The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has been edging closer to a democratic government since 2011. Despite years of turbulence, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, seemed to be nearing election reforms which would minimize the broad influence of its military on governance. However, Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military seized control of the government in a coup d’etat — detaining notable opposition leaders and declaring a “state of emergency,” which ensured military control for one year and sparked civil unrest among citizens.
Anti-coup protesters flooded the streets in groups of tens of thousands — larger numbers than during the 2007 Saffron Revolution — in the days following the overthrow. In response to this, the new military government has initiated rolling internet blackouts from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m., leaving citizens without reliable communication or information when military forces arrest protestors in the middle of the night.
The internet shutdown does not just threaten political transparency, but it has also impacted the 10 USF students who live in Myanmar and their ability to participate in classes. International Student Scholar Services (ISSS) has been coordinating accommodations for students living in Myanmar since communication blackouts have made accessing Zoom and Canvas challenging. ISSS has also been working across USF departments, like the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA) and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), to create individual support plans for each of the impacted students.
According to Marcella DeProto, director of ISSS, these individualized support plans have been successful so far. She explained that, “the USF faculty have been very accommodating and we are grateful for their creativity and care during this time.”
A Burmese USF undergraduate student — who, along with other interviewees, requested not to be named out of fear of political retribution in their home country — returned to her hometown of Yangon after the onset of COVID-19, only to find out about the coup a day after her travel quarantine ended. The student is unable to protest due to high-risk people in her home, but has been supporting the civil disobedience movement by participating in the nightly tradition of banging pots and pans as a sign of disapproval of the coup.
The student in Yangon has been unable to attend USF classes since Feb.15 due to internet shutoffs. Despite this challenge, she speaks highly of the support she’s received from professors. “So far, all my professors at USF are very caring and considerate of me,” she said. “They also check in with me often on how I am doing and follow the news with what’s happening in Myanmar.”
A USF alumnus and former Foghorn staffer in Myanmar is currently photographing the anti-coup demonstrations. He shared that people are taking turns to guard each other against brutal night raids and that more than 23,000 prisoners have allegedly been released and drugged by the military to incite more chaos. Although the protests have been mostly peaceful, this has not stopped police from firing live rounds at protestors. “I want people to know that it is a lot worse than people think here.” He stressed the need for international attention to be given to the situation, and that “what the people hope [for] is an actual foreign interference in the country rather than just receiving [condemnation statements].”
A USF alumna born and raised in Myanmar, who is now attending law school on the East Coast, recalled feeling privileged to be a young adult during the time of democratic reforms in her country, which allowed her to attend college in the U.S.
On the day that the alumna found out about the coup, she recalled breaking down on the way home from the library. Even in normal times, contacting her family was challenging due to the almost 12-hour time difference, so the rolling internet blackouts made ensuring the safety of her family even more difficult.
“When I finally got in contact with my parents, I had never heard them so triggered or scared — my dad’s voice was shaking. I realized I had to be strong for them, but since then our communication has been worse due to the internet cutoffs,” she said. “Now it’s only 1-9 a.m., but before the military was cutting it off as they pleased. We’ve been using encrypted messaging apps like Signal so that nothing we say can be incriminating and held against us.”
Senior media studies major Charles Choi began raising awareness of the political unrest in Myanmar after hearing the experiences of his Burmese friends. As president of the Campus Activities Board (CAB), Choi leveraged his network on campus and emailed USF leaders to try to coordinate a relief effort. Choi received a response from President Paul Fitzgerald regarding his request to work together against the violence in Myanmar.
According to their emails, Fitzgerald gave a non-answer to Choi on the possibility of collaboration and avoided the appeal for a larger University sponsored effort, but encouraged Choi to continue posting about the crisis on social media, write an op-ed about his feelings, or call his Congressional representatives to urge them to adopt a resolution condemning the coup.
Choi said he was disappointed by this response given the university’s heavy social justice branding. “We talk about changing the world from here, but how can we make changes if we don’t know what’s happening? Admin only seems to make a statement when they’re in trouble,” Choi said. “I would have liked to see USF leadership reach out to students proactively about social issues, not just when it’s convenient.”