On 1 February 2021, the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – deposed democratically elected members of the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The coup d’état occurred the day before members elected in the November 2020 election were to have been sworn in, thereby preventing them from taking office. The military detained 180 leaders, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, along with ministers, their deputies, and members of Parliament, charging them with breaching campaign guidelines and Covid-19 restrictions. We asked our colleague Mai Aye Aye Aung to share how she feels about the coup, what is happening at her university, what the faculty thinks about the developments and what the consequences will be for higher education – and last but not least, what we can do to support Myanmar.
By Mai Aye Aye Aung
The military returns to rule after a short span of quasi-democracy in Myanmar. After the arrests, telecom and internet providers were ordered to disrupt services, blocking social media. Passenger flights were stopped, and commercial activity suspended as citizens joined in public protests and civil resistance. Crowds are patrolling the streets and a night-time curfew is in force, with a one-year state of emergency declared.
For those of us in Myanmar, it was an unbelievable turn of events. Myanmar’s Covid-19 cases had dropped each day and pre-planning to reopen physical services and public places was underway. Myanmar had received 1.5 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine donated by India and had also pledged to buy 40 million more, which would immunise 60% of the country’s population. Millions of citizens are saddened by the news of the military coup and the negative impact on managing the pandemic – testing for coronavirus collapsed right away after the military took control and an atmosphere of fear and anger has spread across the country. On February 1st, people in Yangon started banging pots and pans and honking their cars horns to protest against the coup – a traditional ritual to drive evil from their homes. They were quickly joined by the rest of the country the next day and now the whole of Myanmar bangs pots and pans for 15 minutes from 8:00 pm to 8:15 pm every night without stopping a single day.
Myanmar’s youth led online campaigns as part of a civil disobedience movement (CDM), drawing on the experience of older generations while using technical methods that break with the past. Although millions of people all over the country have joined peaceful protests against the military dictatorship, many of the older generation do not dare to hope for a peaceful outcome mainly because of the hardship they have experienced and memories of the fear with which they still live. In fact, in the last couple of days dozens of people have been killed, and many wounded across Myanmar in the most violent crackdown yet by security forces against peaceful demonstrators. Youths, activists, and educators are encouraging all citizens to join CDM by not going to work and boycotting military led enterprises and services. It could cause a short-term economic recession, but I personally believe that CDM might be the only hope for Myanmar at the moment. Many countries and international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and countries like the United States could pressure Myanmar’s military but this is an internal affair that all our fellow citizens need to fight for.
Our university offered classes online due to Covid-19 but has had to suspend all classes for several weeks now because of the political situation and the lack of an internet connection. Our faculty and staff have mixed feelings of fear and anger about the coup. Myanmar has been through terrible experiences because higher education in Myanmar was in decline for many years in the past. All universities were closed for about two thirds of the time between 1988 and 2003 and campuses were forced to relocate to isolated locations far from city centres due to security concerns. Sadly, these difficulties have resulted in an uneducated generation suffering from a critical lack of resources and skills and we are afraid that it will happen again for our future generations. Myanmar needs international attention to help in terms of technical assistance and human rights principles by any and all means. We, the citizens, believe that the Civil Disobedience Movement is the hard power while peaceful protests gain soft power against this military regime, and Myanmar needs immediate help from international organisations to return to its journey towards democracy.
About the Author
Mai Aye Aye Aung is a Myanmar native and an active member of the Paeradigms network of experts. She has also lived and worked in Japan, the United States, Canada, the Philippines and Thailand. She is currently on study leave (pursuing her PhD) from her position as Dean of Liberal Arts at the Myanmar Institute of Theology. She has a certification in Community Development Leadership by Women, a bachelor’s degree in economics and religious studies, a master’s degree in peace studies and an MBA.
Higher Education in Myanmar Although a long-time continuity of monastic learning and education makes Myanmar one of the most literate countries in the region, the prolonged internal conflicts, isolation over the years of military rule, lack of funding and use of education as a tool of social control have created ongoing problems in the education sector. The country counts 174 higher education institutions (Chinelone, 2018), most of which are based in the Yangon and Mandalay Region. Since 2012, the country has engaged in a higher education reform process shaped around providing institutional autonomy and addressing challenges that include, but are not limited to, excessive bureaucratisation, insufficient funding, lack of qualified academic personnel, low research capacity, issues with quality and relevance, high drop-out rates, and limited access. Especially in remote areas, where the absence of educational institutions providing students with the necessary credentials to access higher education, the situation continues to be precarious. Even if the government has prioritised the reform of the education sector, these reforms often do not reach distant locations such (e.g. Kachin State or Chin State where Paeradigms has carried out evaluations of Norad-funded projects).
Chinelone. (2018). Myanmar’s Higher Education Reform: Which Way Forward?, 1–48.