OSAKA -- Myanmar people living in Japan have been criticized for taking part in protests against the military coup in their home country during the coronavirus pandemic, with employers putting pressure on them not to attend and others saying they should go back to their country to express their opposition.
To better understand the feelings of Myanmar people in Japan, the Mainichi Shimbun went to hear what the protestors at a gathering had to say. In the course of the investigations, it emerged that some were being threatened with dismissal or suspension from work if they went out to demonstrate, leaving them unable to even attend gatherings against the coup.
"Free Myanmar," "Free the leaders," chanted around 350 Myanmar residents in Japan and others at a large-scale gathering against the coup held in a park in the west Japan city of Kobe on May 2.
Myanmar was subject to a coup d'etat in February, in which Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was removed from power. Demonstrations against the military have been fierce in and outside of Myanmar, and a number of protests and gatherings have been held in Japan.
At the gathering the Mainichi Shimbun attended, participants wore black to mourn people who have died during the unrest, and everyone stood in spaced-apart rows. Because a state of emergency declaration is currently in effect, a planned demonstration was canceled.
One person from citizens' group Myanmar Kansai, which supported the gathering, revealed some of the difficulties that have come with staging the event, saying, "To avoid there being trouble, we've made considerations to avoid participants coming into close contact with members of the public. To prevent infections, it's important to secure a spacious venue."
But the truth is now many Myanmar people in Japan face dilemmas from being unable to freely participate in gatherings.
"Whenever something happens, we're immediately told, 'Go back to your country.' People think that we shouldn't do anything except our jobs," said a Myanmar woman in her 20s working as a technical intern trainee at a factory in west Japan's Kinki region.
In early February, she went with her colleagues and others to a gathering in Kobe in protest of the Myanmar military coup. She said that when a senior staff member at her place of work found out, they warned her: "We worry about you catching the coronavirus. You're absolutely forbidden from attending next time. If you go, we'll have you take time off."
Living in a company dormitory means having to report excursions. The woman worries that even if she went in secret, she would be reported by someone. Her hours are 9 a.m. to about 6 p.m. six days a week, for which she gets a monthly salary of about 120,000 yen (about $1,096).
Once her rent and the money she sends to her family in Myanmar are taken out, she's has just 30,000 yen (about $274) for the month. If she had more days off, her life would be even harder, and as a result she abandoned the idea of going to further demonstrations.
Labor union JAM General Union, based in Tokyo's Minato Ward, reported that it has received around 30 requests for consultation from technical intern trainees in prefectures nationwide, including Saitama and Gifu, who have been banned from attending demonstrations because of the pandemic. Some technical intern trainees are even said to have been made to sign contracts in which they have to pledge to quit their jobs if they take part in demonstrations.
Even online, criticism of demonstrations held during the coronavirus pandemic have been rampant, with messages such as, "Please go back to your country and do it there."
Shwe Yi Kyi Win, a 22-year-old international student living is Osaka Prefecture, was so hurt by the criticism that she tweeted a message titled "To all Japanese people" in February.
It read: "I feel very sorry that, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, many Myanmar people are coming together to protest. It is because we are fighting to survive for the sake of our country's peace and dreams. The incidents taking place in Myanmar have already become something that cannot be solved within its borders." In the image of her holding up the text, she stands while making the three-fingered salute -- a symbol of resistance against the military dictatorship.
So far, her message has been retweeted 14,000 times, and she has had responses like, "There's nothing you should all feel sorry for," and, "I respect all of you for the things you do for your country."
Win thinks now that while she understands the feelings of Japanese people living in the middle of the pandemic, when she sees the streams of people dying in her home country, she has to act. "If we could get even a little bit of interest from people, perhaps it would change the situation. I ask, please, that the people of Japan don't ignore Myanmar," she said.
(Japanese original by Yukina Furukawa, Osaka City News Department)