“I was really desperate”: Myanmar’s student exodus amidst military coup

With universities and schools stalled in post-coup Myanmar, students are looking to other countries for ways of continuing their education. But the road out is fraught with danger, a long list of difficult administrative tasks and a heavy financial burden

Written By:
September 7, 2021
“I was really desperate”: Myanmar’s student exodus amidst military coup
Students wearing masks and face shields leave after attending classes during the first day of reopening of public high schools following closure due to the COVID-19 coronavirus in Yangon on July 21, 2020. Photo: Sai Aung Main / AFP

Two days after being turned down for an internship in China due to Covid-19, a Myanmar student says the stakes of returning to the US for her junior year at Columbia University felt significantly higher — the coup began. What had once been a temporary stall following the pandemic was now a desperation as she listened to the increasingly violent crack of gunfire as the military shot at anti-coup protestors. 

“I actually had not much energy to think of my schooling because on a very frequent occasion, I’m hearing gunshots. I was barely surviving emotionally,” she said. “Later on, when I think about it, I do have this sense of fear [about school]. But this sense of fear is not as great as ‘What if the military came in randomly and shot us? What if they rob us? That’s the larger fear I have.”

The student, who asked to go unnamed for fear of retaliation by Myanmar authorities, has resumed her studies at Columbia’s campus in New York City. But the stress of administrative limbo is still gripping the rest of her family at home, as her brother is waiting for a visa appointment to join her in the US for his first year of university and a cousin is seeking work-study in Taiwan after she was unable to get to Yangon Technological University.

“He wasn’t able to sleep,” the student said, relaying her brother’s stream of self-criticism and fear when he had trouble getting an appointment on time. “He constantly talks to me about how he freaks out on the idea of not being able to go to school because of possibly being late on a visa appointment.”

Between schools and universities closed in protest of the coup and others unsuccessfully reopened by the military, Myanmar families have seen education options shrivel, leaving students and parents alike increasingly desperate for programmes outside the country. 

Activists say the need for students to coordinate their departure through the new administration risks legitimising the junta, as does any collaboration between the military and foreign scholarship programmes. This interference of the military in academia was made especially apparent when in June, Myanmar students on scholarship in Australia received a letter from their embassy in Canberra asking them to pledge not to participate in CDM activity and threatening punishment if they didn’t declare allegiance to the junta administration. 

But that threat is also present for students putting together applications. Those who appeal to state offices for the materials necessary to go abroad run the immediate risk of drawing the junta’s attention, a dangerous gambit for those who have participated in the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). But with weak prospects for schooling in Myanmar, educators say families are willing to take the risk. For those who do get out, the resulting brain drain could have long-lasting impacts on Myanmar’s economic recovery. 

One certainty students have in leaving the country is that making preparations will inevitably mean brushing up against new military personnel in administrative positions as they coordinate documents. Myanmar activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi says communicating with the military is simply a fact of leaving for education purposes.

“When they are operating these programmes on the ground, they need to be aware that they will have to talk to the junta — for the visa issues, for the flight issues,” she said. “We are pretty worried this communication could just normalise the situation. It’s not black and white at the same time.”

Although some have questioned how applications from those employed in junta ministries or from military families will be processed by programmes, there’s also a longer point in how scholarship travel to Myanmar will be handled if the military government remains in power. Fulbright, an international scholarship programme run through the US Department of State, is already accepting applications for US students to study in Myanmar in 2022. They have increased Fulbright scholarships for Burmese students this year with support from the U.S. Government’s Billion Futures Initiative, which has funded additional scholarships across the ASEAN region, responding to strong interest across Burma and ASEAN in studying in the United States.

As part of the Billion Futures Initiative, USAID’s Lincoln Scholarship Program, which supports Burmese scholars to obtain master’s degrees at U.S. universities, is also offering additional scholarships for its current, third cohort. Applications increased nearly ten-fold for the third cohort.

He wasn’t able to sleep… he freaks out on the idea of not being able to go to school because of possibly being late on a visa appointment.

With few formalities for students leaving on student visas through chartered flights and military-run immigration and education ministries, it’s difficult to put a number on the exact number of students who have chosen to pursue education elsewhere. But from overseas scholarships to work-study programmes, both instructors and education coordinators are confirming an increased interest in studying abroad after the military attempted an unsuccessful reopening of universities in May. 

Myat Ei Ei Phyo outside her campus in South Florida. Photo: supplied
Myat Ei Ei Phyo outside her campus in South Florida. Photo: supplied

In the central city of Bago, Myat Ei Ei Phyo was considering university options to get her master’s degree in statistics when she could no longer go into the office for her job with a non-governmental organisation following the coup. But as even the formerly plentiful hour-and-a-half long bus rides from Bago to Yangon stopped, she realised getting out of the country would be an uphill struggle.

