11 Minutes To Read

Personal struggles, political lens: how the coup unites and divides Myanmar’s youth

11 Minutes To Read
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  • Francesca Chiu discusses how the post-coup struggles faced by Myanmar’s youth affect social cohesion.

    A Burmese version of the post is available here.

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    “Every action is a political action these days,” said May*, a Burmese student who had dropped out of her university’s master’s programme because of the coup. Speaking to me from her home via Zoom, she sounded defeated. “Sometimes I just can’t see any future. We’re all stuck.”

    More than 11 months have gone by since the coup on 1 February 2021. Civilian resistance continues to intensify and take a variety of forms, but the coup does not just affect Myanmar’s national democratic movement—it also weighs on citizens’ lives and wellbeing. The current resistance movement has frequently been described as led by the younger generation, with news commentators positively appraising their creativity, mobility and resilience. But behind their dogged persistence in resisting the coup and the State Administration Council (SAC), many young people in Myanmar feel ambivalent towards their disrupted futures and aspirations amid widespread political violence.

    With frequent military crackdowns, the risk of resisting the military can become a life and death situation. While many continue to engage in more direct activities, such as armed resistanceflash protests, or cyber warfare, others have shifted to everyday resistance, such as non-compliance or boycotting military-related businesses. This does not only indicate a change of resistance strategy, but also increasing tensions and political polarization in post-coup Myanmar.

    The stories I present here come from young people who used to be more directly involved in the resistance movement but who have since chosen to resist in more subtle ways due to the violence used by the junta. I want to shed light on the impacts of the coup and the military – and to some extent, the pandemic – on their everyday lives, and on broader social cohesion in Myanmar. For the young people who have become more subtle in their resistance, their concerns, as the stories below show, have also shifted from being targeted and threatened by the military, to being mistakenly targeted for supporting the military, and from worrying about physical safety to concerns about a lack of progress in their lives.

    Struggling with education

    With more than a year of lockdown, Myanmar has had some of the longest school closures in Asia. Many students were forced to halt their studies when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the coup disrupted things further. One such student was Kyaw, a first-year science student at a university in Mandalay. His studies lasted only three months before the NLD government closed the country’s universities on 24 March 2020. For more than a year and a half, Kyaw has only been able to attend an online English-language course. He was not particularly motivated by the online courses offered because they did not provide class credits that would count towards his degree, never mind the military’s repeated shutdowns of the internet after the coup. Most of his time has been spent playing online games with his friends. “I should be a second-year university student by now,” Kyaw told me, “but I don’t feel like one.”

    In May, the junta reopened universities for final-year undergraduates, master’s students and PhDs. Kyaw believed that not going back to university was a way to support teachers who were part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), who had been laid off by the military. While there is no news on when universities open again for second-year undergraduates like himself, these days Kyaw has been thinking a lot about the pros and cons of going back to school once they are.

    On one hand, Kyaw wanted to resume his studies, be the first person in his family to get a degree and make some progress in life. He convinced himself that attending classes did not mean he supported the junta since he had enrolled before the coup. On the other, he worried that if he returned to the university, he would be branded a traitor and shunned by friends and others who had sworn not to attend school until the military was overthrown. “I haven’t decided yet, and I dare not tell anyone”, said Kyaw. He recalled that one of the students in his class whose brother had decided to go back to the university to finish his master’s program in May was criticized online and kicked out of the students’ main social media group.

    “I haven’t talked to that classmate since,” he sighed. “You can say I lost a friend. He and his brother went to protests with us before, too. Maybe his brother has some hidden reasons why he went back to school. I don’t know, and I feel sad.” For Kyaw and students like him, whether to attend classes or not has become a political decision that ends friendships and causes deep social anxiety.

    As an alternative, some of Kyaw’s classmates have been taking courses organized by the civilian-led National Unity Government (NUG), but Kyaw has hesitated to participate because he is not sure they could offer credits that would transfer to his degree. “It’s never easy to find jobs in the city. The coup and the pandemic have made things more difficult, and without a degree it’s even worse,” said Kyaw. “And I’m not very smart. I don’t think I can get an overseas scholarship. I’m stuck.”

