel which was broadcasting propaganda. The coup marked a return to military rule which Myanmar has been subject to since 1962. The November election was only the second general election held in the country since an end was brought to full military rule in 2011 after years of insurgencies and civil protests by the Burmese people.

The military justified the coup by alleging widespread fraud in the 2020 election and declaring a subsequent state of emergency, though a number of independent observers have rejected the claims of widespread election fraud. For young people like Jack, democracy had become the new norm and they had little memory of the decades of military rule that had dictated Burmese politics for much of the period since its independence. Having only known life under a democracy, he was completely taken aback by the announcement of the coup. He mentioned that when he first saw the broadcasts, he partially hoped the whole thing was some sort of joke, not quite believing what was happening, though the bleak reality of the situation soon set in.

Thousands took to the streets in cities across Myanmar in the months that followed to reject the coup and call for the elected government to be returned to power. Amongst them were Jack and his friends who organised the first non-violent demonstration in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city, attended by hundreds of people. The initial response to the coup, which mostly constituted a peaceful civil disobedience movement made up of health workers, students and other civilians was met with a brutal crackdown. The military began its ongoing campaign of terror; quashing dissent with violent tactics, raiding homes, arresting and in some cases executing activists and those suspected of supporting democracy.

Jack recounts hearing about the first person, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, who was shot at with a live bullet at a peaceful demonstration in the city of Naypyidaw on February 4th as the police attempted to clear protestors. Despite contrary evidence from filmed footage of the incident, the military claimed only rubber bullets were used that day. She died in hospital on February 19th from her wounds. She was just 19 years old. After those first few days, Jack remembers dispersal tactics only becoming more brutal, with tear gas, water cannons and live bullets being deployed regularly at subsequent protests. He described scenes of burnt tires, roads filled with rubbish and sounds of gunshots resonating through the city of Mandalay for the first time in his

When schools and universities were reopened later in 2021 and in early 2022 after many months of closure due to COVID-19 alongside many other students refused to return to education in protest. Faced with gloomy prospects for the return of a democratic government and disgruntled at the state of the curriculum, shaped by what he found to be an intentionally exclusionary narrative, Jack continued his strike action. He received a number of letters from his university stating that if he didn’t attend, he would be arrested. As his situation became increasingly unsafe, he made the difficult decision to leave his home and come to the UK to seek asylum.

Speaking about his experiences seeking asylum in the UK, he says that he is at once grateful for the people he has met in Oxford and frustrated with some of his interactions with the immigration system. Though the Home Office web site suggests that it usually takes six months to get an asylum decision after interview, Jack has found this to be unrealistic in his and others’ experience. This reflects a national trend of growing appeal backlogs, resulting in longer average waiting times for decisions on asylum cases. According to the Migration Observatory, whereas 87% of applications received an initial decision within six months in Q2 2014, just 10% did so in the same time period in 2022. In 2021, UK asylum applications took an average of around 20 months to receive an initial Home Office decision.

As he awaits a decision, he has been staying in government accommodation on the outskirts of Oxford. He talks about how friendly and supportive many of the people he has met in Oxford have been. Since asylum seekers do not have the right to work whilst their claim is being considered, Jack has taken up volunteering with the charity Asylum Welcome, attends a local church and has sought ways to continue his studies and keep up his love of music.

He does so despite many barriers; unable to earn an income he can only access a government stipend of £8.86 a week- with a single bus fare into town from his accommodation costing £2, the possibilities of accessing any facilities or community spaces in town are extremely limited. There are also practical barriers to engaging with the local community- for one, despite relative proficiency in English, the language barrier can make meeting and getting to know people difficult as he found when he first joined his local congregation. In some cases, revealing his asylum background has provoked coldness or intrusive questioning, though there are still many who are welcoming and warm. He mentions that this is particularly true of those he’s met through local music groups, with music often providing a common language himself and local musicians and enthusiasts can all share in.

Despite having his life upheaved almost overnight, forced to flee his home and living in a state of constant uncertainty, Jack is resolved to make the best of his situation. When asked what he thinks there is for us to do as students he
stresses the importance of staying informed about the situation in Myanmar. Some assume it is safe for Burmese asylum seekers like Jack to return home, questioning their right to seek asylum here. Jack finds this to be a reflection of a general lack of awareness about the ongoing brutality being inflicted by Myanmar’s government on its people, particularly minorities like the Chin people, of which Jack is a part, who are not a part of the Buddhist-Bamar ethno-religious majority. Jack suggests that part of the problem is that media blackouts and widespread dissemination of propaganda by the military regime have limited channels for spreading information regarding the situation in Myanmar. At the same time, the fate of Myanmar is that of many countries stricken by violence and humanitarian crises – after a few months of taking up headlines, it lost the attention of the international community.

When Jack talks to us about the situation in Myanmar as it is today, the air around him seems to change; his sunny optimism seems to give way to a certain graveness and urgency. Reports from organisations including the UN suggest violence and repression in the state is only intensifying as the ethno-nationalist government faces various military challenges from armed groups in various states across the country. More than 2 million people have been displaced since the coup and the UN has noted the use of indiscriminate air attacks and scorched earth tactics by the military against opposition which constitute war crimes as well as uses of torture, intimidation and arbitrary detainment and killing of civilians.

Jack could have never imagined the turns his life would take all of a sudden in his third year of university. He retains a great deal of hope and determination and continues to advocate for awareness of the plight of the Burmese people and freedom against repression and violence at the hands of its military dictatorship so that his people can live free from the threat of violence and he might one day be able to return to the place he once called home.

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