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“A very, very scary moment”: U of T student in Myanmar recalls the military coup

Internet shutdown, isolation, and fear of future
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Alex* remembers that it was a Monday morning in their home in Myanmar when their mother all of a sudden rushed into their room, woke them up, and told them to contact U of T while they still could. It was at that moment that they realized that something was wrong and that the rumour that had worried their country for months might have just become real.

On February 1, a military coup in Myanmar shocked the world. The military swept the country overnight, detaining newly elected officials and lawmakers. Among them was the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in the election less than three months prior.

The military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, declared a yearlong state-of-emergency, putting the country once again under military rule. The military group accused the November election of being fraudulent and promised a “free and fair” election when the state-of-emergency is over, according to the BBC. The military government has brought several charges against Suu Kyi, including allegations of possession of imported walkie-talkies, violation of COVID-19 restrictions, and perpetuated corruption.

Civil disobedience movements and protests have erupted across the country since the military takeover, and protestors were confronted with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Countries including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have laid down sanctions, but the violent crackdowns continue in spite of widespread condemnations on the military’s abuses of human rights and violation of “international law.”

The Varsity was able to speak to Alex, who returned to Canada very recently, about their unique experiences on the ground in Myanmar. A U of T spokesperson wrote that “registrars are in touch with all students,” and the Government Relations Office is in touch with Canadian authorities that monitor the situation in the affected region.

Not long after Alex clicked send on their email to U of T, everything was shut down. Snow screens buzzed on televisions. Websites never loaded, and mobile connections were forced offline. 

“That was a very, very scary moment,” said Alex.

Disconnected from an online semester

Alex had a difficult semester while they were still in Myanmar. One of the major challenges, according to Alex, was a lack of access to the internet. As COVID-19 continues to haunt the world, this semester is still almost entirely online. However, after the coup, this singular connection between Alex and their university life was disrupted. 

The military disabled phone lines and internet across the country, as well as the television and radio. The connection was restored later; however, it came along with new restrictions and both scheduled and intermittent shut-offs.

No internet can be accessed every day from 1:30–9:30 pm Eastern Standard Time. While in Myanmar, which is 11 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Toronto, Alex completely rehauled their schedule to match the Toronto time zone. They slept during the shut-off period and watched recordings of lectures later. 

“I was already feeling disengaged because of the online thing. This just makes it worse,” they said. 

Even outside of the eight-hour window when they didn’t have internet access, they still had an unstable connection. “You never know when it’s gonna cut off,” said Alex. “Especially when you’re doing a test, and there are also live lectures, so if the connection is not that good, the screen just turns black.”

Sometimes the internet would go down while Alex was attending team meetings. The only thing they could do was grab the phone and tell their teammates that they couldn’t be there anymore. Even when the internet was available, however, foreign websites, including Quercus were blocked if the user was not using a virtual private network — which makes connections even laggier.

If the connection dropped during exams, Alex’s only option was to file a petition. Given the situation, they considered taking time off because of the political instability and incidents surrounding them.

According to a U of T spokesperson, registrars are identifying the challenges the students connected to Myanmar are facing. “Where necessary they are also providing students with support through communication with instructors,” they wrote to The Varsity.

Alex recalled being put in touch with a learning strategist. “She told me to inform all the instructors, so they are aware of what is happening [there],” Alex said. “If the internet was to cut off at important times, then they could understand what is happening, and I could file a petition for that.”

“In the beginning, I thought of maybe taking a break from the semester because a lot of things are going on personally, and I couldn’t seem to concentrate on my studies at first,” they said. 

Alex considered gapping this semester because they did not feel they could focus on studies with the political instability and incidents happening around them. They were told they could drop some courses, but they ultimately chose not to. 

They noted that their teammates and friends have been supportive and instructors were willing to extend deadlines for a few days. “But I don’t want to keep doing that — I don’t want to feel like it is just an excuse to put off the work,” they said. “So I kept going.”

Staggering road to democracy

On the day the coup began, Alex couldn’t stop asking themselves: is history going to repeat itself? 

The military has never been absent in Myanmar politics, along with the country’s struggling democratic movements. In 1945, Britain and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) freed Myanmar from Japanese occupation. 

The AFPFL faced a split around 1958, resulting in an ad hoc government led by Army Chief of Staff General Ne Win. The period afterward was marked by tension between the government and the army on religion and separatism issues.

