Originally published on Mohinga Matters
On November 13, 2022, A Burmese migrant worker in late twenties decided to jump off of a bridge in Thailand. A Thai policeman was seen begging for him to climb down off the bridge not to commit suicide. The young man, saved, revealed later his reasons for choosing to end his life before being intervened by a kind Thai policeman. He is an undocumented migrant worker who had lost his job and had no money to return home. This is a scenario not unfamiliar, in fact, it has become a common sight to witness Myanmar citizens who had committed suicide both inside Myanmar and abroad after the February 2021 military coup. In August 2022 alone, pictures of shoes and small belongings left behind by at least four individuals that had jumped off of bridges in Myanmar to their deaths were widely circulated on social media.
It is undeniable that economic hardships which resulted in unemployment play a major role in people’s mental health. According to Sucide Prevention Myanmar, one of the leading factors contributed to suicide cases is financial issues. This is true in the case of Myanmar where millions are facing financial loss and struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis. The global Covid-19 pandemic has caused the Myanmar economy to shrink, where experts argued that a two week lockdown in April 2020 led to 41 percent decline in GDP along with similar declines in other sectors. However, it was the coup staged by Min Aung Hlaing in 2021 that has exacerbated the already worsening economic situation into an economic crisis with huge unemployment in millions.
Since the 2021 coup, the World Bank says one million Myanmar jobs were likely to have been lost, and $2.8 billion USD of economic losses may have been incurred as a result of internet shutdowns in Myanmar in the year 2021 alone. As a direct consequence of the coup, Myanmar’s economy has shrunk by 30 percent. As a result, rising suicide cases have become Myanmar’s reality today. For Myanmar, economic hardship is not the only factor leading to suicides. Though suicide rate is high in low-and-middle income countries as 77 percent of suicide cases according to World Health Organization (WHO), it is not necessarily true in Myanmar. In addition to economic hardship, political oppression has also contributed to Myanmar people’s decline in mental health. Religion plays a role in Myanmar for people to refrain from choosing suicide as an escape as observed by Kawamoto, who conducted research on “Buddhism and Suicide” in 2014. Myanmar, as a developing country with economic hardships experienced by majority of the people for many decades, has not seen an alarmingly high rate of suicide. In fact, people had previously refrained from choosing suicide to end their suffering because the majority believe and regard suicide as an act forbidden in Theravada Buddhism. This was argued by Kawamoto as her own country Japan suffers from high rate of suicides every year.
The suicide rate in Myanmar was not on the rise before the coup. In fact, it has seen a decline during the brief experiment with democratic rule from 2015. For example, suicide cases in Myanmar were in decline or a zero percent increase during 2016 to 2018. According to Myanmar Suicide Rate Historical data, source provided by World Bank, Myanmar saw a continued decrease in the suicide rate since 2017 with a 6.25 percent fall from 2016. The last data available for suicide rate was in 2019 with 2.90 where there was zero percent increase from 2018. With the current political situation, an accurate data on suicide rate has not been possible though suicide cases have been widely publicized on the social media. For example, one of the high profile cases of suicide in post-coup Myanmar is connected to the political oppression. It is the deceased Lon Ma Nyein Chan (the name is literally translated as “Peace Woman”) who chose to end her life in April 2022. Her father was a renowned political dissident and poet who named her “Peace” wishing to realize peace in the country one day. Her husband was in prison for being involved in the pro-democracy movement in the country and sentenced to two years in prison. Most of her life, she spent sending parcels to her father in prison, and now she has sent parcels to her husband for more than a year. Soon after the judgment that sentenced her husband to another two years, she could no longer find peace, and finally chose to end her own suffering.
While the country had to go through a collective suffering and trauma from the coup, mental health has become a topic now to openly discuss in Myanmar – previously regarded as taboo. Unlike before, people have become more open to accept the discussion on mental health issues and to put efforts on suicide prevention. Suicide Prevention Myanmar’s interview for Kyodo News revealed that more people have reached out to them in recent months related to political uncertainities, with seven people requesting for counselling in just four days. Coup-related mental health issues have been reported frequently, and especially for those involved in the pro-democracy movement. However, those spoken to have said that they try to find ways to cope by reminding themselves this is collective suffering and trauma. Daw Nan, a primary school teacher from Hlaingbwe, Karen State, who had joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) talked about her mental health issues due to being listed under 505A and on a constant run to avoid being detained by the regime. When asked how she coped, she said, “When I feel sad and depressed, I tell myself I’m not alone in this and listen to Dhamma and talk to my family. I will not return to work no matter how much the school pressures me to return, I am determined on my decision to stop working under this brutal regime”.
A railway worker, U Thet Htwe, who joined the CDM in February 2021 lamented the same thing about how he copes with his mental health issues. He said, “I try to think of those younger than me, and with occupations better than me who had sacrificed their lives in this revolution whenever I feel like losing hope. I have been trying to think of helping others who have lost income like me for almost 2 years and haven’t been able to find a stable income. I also work as a daily wage worker to solve the financial issues but it’s definitely hard to make ends meet. It is really hard but I’m content with my decision to not work for the murderous regime. And this is how I am trying to survive”.
In post-coup Myanmar with deteriorating economic, social and political situations, the rising suicide rate has become an alarming concern. As a result, this has led Myanmar to discuss the mental health problems more openly than before, and for the people to seek for solutions and therapies. Some well-known pro-democracy writers and activists are also highlighting mental health issues, an issue that needs to be treated with utmost priority to sustain the revolution. However, for those who chose suicide, they might have thought that was the only escape in a world that has become extremely hard to survive.
- Suicide Prevention Myanmar
- Diao,X. & Wang, M (2020).Significant Economic Impacts due to covid-19 and Falling Remittances in Myanmar.
- Kawamoto, Kanae (2014). Buddhism and Suicide: Voluntary Death and its Philosophy.
- Myanmar Suicide Rate