A fundraising bowl at the Mandalay Food House restaurant in Bangkok. Photo: Teirra Kamolvattanavith
For one week at the beginning of this month, the restaurant, which is based outside Myanmar in the Thai capital Bangkok, is asking diners to donate to a fund aimed at helping people affected by the military’s seizure of power this week. Meals are on the house.
“When I saw the news on February 1st, I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to sell anymore. I was extremely sad… it’s like my world fell apart,” restaurant owner Sai Lao Mai told VICE World News. “So I wanted to start a fund to help out in any way I can.”
With a large picture of now-detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi plastered in the window next to the restaurant’s entrance, Lao Mai’s support shows how popular the 75-year-old remains despite her star falling abroad. He sees Suu Kyi and her political party as the best force to resist the feared military, which is now running the country again after a decade-long experiment with democracy.
The walls of his three-year-old restaurant are covered with gold wallpaper, and traditional marionettes and colorful hand-crafted umbrellas hang from the ceiling. The menu offers a variety of iconic dishes from Myanmar including coconut milk chicken noodles, mohinga (a kind of fish soup), and Shan tofu noodles. The restaurant, located in a side street off Bangkok’s busy Phetchaburi Road, solely employs migrant workers from the homeland and the majority of customers also hail from Myanmar.
In less than three days, it has raised almost $1,000 for the fund. Lao Mai, who has also attended protests in Bangkok against the Myanmar coup, hopes to raise about $2,000 by Friday.
“I’m a little afraid [about the impact on the restaurant]. But if we experience losses, so be it because I’m more afraid for the future of my country,” the 29-year-old Mandalay native said.
For him, the military takeover sets the country’s development “back to zero.”
Early Monday morning, Suu Kyi and other senior leaders were arrested and later charged on obscure offenses, including the possession of illegal walkie-talkies. Alleging election fraud in last November’s general elections, which were easily won by Suu Kyi’s party, the military declared a state of emergency for a year and transferred power to Myanmar’s powerful commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.
The coup shocked citizens of the country living all over the world, including the huge diaspora community in Thailand, where an estimated three million migrant workers try to earn a living. Diners having lunch at Mandalay Food House on Wednesday afternoon expressed hopelessness over the military takeover that is all too familiar to those who lived under the previous junta in Myanmar.
“We are very heartbroken and sad. As you know, in our age, we have had a very bad experience in the past,” customer Sanda Pru told VICE World News. “We are safe [in Thailand] but we are Myanmar citizens. We feel the same as our citizens over there. It doesn’t matter where we live.”
Another diner, Khiang Su Wai, felt shocked.
“There were talks of a coup but I didn’t think it was actually going to happen,” she said, adding that she is glad to offer any donations via Mandalay Food House to support the fight.
“There are many Burmese restaurants in Thailand but this is the only place that’s [accepting donations instead of payments]. It makes me want to come support.”
“There were talks of a coup but I didn’t think it was actually going to happen.”
Su Wai, who has been in touch with her family via Facebook messenger—a service recently shut down in the country—said she is worried about finances at home. The country is already dealing with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. But since the coup, her brothers and sister have not been able to work as they are afraid of leaving their house. The sudden decline in income is especially concerning as food prices rise.
Thailand has also long hosted refugees from Myanmar fleeing violence and persecution by the military. Some 91,803 refugees from Myanmar currently live at government-run shelters on the Thai/Myanmar border.
But the kingdom, which is no stranger to coups, did not immediately condemn the development over the border. On Monday, while protestors held a pro-democracy demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon called the military takeover in Myanmar an “internal affair.”
A day later, when asked about his position on the coup, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha simply said that his stance is the same as the the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN), which encouraged “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy.”
The Thai military has faced criticized in the past for its relationship with the Myanmar armed forces. Over the last decade, Myanmar commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing was given two prestigious decorations from the kingdom.
In 2013, he was awarded the Knight Grand Cross First Class of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand, while in 2018, he received the Grand Cross First Class of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. The latter award was bestowed despite international condemnation stemming from atrocities carried out by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya Muslims.
After the funds have been collected, Mandalay Food House restaurant owner Sai Lao Mai hopes to use the money to support individuals suffering in Myanmar as the result of the coup as well as protest efforts in Thailand.
On Wednesday, Lao Mai also help set up a community of Myanmar citizens living in Thailand in hopes of uniting those that oppose the country’s military.
Mandalay Food House plans on accepting donations instead of meal payments until Feb. 5. After that Lao Mai will continue seeking donations to without using his restaurant as a platform.
The determined owner encourages those who agree with his stance to speak up online and pressure their governments to condemn the coup.
“I don’t want our country to turn into North Korea. If you don’t want to see it happen, let’s try to stop it before it’s too late.”