Food & Politics

Rangoon Bistro’s Alex Saw on Myanmar’s Military Takeover

“This is our last fight. We’re not going to give up.”

By Marty Patail February 11, 2021

A rally against the military coup in Myanmar in Salem, Oregon

Portland chef Alex Saw is livid, yes, but not surprised. 

On February 1, military leaders in his native Myanmar declared a state of emergency, deposed its democratically elected government, and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the face of the country’s democratic efforts since the 1980s. The coup came after a landslide November election, in which the National League for Democracy won 396 out of 476 parliamentary seats. The military, left even weaker by the results, called the results fraudulent.

“I was so upset about this,” Saw says. “We were so angry about this coup. They just play dirty, man.”

Saw knows just how dirty they can play. In 2002, when he was 15, he was forced to flee Yangon—Myanmar’s capital—for his role in a student group critical of the government, then still firmly in control of the military. He and other students escaped on foot over the border to Thailand to evade capture. He arrived in Portland via Malaysia in 2010 and was working in Bollywood Theater’s kitchen when he met another chef, Nick Sherbo. The two launched Rangoon Bistro in 2019 with a once-a-week farmer’s market pop-up that took off just as local Burmese food options proliferated in Portland. In January, Saw and Sherbo moved to a kitchen on N Interstate, offering take-out curries and noodles every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Saw now sees history repeating itself. In 1990, when he was 3, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won another free election. Then, as now, the military refused to recognize the results and put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest until 2010. It wasn’t until 2011 that the military allowed another free election, adopting a quasi-democratic system that gave the military to the right to appoint a quarter of parliamentary seats.

“They’re doing the same thing [as in 1990],” Saw explains. “They want to stay above the law.”

The situation in Myanmar is unfolding rapidly: crowds of demonstrators and a civil disobedience movement have been met with live rounds and water cannons. This week, the military imposed strict curfews and restrictions on gatherings of more than five people, and has intermittently cut off the internet in the country.

Still, Saw says he is hopeful. Unlike when he was a student, the “new generation”—as he calls the current crop of activists—has access to the internet and, crucially, there’s a global population that now sees everything that’s happening online, the military’s efforts to shut down communications be damned.

“They cannot hide anymore,” he says. “The new generation over there, they’re really ahead of the computer systems. [When I was there,] we don’t have internet, we don’t have WiFi. But this is the wrong generation they’re playing against.”

What can Portlanders do? Saw says good old political pressure is crucial: letters, emails, and calls to federal representatives urging the Biden administration to freeze any funds that military leaders may have stashed abroad. The administration has already denounced the military takeover and threatened sanctions.

“This is our last fight,” Saw says. “We’re not going to give up—the whole country—this is our last fight. They [the military junta] have to be gone… they have to be gone for a long time.”

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