    Kyaw’s account shows how students’ right to education was compromised by the pandemic, and that the coup compounded the issue by further limiting options for study and life in general.   

    Struggling with emigration

    Another pressing question for many young people is “should I stay, or should I go?”. May, for one, withdrew from her master’s program in Mandalay after the coup and now works as a freelance news translator. Lately, though, she has been mulling over whether to apply for scholarships that would allow her to study overseas.

    May’s goal is to get a master’s degree and continue supporting the anti-coup movement from abroad. “I’m not a fighter type, I’m more useful when I study and write about our country,” she told me. But she worries that if her friends learn that she is planning to leave, they may misunderstand, criticize, or even ostracize her. In May’s words:

    “Another student applied for a scholarship in the US and he shared it on Facebook. He supported the NUG. But people criticized him for trying to leave the country during [a time of] hardship. There were comments like, ‘our country is suffering, and the people are suffering, and you’re leaving us now?’. I’m trying to apply for overseas scholarships too. I don’t dare tell my friends or share it online. I don’t want any social punishment. I can already imagine some people – not close friends but some Facebook friends – may say that I’m a coward and don’t support the people’s fight against the military. These days people can be provoked easily.”

    The financial burden that comes with studying abroad is also huge. Even though a scholarship would help, May has spent a great deal of time and money enrolling in English proficiency tests before even applying for financial support. There were times she wanted to try and raise funds online to help her studies abroad but did not dare to because of concerns about potential blowback.

    “The only way for me to study is to leave the country. But leaving the country is expensive,” she said. “It’s very stressful but I can’t share it with others.” May is not alone among Myanmar’s youth in being caught between a desire to study abroad and fears of social punishment, despite having no intention to support the military. Social punishment has been identified by local and international media as a tactic to “name-and-shame” members of military families, but as May’s statements above suggest, the fear of being publicly shamed has spread to citizens who are worried about being wrongly identified as pro-military.

    Struggling with employment

    While the economy was already weakened by the pandemic, it was further damaged by the coup, and more than 1.2 million citizens have lost their jobs since the military takeover. Shin was one of the many affected. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Mandalay. She left her teaching job at the university to join the CDM, and since then has relied on part-time work to support herself. Besides facing difficulty in finding full time work, Shin has another employment challenge. It had long been her dream to work at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Working for the MOFA would allow her to work overseas, and Shin was about to apply when the coup began, leaving her torn between pursuing her dream job and supporting the NUG.

    That is not to say Shin is anything but a keen supporter of the NUG–she joined the CDM in February, marched in protests and helped raise funds for the resistance. But working at the MOFA had always been her career goal, and she was sad that this had been complicated by the military’s return to power. The entry-level position she was aiming for had an age limit of 25, and she was already 24 at the time of the coup, meaning that she will never have another chance if she does not apply this year.

    Her family fully supports applying for the job because they back the military and they wanted her to find a job quickly in this bad economy. But Shin does not support the military, and now faces a dilemma: if she applies for the MOFA job, she will be labelled a traitor to democracy by her friends; if she does not, she will lose the chance at a role she has spent years working towards, in addition to upsetting her parents. She is also worried that if she applies and gets the job, she could be booted out by the NUG if it eventually overthrows the military. “I have to make up my mind soon because the deadline is approaching,” said Shin, “but no matter what I choose, there’s a bad consequence”.

    To protect herself, Shin has stopped posting anything personal on social media, only occasionally reposting news reports. She told me it had become difficult for her to reach out and seek advice on what she should do because sharing her thoughts with others had become too risky. Making decisions, Shin concluded before we wrapped up our chat, was just too complicated these days. The coup had become tangled up in every decision she made.

    Like Kyaw and May, Shin’s dilemma shows how the military takeover has muddled futures and left many of Myanmar’s youth feeling like they will be punished no matter what choice they make. 

    Struggling with society

    These stories from university students and fresh graduates in Mandalay shed light on the personal challenges posed by the coup. Almost every action they take is put under a microscope and examined to check whether it is either pro-military or pro-NUG. Many had already been struggling with education and financial hardship because of the pandemic, and their life choices and rights have been significantly reduced by the military takeover. Dreams of a college degree, studying abroad, and working at a government office – all seen as perfectly respectable ambitions less than a year ago – now risk professional and personal acrimony. The anti-coup movement is about the future of Myanmar’s youth, but paradoxically it has also made it difficult for youths to chart their own paths.

