Kywe Aung* (C ’24) begins his mornings by opening the Canvas website. If the page is available, Kywe downloads all the content he can get his hands on, extracting coding assignments and projects so they’ll be available to him offline. At around 3 p.m., he goes for a jog, running laps around the yard outside his home. He continues to work on projects and homework until around midnight.
Before he goes to bed, Kywe secures the doors, ensuring that his dogs are roaming around in the vicinity near his house.
“I’m a very light sleeper. It’s not often, but around two times a week, I’ll wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to check outside,” he says. “When I hear the dogs bark, that’s when I go outside. Just to make sure everything’s fine.”
Kywe’s daily routine—unlike those of other Penn students whose days also consist of Canvas, homework, and exercise—is marred by the ongoing threat of the violence proliferating outside his childhood bedroom.
On Feb. 1, 2021, the military leadership in Burma refused to accept the results of the democratic election, arresting the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several other members of the National League for Democracy. Under the command of General Min Aung Hlaing, the military declared a state of emergency and established a ruling junta called the State Administration Council. Since then, both police and military forces have launched a systemic crackdown on any form of dissent, shooting peaceful protesters and arbitrarily detaining journalists, government officials, and other civilians. These actions have resulted in widespread international condemnation: The United Nations Human Rights Council called for a release of arbitrarily held detainees and a suspension of the state of emergency.
The day before the coup, Kywe describes seeing Facebook photos of armored vehicles driving around the city.
“I was discussing it with my startup group while we were working for a competition,” he says. “It came up offhandedly, like, ‘Oh, there are tanks rolling around in the middle of the city downtown.’ Most of us dismissed it as a show of force.”
Kywe woke up the next morning at 7 a.m. to find out that the “show of force” had turned into severe demonstrations of violence.
May Win Phyu* (C ’24) was born and raised in Burma. She moved to Philadelphia on Jan. 14, leaving behind her siblings and parents who currently reside in the country. May became aware of the coup six minutes after BBC News posted the news online.
“I was freaking out. I was phoning some of my friends, who are some of my family’s friends from Myanmar in the United States, [and] who were able to contact my family from back home.”
“What first occurred was the internet connection cutting off,” she recalls, her voice wavering. “I was really freaking out.”
Before I begin my conversations with Kywe and May, I ask them if they’d prefer for me to refer to their homeland as Burma or Myanmar. Kywe says he doesn’t mind either way, while May says she’d prefer Burma. This question is the tip of a large iceberg, crystallized in a tenuous political history, ethno–majoritarianism, and bloodshed.
“One of the strong indicators of conflict in any place in the world is a disagreement over the appropriate name for the state,” says Brendan O’Leary, a Lauder professor of Political Science who specializes in conflict research. “The very fact that we’re having this discussion is a signal of intense conflict.”
The country was originally called Burma, after the dominant Burman ethnic group. In 1989, following the then–ruling junta suppressing pro–democracy groups, military leaders changed the name to Myanmar in an attempt to “foster ethnic unity” and gain international legitimacy. Some entities—like the United Nations, France, and Japan—recognized this change. Others, like the United States, did not. Today, the Burmese verbally refer to their country as Burma, but use Myanmar in official documents.
“Burma has multiple difficulties to resolve,” says O’Leary. He categorizes these issues into three major strands. For one, since its independence from colonial rule in 1948, Burma has mostly been under military dictatorship. “This generates, as we might expect in the contemporary world, a democratic movement and a series of democratic movements to oppose military governments,” he says.
In 2010, military rule was replaced by a military–backed civilian government. And with the appointment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to state counselor in 2016, the changes signaled a new era in Burma’s history.
Unfortunately, these changes wouldn’t last.
Aside from conflicts over democracy, Burma also faces serious issues with equality among its different ethnic groups. Historically, armed ethnic minority groups have turned to violence to secure better treatment. As of 2015, eight of these groups have signed a ceasefire with the government. Others have refused to do so out of dissatisfaction with the process and ongoing distrust of the government and military.
The third strand of conflict, which likely receives the most attention in the West, is Burma’s persecution of the Rohingya people.
“There has been periodic ethnic expulsion,” says O’Leary. “Some would say, I think with good evidence, [that there have been] genocidal assaults on the Rohingya population.”
Aung San Suu Kyi positions herself as a champion of human rights. Her complicity in the military’s genocide against the Rohingya, however, says otherwise.
The current coup seems to be a painstaking example of history repeating itself. There’s a risk that the conflict will exacerbate existing tensions with ethnic minority groups and worsen conditions for the Rohingya. Now that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been knocked off her pedestal, there’s no clear understanding of if a ‘return’ to democracy can exist.
Beyond broad political implications, the coup has affected the daily lives of Burmese citizens, including through internet censorship and blackouts. For Kywe, these military–ordered shutdowns limit his capacity as a student.
“There are daily internet blackouts from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m.,” he says. “Almost all my [synchronous] classes are late at night, so that’s a big impediment.”
Kywe’s current internship as a digital strategist has also been affected. “Part of my job is to take care of [the company’s] Facebook page. And Facebook is blocked. So how do I do that?”
Kywe’s answers are punctuated by constant barking from his dogs, a necessary alert given the threat of conflict looming outside. Military violence, especially in Yangon, the country’s economic capital, has been the norm as of late. In a statement given to the Human Rights Council, United Nations Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said, “There is video of soldiers and police systematically moving through neighborhoods, destroying property, looting shops, arbitrarily arresting protestors and passerby, and firing indiscriminately into people’s homes.”