Then, in 1962, Ne Win led the coup d’état that overthrew the federal government. However, near the end of the 1980s, economic crises agitated people and led to anti-government riots, resulting in Ne Win’s ultimate resignation. 

The pro-democracy movement reached its peak in August 1988, with mass demonstrations and strikes erupting across the country. That year, Aung San Suu Kyi delivered her iconic speech in front of 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda, calling for democracy.

The movement ended with blood: thousands were killed, many were arrested, and some fled the country in the deadly crackdown. Suu Kyi was put under house arrest in 1989 while her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won by a landslide in the election a year later — a result disregarded by the ruling military government then. That government remained in power for 20 years afterward under different titles.

In 2010, the country held its first elections since 1990. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claimed that it had won and said that the country had moved out of military rule.

A week later, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. In 2012, Suu Kyi and NLD candidates won a victory in parliamentary by-elections.

Professor Jacques Bertrand from the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy told The Varsity that Myanmar’s transition to democracy after 2011 is different from democratic movements that are usually characterized by rebellions of some form. The reform in Myanmar, in his opinion, is largely “engineered by the military,” which kept tremendous privileges for itself over the constitution, parliament, and certain ministries.

“You have to remember that there [were] always two governments,” Bertrand said. “There was a military government independent from the civilian government, and they were at loggerheads with each other to some extent.”

He added that Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD party and the state counsellor before being detained, had been attempting to reduce those military privileges in the system during her tenure. The military agreed to adopt some changes in the constitution, but last year’s election results disappointed the military, and they expected a harder political life ahead with NLD at the stage.

“So the fact that the military takes over, it’s to sort of get rid of the NLD,” said Bertrand. He added that the charges brought against Suu Kyi, from his perspective, served the same purpose: to disqualify her from running.

It was the scale of the backlash, he said, that the military did not anticipate. Across the country, people fought the military with protests and acts of civil disobedience. The tension escalated quickly and led to deadly crackdowns.

“They arrested a lot of people all over Myanmar,” Alex wrote to The Varsity. “Most of them were students.” 

According to Students for Liberty, a non-profit organization, some student activists were being transferred to a prison that has a history of detaining political prisoners and use of torture.

Al Jazeera reported that on March 3, approximately 400 student protestors in the Tamwe township were rounded up by police in the largest mass arrest since the coup. One protestor recalled that there were around 20 police officers who used stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas. The student protestors who were arrested allegedly do not have any access to communication with family or lawyers. 

This event echoed the way that many protests against the coup have unfolded. Many have met violent and deadly retaliation by soldiers and security forces, who used tear gas, flashbangs, and stun grenades over the past weeks. The military also reportedly opened fire on peaceful protestors. In Reuters, a United Nations human rights investigator reported that as of March 11, at least 70 people have been killed since the coup happened.

Alex attended one protest on February 14, but they said that this was before many soldiers were involved. Their experience was relatively peaceful, but now there is a massive shift. 

“There’s more violence now,” they said. “They are shooting.”

A foggy future ahead

“We had a future, right?” Alex questioned, gesturing to the precarious situation that the current political instability brings. “My family was scared that it would be gone.” 

That uncertainty has extended to many sectors of life in Myanmar now. Financially, the economy has taken a hit as businesses are being disrupted and the currency is depreciating. As an international student, this meant that Alex has faced concerns about tuition, which Alex said they pay in full. Education became a larger worry “especially that it’s online, and the tuition is very expensive,” Alex said. “I don’t know much about support for international [students].” 

Alex added that some international students they know are trying to get out of Myanmar as soon as they can. They want to go back to their institutions, but due to the pandemic and political issues, they have been unable to get flights. 

Reuters reported that Yangon International Airport, the country’s main air hub, was closed by the military on the second day of its takeover, and permission to land and take off had been revoked for all flights until the end of May. 

There may also be additional concerns over access to COVID-19 testing right now. The coup has collapsed Myanmar’s testing infrastructure, and as testing is required to enter some countries — including Canada — this has effectively contained more people to the country.

For now, they have to wait as the coup maintains in Myanmar. While Alex had heard about the military taking over in the past, this is their first time experiencing this destabilization and conflict firsthand. 

“Everyone was just worried,” they said. “[The military is] capable of doing everything. It is scary.”

*Name has been changed due to fear of retribution.

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