    With military suppression becoming increasingly violent, many in and outside of Myanmar have also started engaging in more forceful resistance. Rumors of hit lists and dalans (pro-military informers) have begun circulating, while the assassination of figures affiliated with the military has become more frequent. But while violent suppression has spurred violent resistance, on the everyday level, many less openly involved in the resistance feel less of a direct threat from military violence and more pressure from their peers.

    Many in Myanmar have lauded social punishment as an effective side tactic for publicly shaming military officers’ families and supporters, but as the above stories show, even those who do not back the military face social death if their actions are perceived as not sufficiently supporting the civilian resistance. Nor are education and employment the only areas where young people find themselves impossibly torn—the coup has also produced healthcare dilemmas, especially since it was launched during the pandemic. For example, Shin revealed she had secretly gone to a public clinic to receive a COVID-19 vaccination—a secret she made sure none of her friends could discover.

    Shin had good reason to get vaccinated because she lives in close quarters with her grandparents, parents and brother, so when the government clinic in her village started offering COVID-19 vaccinations, she signed herself and her family up. But because the military government was distributing the vaccines, getting the jab was considered traitorous. If her friends learned she had been vaccinated, Shin believed that they would shun her:

    “For me, getting a jab is purely a health concern, but others would say I’m supporting the military… or betraying the medical staff who participate in the CDM. Some private clinics also offer vaccines but they’re very expensive. Ordinary people like me who get a jab at the public clinic are criticized, while rich people paying for the expensive jab at private clinics are praised for being responsible… what a double standard!”

    Shin’s story highlights how getting a vaccine is no longer a public health issue, but a political action. While everyone has the right to decide whether to get vaccinated, getting vaccinated in a public clinic, regardless of motivation, is perceived as a pro-military move. And the fact that those who receive the jab are discouraged from letting others know about it prevents the circulation of accurate information about vaccinations, undermining the fight against COVID-19. On top of all this, the politicization of vaccines marginalizes those who cannot afford to visit a private clinic.

    How the coup has divided Myanmar’s youth

    The narratives of these youth should be cause for concern because of what they portend for political polarization and social cohesion. Myanmar has long been politically divided—whether due to decades of ethnic conflict and civil war, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, or the fight over power between the military and civilian governments. But while the current coup has in one sense united people in the fight against the military, regardless of ethnicity or religion, it also divides them by reducing life decisions to a strict dichotomy between pro-military and pro-democracy. This binary view of society and politics is not exactly new to Myanmar, but the spread of internet access and mobile phone ownership means its impact and reach are now far more powerful, creating a dangerous new reality in which social punishment and cyber shaming can be courted by even mundane actions.

    I am not, to be clear, passing judgment here on which actions are right or wrong in post-coup Myanmar. Rather, I want to point out the ambivalence and struggles young people must deal with now that the SAC has polarized everyday life and made the political aspect of every action or choice clear. And it is certainly true that the coup has fostered a greater unity of purpose against the military among large and diverse parts of the population.

    But we should also remain alert to how the SAC can pit people against each other by turning the process of resistance into a potential punishment machine, forcing individuals to isolate themselves for fear of being misunderstood, having their loyalties questioned or losing their friends. As much as the last 11 months have brought Myanmar’s citizens together in a common cause, they have also torn friends, family and colleagues apart—which suits the SAC just fine, as social cohesion is the last thing it wants.

    Social cohesion originates not in people taking the exact same course of action, but rather in how even when differences exist, people can still respect each other, discuss their disagreements, and move separately towards the same goal. People may take different turns and paths in the course of resistance, but the ultimate goal – that of overthrowing the military – remains the same. That is the glue that will holds people together during the days, months, or years it will take for the resistance to finally succeed.

    * All names in the article are pseudonyms. This article is based on the author’s research on the everyday resistance of youth in post-coup Myanmar. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

    Francesca Chiu is a PhD candidate focused on urban marginality and spatial politics in Myanmar at the University of East Anglia and the University of Copenhagen. Follow her on Twitter.