The Myanmar military staged a coup d’etat on Feb. 1, bringing the country’s democracy to a halt and affecting citizens all around the world, including Burmese students studying in the United States.
During the first week of the coup, the military implemented a national internet shutdown that later turned into partial shutdowns. These restrictions were mainly aimed towards the stifling growing opposition against the coup, and were set into motion in order to prevent groups from communicating on social media platforms.
“Words could never express how disappointed, angry and disgusted I am at how swiftly the military assumed control,” Justin Chan, a Stony Brook University alumnus and New York University graduate student said.
The internet shutdown has also brought on challenges for Burmese students in the U.S. who are trying to contact relatives and friends in Myanmar. They are worried about their loved ones during this violent time.
“I don’t know when they’re going to cut off the internet so whenever I wake up, I pray I see a notification from someone back home so I know that the internet is still up and I can still reach them,” Wang Tsou, an undeclared freshman Burmese student at Stony Brook University, said.
Following the coup, the citizens of Myanmar took to the streets in order to protest the coup and demand that democracy be restored. Many turned to Facebook as their main source of news and communication. As unrest across the country grew, there was a permanent national ban of Facebook on Feb. 3, followed by restrictions on Instagram, Messenger and Whatsapp.
“It’s clear that the Myanmar military has cut off the internet at different times during the day,” Erik Martinez Kuhonta, author of “The Institutional Imperative: The Politics of Equitable Development in Southeast Asia,” said. “And in particular Facebook, they want to cut off because that is the main social media that is used a lot in Myanmar.”
Many citizens now use VPN services in order to access social media channels. There was a 4,300% increase in downloads according to Top10VPN.com. The social media ban was lifted on Feb. 7, but occasional blocks to internet access still occur. There is also a curfew on the internet.
“The military’s increasingly lengthy bans on internet and phone activity have made it difficult to contact my family at times,” Chan said. “We’ve since acclimated and found specific schedules where they have internet access. I personally believe we shouldn’t have to jump through such hoops just to speak to the people that we love.”
Internet shutdowns are common among repressive governments in order to stop the flow of communication and information. Since 2019, more than 30 countries have used this tactic for different reasons.
“I have family in Myanmar, it’s made it very difficult for me to be able to check in on my family regularly,” Lin Than, a Stony Brook University graduate, said. “This stresses me out more than I’d like because at some point, there’s so little I can do halfway across the world from them.”
The growing concern of Burmese students increases day by day as the military refuses to give up power. Stony Brook University, with over 4000 international students, has reached out to Burmese students both abroad and in the states to make sure that they are okay.
“We first identify who the students are, where they are, send emails to them and their professors, if they can’t attend classes, for one reason or another,” Ellen F. Driscoll, the interim associate dean of students and a member of the Student Support Team, said. “We also offer them emotional support and different ways of connecting with us.”
The Stony Brook University Student Support Team sent out an email to all Burmese SBU students on Feb. 2, the day after the military coup.
“Stony Brook University reached out to me as soon as the coup happened and asked if we are okay,” Htet Zin Maung, a senior technological systems management student at Stony Brook University, said. “They offered help if we face any problems with the classes and they sent an email to my professors so that professors can be aware of my situation in case I fall behind the classes.”
The Student Support Team also offered them financial assistance.
“We talked to the students who were abandoned and sent them some paperwork for the student emergency funds, because they wouldn’t be getting any support from their family because the financial institutions were taken over as well,” Driscoll said.
The coup took place as the military refused to accept the results of Myanmar’s second national election conducted in 2020. While the election was criticized and assessed as flawed by Human Right Watch, there was not much dispute over the victory of the National League of Democracy (NDL), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD won 396 seats in parliament, leaving 33 to Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who are led by ex-military politicians.
Upon this defeat, the military staged its coup in February detaining and charging many leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, and announced that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would take charge during a declared state of emergency.
“The people have reacted very strongly, and Myanmar has been rocked by massive protests and demonstrations across the major cities. in the country,” Kuhonta said. “And, you have civil servants, you have doctors, you have teachers, people from middle-class professionals who are out in the streets, risking their lives, protesting against this coup. There’s deep, deep anger with the military’s intervention.”
The protests were among Myanmar’s biggest since the Saffron Revolution in 2007. The number of protestors has surpassed 100,000 people and continues to increase. According to Aljazeera, people on the street say that this is no longer a protest, but an uprising.
“People initially protested peacefully, however they could, to let the military know we’re not just going to stay quiet again,” Chan said. “People progressively took to the streets with signs, memes; people from all walks of life coming together doing what they could to grab the world’s attention. This much hasn’t changed, even as the military grows more violent.”
More than 70 people have been killed and over 1,500 people have been detained in a crackdown on daily protests against the coup, including dozens of journalists.
“We are facing a lot of restrictions — politically, socially and economically,” Maung said. “The lives of the people of Myanmar are being threatened every day. These military forces can shoot and kill any people at any time. There is no more the rule of law.”
The United States has imposed sanctions on the children of Myanmar’s military leaders. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, condemned the killing and arrests by the Myanmar military and warned that more actions could follow.
“We will not hesitate to take further action against those who instigate violence and suppress the will of the people,” Blinken said in a statement released on March 10.
The Biden administration had imposed sanctions on 10 leaders in Myanmar’s military following the coup as an initial response.
“The international community has put in sanctions for Myanmar, but ultimately I think the international community has to actually provide assistance to the people of Myanmar, as right now there is no way for the citizens in Myanmar to fight back,” Than said.
Many Burmese students in the United States are worried that democracy will not be restored in Myanmar and that they will continue to live in fear, disconnected from their families.
“The situation has greatly escalated, with the military regime firing live ammunition at unarmed civilians, I fear many of us [students from Myanmar] are growing more scared and stressed,” Tsou said.