“There are unknown actors out there at night who are committing arson and harming people,” Kywe says. “That has been worrying.”
When asked if he feels safe in his home, Kywe pauses before answering. “In the daytime, yes, but in the nighttime, I would say not quite,” he says. “In my part of the township, it is relatively safer compared to other townships, which are out of the city.”
He hesitates before continuing: “It’s kind of hard. Relatively, compared to everyone else? Yes. But as an absolute term? Not really.” As he speaks, sirens blare in the background.
May phones her parents twice a day. “I have to cope with the internet cutoff time to contact them,” she says. She can only reach them early in the morning or late at night, with radio silence in the middle.
“They keep telling me not to worry,” she says. Her voice trembles as she glances at the ceiling of her dorm room. She takes a deep breath, composing herself as she finishes her answer.
“I'm the youngest in my family, so they care a lot about me. And they will always say soothing words. [They will tell me] not to worry. But I know that’s not true.”
In comparison to her family and friends who are on the ground in Burma, May feels relatively powerless. “I could only give them emotional support,” she says. “I feel like I can’t do anything. I’m trying my best to do what I can. But it’s limited.” The conflict has taken a toll on her mental health.
“It’s taking away all of my energy.”
As for her personal opinions on the political situation, May is resolute in her convictions. “The military is doing violent things to suppress the voice of the people,” she says.
“[There is] an extraordinary willingness on the part of large numbers of civilians to continue to protest against military dominance, despite the very high likelihood of being on the receiving end of crushing brutality,” says O’Leary. “So the question is, absent any kind of external intervention, who will prevail?”
External intervention in Burma is fraught with diplomatic tension. While countries in the West, like the United Kingdom, have openly condemned the coup and imposed sanctions, other countries remain ambivalent. Economists agree that if the European Union and the United States both tightened restrictions on Burma, the economic repercussions could be significant.
However, Asian countries, like China and Singapore, are still Burma’s biggest investors. China in particular previously defended the military dictatorship, which makes its condemnation of the current coup less likely.
“In principle, there should be an opportunity here for some kind of international mediation,” says O’Leary. But the United Nations is relatively limited in its capacities. Most bodies of the United Nations don’t have enforcement power—other than the Security Council, of which China is a permanent member.
“If the matter went to the Security Council, the question is, how will China behave? It would likely use a veto,” he says.
Kywe is part Chinese, a factor that he says plays into other people’s perceptions of his role in the protest. According to a 2012 study, there has been an observable negative attitude among the people of Burma against the Chinese, for a number of reasons ranging from cultural “intrusion” to disdain of the Chinese government’s support of the military.
“Since we’re Chinese, [there’s a question of] who do we support … It’s a bit harder to dodge around those questions,” he says.
A large number of protests have occurred in downtown Yangon, where his family’s offices are located. Kywe’s family is not political at all. Still, “it is starting to get hard to stay neutral,” he says.
As to whether these protests can bring down the regime, O’Leary says this is still an open question.
“In 2011, many people predicted that the Syrian regime would fall quickly, partly because there was so much popular protest against it,” he says. “But the Syrian regime proved willing to wade through oceans of blood to stay in power. We don't yet know whether that's true of the Myanmar military.”
Towards the end of the interview, I ask May and Kywe if there’s anything they’d want to share with those unaware of the situation.
“Nonviolent protests should be treated as [nonviolently] as possible. And that’s not the case in Myanmar,” says Kywe.
May takes a second to collect her thoughts. “There’s a lot of things I want to say,” she says, resting her face in her hands. When she speaks, she seems to be addressing more than her audience of one.
“It’s the violent things the military [is] doing to the people. I think that’s something that people should be aware of.”
Later that day, May sends me a social media post she saw describing the death toll in Burma as a result of the protests. Dated Feb. 28, it says there were 23 deaths as of 4:40 p.m. that day.
As of March 26, that number is estimated to be more than 300.
There is no easy solution. Based on his general experience in conflict regions, O’Leary says that military regimes often don’t want to govern. “They're usually in government because they think that the civilian leaders will do something catastrophic, something dangerous,” he says. If an agreement is reached, these leaders will likely want a guarantee that there won’t be any criminal repercussions against them.
“That's a very, very difficult bargain for the opposition to agree upon,” he says. “But if you put yourself in the shoes of the military, that's probably their minimum price.”
The opposition will likely want a more concrete form of justice. “[They will want to] jail leaders who are responsible for multiple human rights violations,” he says. “Many will want—in particular, those who care about the Rohingya—to hold [the relevant military leadership] culpable for genocidal atrocities.”
Burma is highly multilingual and multiethnic, even though there is a Burman majority. According to O’Leary, there needs to be a shift towards “patterns of coexistence and tolerance, rather than dominance.”
As with most human rights issues, awareness and advocacy are crucial in reaching this point.
“I think there are limited but important things that individuals can do,” says O’Leary. “One is to raise the military extermination of democracy as an issue of principle with all democratic governments—not [just] those in the neighborhood.”
Another key strategy is to support grassroots organizations within Burma that provide an alternative account of events. “[This is so] the military doesn't get the ability to lock down evidence of continuing dissent,” he says.
At the 30–minute mark of my conversation with Kywe, the internet blackouts begin to roll in again. He already warned me about the volatility of his connection at the very beginning of the call. I’m just about to ask him whether he has any last thoughts, if he has any questions for me, or if he’d like to expand upon any of his earlier statements.
Instead, the line goes silent.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.