Daniel Nyan had just picked up lunch and was driving home when a powerful wave of emotion forced him to pull over and start crying.
“I have a car, I have a home and can buy myself food,” he recalled thinking. “So many of our people can’t.”
Daniel was born in Myanmar’s remote Chin State on the border with India. He left the country years ago and is now running the operations of an international child protection organisation in Mae Sot, a Thai town where refugees from Myanmar have lived for decades.
Since independence in 1948, his homeland has rarely seen peace, with coups, military regimes and civil wars a steady feature of life. A brief period of democracy took hold in 2015, but that ended in February when generals arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking a nationwide revolt that continues seven months later.
More than a thousand people have died at the hands of security forces, according to one monitor that has kept track of deaths. Thousands are imprisoned, tens of thousands have lost their homes, and a devastating third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has stoked a sense of despair.
But the lesser-known trauma of survivors' guilt has become a more silent terror, according to interviews with experts and members of a sprawling diaspora who are watching the events in Myanmar unfold with helpless horror.
“I have a car, I have a home and can buy myself food…so many of our people can’t.”
Because Daniel was trained in mental health for his work with children, the aid worker knows that he is affected by the condition, which became better understood after the Holocaust when those who escaped the Nazis displayed signs of distress.
“You are in a traumatic situation, you survive and other people do not—and then you ask yourself: Why did I deserve to live or get out when others don’t,” said Dr. Sheela Raja, a Chicago-based trauma researcher, explaining the nagging pain.
But even people who do not witness the events firsthand can experience it. Though it commonly occurs in the aftermath of conflict, natural disasters and major accidents, it is not limited to crisis contexts. “We have also seen it in health epidemics like HIV or COVID,” Raja said.
Daniel knows he is not alone in his guilt. Even one of his U.S.-based colleagues shares feelings of shame and regret about not doing enough to help those affected by the coup, he said. His brother who lives in the U.S. is now working two jobs and eating out less, so that he can save money and donate it to the resistance movement back home.
Especially in the diaspora, which is spread out all over the world through previous cycles of violence in Myanmar, people feel guilty about being free and safe while those inside suffer, said Phyu Pannu Khin, a U.S.-based Ph.D. candidate in Psychology who has been supporting people in her home country through social media. “People wonder: Why me? Why was I given this chance?” she said.
Daniel at some point realised that his guilt about being okay wasn’t useful for what he actually cared about: Supporting the people who have to face the consequences of the coup. When a friend told him that a wounded person cannot help the wounded, he pulled himself together, he said. Spurred back into action, he organised teams in Myanmar who are reaching out to those in need.
“It’s good that I can empathise with people. But the real question is: What is it that I can do for them?” he said.
Dealing with emotions brought on by the crisis differs from person to person. For Daniel’s co-worker Tuang Hu Lai, who goes by the name Andrew, survivor guilt creeps in whenever he commits to care for himself.
When he couldn’t stop scrolling through the dreadful news from Myanmar that made him feel exhausted and empty, he decided to delete a couple of social media apps from his mobile phone. But whenever he took those breaks, he started to feel guilty all over again.
“We are drinking coffee with friends or going on trips to relax from all the bad news, when in Myanmar people are running from the military,” he said in an interview in July. “How is that fair?”
Andrew describes his guilt as a bottomless barrel. Even his cousin, who is a lookout for one of Myanmar’s newly created resistance forces that recently declared war on the junta, thinks he’s not doing enough for the movement. “He regrets that he is not fighting right at the frontline,” Andrew said.
Nandar, a well-known feminist from Myanmar who goes by only one name, knows that feeling well.
“I am blaming myself constantly: I am not doing enough or not doing the right thing; I don’t deserve the safety I have; I shouldn’t be here,” she said.
The wave of guilt hit her once she left Myanmar earlier this year. “Inside the country, you struggle to survive. And when you’re out, your mind gets absorbed by guilt about being free,” she said.
Soon after arriving in her new home country, which she prefers not to disclose out of safety concerns, she started addressing her guilt with a therapist. “Once I realised this feeling is a thing and it has a name, it became easier,” Nandar said.
Growing up in Northern Shan State, one of Myanmar’s many conflict areas, she was no stranger to survivor guilt. Around her, people lost their homes and loved ones on a regular basis. Nandar has always been lucky throughout all the fighting – but more than feeling lucky, she felt guilty.
“When I was younger, I had a lot of survivor guilt but couldn’t name it because we didn’t have the words in our language to talk about mental health,” she said.
Myanmar’s health system has been underfunded for decades, and mental health resources are even scarcer.
Some observers said it’s more common to resort to religion instead of seeking help from barely available counselors, as stigmas around mental health remain.
“When I was younger, I had a lot of survivor guilt but couldn’t name it because we didn’t have the words in our language to talk about mental health.”
Hoping to fuel the discussion about the collective pain Myanmar people are facing, Nandar rededicated her feminist podcast “G-Taw Zagar Wyne” (Boss Lady Dialogues) to a series called “Mental Health After The Coup.” In the episode on survivor guilt, she advises her listeners to always ask themselves: Who is actually responsible?
“We glamourise pain as the only thing we are able to feel. But the truth is, no matter how unhappy our lives are, we are allowed to feel both pain and happiness,” Nandar said.
She doesn’t think that the feeling of guilt will ever go away. But ever since she has acknowledged it and learnt about tools to keep it at bay, it is not disturbing her life as much anymore.
“I can’t stop the killing in Myanmar. But I will do what is in my control and what I am good at, and that will be enough,” she said.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group in Myanmar, said they have seen people from inside and outside the country reach out to them, reporting feelings of guilt.
“Even as counselors, we are affected,” admitted Kyaw Soe Win, a 53-year-old who has worked on mental health issues with former political prisoners. “Sometimes I am upset because I am old and I can’t do anything but watch young people get arrested and die.”
But just like the people seeking help from his organisation, he reminds himself to stay focused. “We encourage them to never forget that contributing anything they can will be useful for the revolution,” he said.
“Sometimes I am upset because I am old and I can’t do anything but watch young people get arrested and die.”
Lin Htet Aung, who was a Captain in the Myanmar military until March, adopted this mindset for himself. He defected, not able to accept the violence against civilians, although he claims he was never directly involved.
“In the past, when I was in this unjust organisation, I felt guilty,” he said about the Myanmar military. “Now, I am trying to remove all this guilt by doing my best for the country.”
Considered a traitor by the military, he thinks he is not safe. “But at least my spirit is finally free.”
Daniel’s focus, too, has started to shift away from his feelings of guilt. “We have to be tough,” he said. “Or how else will you survive in Myanmar?”