“That [process] was so complicated,” Myat Ei Ei Phyo said of finding a master’s programme to which she could reasonably apply. She was forced to immediately disqualify universities asking for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Records Exam (GRE), neither of which were feasible to complete in post-coup Myanmar but are commonly required for US master’s degrees. “I didn’t want to apply with the GRE because everything was so messed up those days. The internet turns off at night, some of the websites are banned.” 

She finally set her sights on the University of South Florida, which she currently attends in the city of Tampa. But as Myat Ei Ei Phyo readied her application, she found another ordeal just to get her transcripts, as her university was shut, and complete an additional evaluation exam at a centre in another city. The exam proved impossible, but after eventually getting her transcript and making her case to the Florida university’s admission staff, Myat Ei Ei Phyo put together a successful application. Between acquiring her bank statements to securing Covid-19 tests and searching for out-of-stock vaccines at overrun hospitals, there were few parts of the process untouched by the military takeover.

“I had to show my financial statement, which is really difficult for Myanmar students who are applying during the military coup,” she said, adding that students are utilising a third-party money-holding service in place of local banks. “People know the banking crisis is coming, so all the people are taking all their money from the banking system, as much as they can.” 

Students have taken to scouring Myanmar Facebook pages for scholarship and work tips and opportunities, reaching out to anyone who might be able to help. 

They kind of feel lost and don’t know what to do with this current situation

Curtin University Professor Htwe Htwe Thein says she’s been inundated in Perth, Australia, with requests and CVs from parents, students and relatives in Myanmar searching for jobs, scholarships or any other opportunity to get their children out of the country. 

This is a significant change from the period of Myanmar’s opening up after 2010, when Htwe Htwe Thein saw skilled students and young professionals returning to the country to work. But now, she says, parents and students are preparing for a years-long education gap and are willing to sacrifice whatever they can.

‘“I’ve saved up some money, me and my wife’ — that brought tears to my eyes,” she said, recounting emails from musicians, doctors and other skilled professionals willing to take any work they can to support their children’s education. “He said, ‘I’ll come out here [to Australia], and I’ll get whatever job I can to support my daughter.’ So it’s like that, it’s heartbreaking stories.”

Rot Chai is no stranger to students in these situations. The head of the Mon language education group Path to Scholarship, Rot Chai is also communications lead for the Parami Leadership Program, a year-long graduate programme based in Yangon through the Parami Institute. She told the Globe she’s seen increased desire from students to study overseas, a trend also noted through interviews with programme alumni and her peers in the educational field.

“They actually are in their third year of university and some of them are almost on the way to graduation, only one semester left,” Rot Chai said of many students hoping to leave the country. “So they kind of feel lost and don’t know what to do with this current situation.”

Some are even looking to repeat bachelor’s degrees in other countries if given the opportunity. Rot Chai is among those considering applying for Chevening, a UK scholarship programme available to Myanmar students. But as she watches friends wait indefinitely to obtain visas while the competition grows stiffer in a larger applicant pool, her outlook has been anything but promising. 

“Even getting a passport without this situation is already difficult, there’s already brokers doing this stuff. With this [coup] situation, I think things are more complicated and challenging,” she said. 

As Myat Ei Ei Phyo walked down the airport corridor to her long-awaited flight to her university in Florida, she couldn’t help recalling stories of activists who were pulled off planes prior to departure by soldiers. Her mother’s position as a school principal and her own early CDM protest activity weighed on her mind, and she wouldn’t feel entirely safe until the plane was in the air. She deleted all her prior social media posts about the protests before leaving and hoped nothing damaging would appear in her background check.

“This information has to be sent from the travel agent or the airline to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they check our documents and they check our history, background,” she said, detailing searches for resistance activity. “If we get something from one of them, they may try to arrest us at the gate or the airport, or maybe on the plane.” 

The measures the junta has taken even in preventing students from leaving the country may raise additional ethical questions for programmes wary of putting students in harm’s way.

The activist Shunlei believes these programmes could address some concerns of normalising the junta by targeting more students from border areas who live in areas under the administration of ethnic armed organisations — not the Myanmar junta. Providing more online education initiatives could also reduce direct communication with the junta, she suggested, as could loosening or otherwise changing visa requirements for students who would otherwise have to retrieve documents from military-controlled ministries. 

As long as the military remains in power, it’s uncertain how these educational programmes can accomplish their goal of including Myanmar students while bypassing their administrators.

For students such as the unnamed woman at Columbia University, such questions may be of minimal concern. While she had originally planned on returning to Myanmar after finishing her schooling, the lack of prospects for work or education have prompted her to look for options to remain outside the country. She believes she’s far from the only one considering a life of exile.

“The only thing we have to think of is how to stay in foreign countries, any country other than Myanmar,” she said. “I believe many students are also suffering from the same thing as well, so I believe brain drain will be more huge than ever.”

This article was updated on 9th September to include additional information.

Read more articles