From living the diplomatic life in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities to potentially seeking asylum there, former Myanmar consular officer Chaw Kalyar is still grappling with the dramatic decision she made earlier this month.
It was late in the afternoon on March 4 when the third secretary from the Myanmar embassy in Berlin said in a public Facebook post that she refused to take orders from the military that seized power in a coup on Feb. 1.
“If we fail, we won’t be able to go back home,” she said in the post. “But we cannot carry out their work.”
She was rewarded with 10,000 likes and countless friend requests. Chaw had joined the revolution and her compatriots cheered her on. But the next phase of her life in Germany remains unclear.
“If we fail, we won’t be able to go back home,” she said in a Facebook post. “But we cannot carry out their work.”
At an apartment in Berlin, former Myanmar consular officer Chaw Kalyar raises the three-finger salute, a gesture from the "Hunger Games" films that has become the symbol of Asia's new pro-democracy forces. Photo: Verena Hölzl
For weeks now, hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar have joined a civil disobedience movement, shutting down the country as they refuse to work in ministries, factories and banks. Myanmar’s ousted civilian government set up a shadow bloc with its own representatives, leaders and foreign minister, as calls for a “people’s army” mount.
Diplomats are also in revolt.
From Tokyo to Los Angeles, around 20 diplomats like Chaw Kalyar, Myat Zar Zar Khaing and Myo Htet San in Berlin have joined the strike. It’s hard to keep track of numbers, as they are only loosely connected with each other. But their ranks continue to grow.
Chaw was on the fence since the power grab, unsure about the implications of challenging the regime.
But she was inspired by Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who stunned the world last month when he publicly defected from the military government in a dramatic speech. With his voice breaking, he flashed the defiant three-finger salute from the “Hunger Games” movies in the cavernous General Assembly as other diplomats applauded.
“Such a courageous act,” Chaw remembers, still full of admiration.
This screengrab of handout video shows Myanmar's ambassador to the UN Kyaw Moe Tun making a three-finger salute as he addresses an informal meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Feb. 26, 2021 in New York. Photo: United Nations / AFP
The Foreign Ministry under which she is serving was one of the first ministries to join the opposition. Many of her colleagues were detained, Chaw said, but she feels safe in a European country. “At least in Germany, we don’t have to be scared of being dragged out of our apartments at night.”
Far away from home, on a cold and grey Berlin afternoon, the now-former diplomat in her late forties was sitting on the sofa in a friend’s apartment, not far from the Myanmar embassy where she used to work.
“At least in Germany, we don’t have to be scared of being dragged out of our apartments at night.”
While she says her colleagues who remained at the embassy mostly support the ousted civilian government, Chaw and the two others who walked out with her are in a precarious situation. They might lose their apartments, their visas and their diplomatic passports, which depend on the support of the regime in power.
At home, the military is resorting to increasingly brutal tactics against protesters. More than 2,600 people have been detained and at least 260 killed since the coup, according to local advocacy group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. International condemnation and sanctions don’t seem to be having any effect on the generals, who claim they seized power and arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi because of alleged election fraud in November in which military-backed parties were trounced at the polls.
In a tragic irony, it was part of Chaw’s job to help fellow Myanmar citizens abroad retrieve personal identity documents taken from them during decades of junta rule before 2011. She did not expect to one day face similar problems.
The embassy canceled her passport and requested Germany to revoke her diplomatic visa. Her two colleagues may share the same fate. The decision is still pending, and the German Foreign Ministry told VICE World News News it is trying to find a “safe and sustainable solution.”
Chaw called on the German government to expel the Burmese military attaché based in Berlin—the only one in Europe. “Talking to the military is like playing the harp to a buffalo,” she said. “They never listen to anyone.” She has not been in direct contact with the shadow government representing the elected leaders, but stands ready to work for them.
“Talking to the military is like playing the harp to a buffalo. They never listen to anyone.”
It’s also not her first revolution. In 1988, when the people took to the streets and thousands lost their lives in the fight against the then-military regime, Chaw joined the struggle. She was 16 years old. Many of her friends died or fled to the jungle.
Ten years, a journey through a broken education system and various random jobs later, hopes for the revolution fizzled and she decided to join the Foreign Ministry in the late 1990s, when it was still under control of then-junta leader Than Shwe.
But after the transition to democracy in 2011, she is not willing to turn back the clock.
“This time, everyone has witnessed what they did. They cannot run this country anymore,” she said.
Chaw says she would support any means possible to overthrow the junta.
“If we give in to the military, it’s the worst scenario for all of us.”