On Feb. 1, 2021, the Burmese military staged a coup d’etat against the previous democratic government. Protests and civil war broke out, leading schools all over Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to close. However, online education initiatives at Yale and other international non-profits are working to make up for educational gaps. 

Following the regime change, many university students and professors joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM, the nationwide political movement that resists the military government. Many professors were fired due to their association with the CDM, and many students stopped attending school, which they deemed corrupt. 

“The educational system totally collapsed,” said Erik Harms, a professor of anthropology and chair of Yale University’s Council on Southeast Asia Studies

With many Burmese students no longer receiving an education, Harms and the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies created a postdoctoral fellowship for “scholars at risk,” allowing several Burmese scholars to work as postdoctoral associates in the study of Myanmar. 

Frances O’Morchoe is a postdoctoral associate on Myanmar Studies, who came to Yale following the coup. Before teaching at Yale, she led a hybrid class between in-person students at BRAC University in Bangladesh and virtual Burmese students at a Burmese university.  

“I was interested in the idea of whether teaching a hybrid class … would work to help students who don’t normally talk to each other at all get to know each other,” O’Morchoe said.

Since coming to Yale, O’Morchoe and the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies have established two open-access Yale courses in partnership with two Burmese universities, allowing Yale students to learn alongside virtual Burmese students. O’Morchoe now teaches “Colonialism, Nationalism and Identity in Myanmar,” a course on the history of Myanmar, which includes the events since the 2021 coup.

O’Morchoe noted that Burmese students in her seminar class allowed Yale students to have deeper conversations and understanding.  

“They were really keen to share what was happening,” she said. “[Yale students] were able to read these academic articles about Burma but then also talk to a young person and be like, ‘How is this issue currently affecting people in Burma?’”

Harms opened his “Introduction to Anthropology” course for Burmese students attending Virtual Federal University, not because it covered content related to Myanmar but simply to satisfy their curiosity.

“People in Myanmar are interested in anthropology and currently don’t have access to learn about anthropology,” he said.

To livestream his classes to Burmese students, Harms bought a high-definition camera and a microphone. Because some students experienced internet problems due to the military’s actions, Harms uploaded the Zoom recordings, lecture notes and PowerPoints to a Google Drive folder. Many students used these resources to review class material, as English was primarily their second language. 

Today, other anthropologists in Myanmar use Harms’ materials to teach their own courses.

David Moe, a postdoctoral associate in Myanmar Studies, co-teaches with O’Morchoe. For Moe, who calls himself an advocate and an activist, besides an academic, education is an essential way to resist the current military regime. 

“We really need education,” Moe said. “Otherwise, if we really defeat this coup, who will be the leader of the county?”

Similarly, Harms hopes his education efforts allow people in Myanmar to continue pursuing their interests, even amid the especially turbulent political climate. 

“You’re in the midst of a revolution and you spend all your time figuring out how to fight the junta, but you also are a human with all these passions and desires and dreams and hopes and aspirations,” Harms said. “So my main goal is to have an outlet for people to continue being those full complete humans that they want to be and not have their whole entire existence defined only by a political tragedy.”

Moe said his goal is not only to teach about Burmese issues and the coup but also for students to learn about other parts of Myanmar.

“When you look at the coup, you always see the ugly side,” Moe said. “But we also need to invite the students to expand a wider horizons of understanding [Myanmar’s] beautiful history [and] cultural diversity.”

Still, because the military government outlawed liberal arts and democratic education, participating in online education initiatives can be especially risky for students. According to O’Morchoe, students could be arrested if they are caught.

“It’s quite stressful when you’re sitting in a position where you are not in any danger, but you are putting potentially your students in danger,” O’Morchoe said. 

Beyond Yale, other institutions and non-profits have developed teaching initiatives for Burmese students, both for university and K-12 students. 

The Gift of Education Myanmar, or GOE, is a non-profit founded in 2013 to train Burmese teachers. The COVID-19 pandemic forced GOE to move online. After the coup, GOE pivoted its focus to students no longer attending elementary and secondary schools due to civil unrest. Through language and art classes, GOE aims to provide K-12 students with English language skills. Graduates of the former teacher-training program became paid teaching assistants, offering an instructional job to many teachers who had lost their jobs. GOE currently teaches 60 students with four Burmese teaching assistants and several teachers based around the world. 

“We have been able to put together a good comprehensive program that addresses all the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, and doing the best we can to be as interactive as possible,” said Susan Coti, the executive director of GOE. 

Thirteen-year-old Myat Theinga has been taking GOE classes since September 2021. She said she learns much more English from GOE than from her regular Burmese school, and the supplemental classes helped her get better school grades after it reopened. 

“When I started joining GOE, my English was pretty bad and I wasn’t confident about it,” Theinga said. “But after time and time passed, I got a lot better in English, and I got more confidence. I really like speaking with those native speakers.” 

Theinga appreciates that GOE classes are free and don’t take up too much time, but she still gains a lot out of it. Now that her school has reopened, Theinga has struggled to attend GOE classes and complete homework assignments on time. Nevertheless, she is determined to stay involved.

According to Pann Ei, a teaching assistant at GOE, the program has been instructive for prospective teachers despite enduring frequent electricity and internet cuts. Ei said that she learned how to use technology effectively, create lesson plans, use teaching techniques and communicate in English.

“We did not get a chance [like this],” Ei said. “The students are lucky.”

Nevertheless, due to their teacher shortage, GOE has a long waitlist of students they cannot accommodate. Similarly, the Council on Southeast Asia Studies received over 100 applicants for the Myanmar Young Junior Scholar Mentorship, but they accepted 20. 

The mentorship is a six-month online program for advanced Burmese scholars who are partnered with academic mentors at Yale, such as Harms. Since December, they have helped guide the scholars through their research, writing and publication processes. The program will culminate in an in-person workshop at Yale in late spring for the scholars to finalize their works. 

“We didn’t want just to be a bunch of European and American scholars writing about Myanmar,” Harms said. “We wanted it to be a decolonizing project that centers and foregrounds scholars from Myanmar writing about Myanmar.”

Still, Harms said the Council has struggled to get more involvement in and expand its programs throughout Yale. For him, few students are aware of the issues, and the University has not provided additional funds.   

“There is a challenge right now facing Myanmar, in that a lot of people are distracted by events and other places,” Harms said. “People in Myanmar have felt entirely neglected, and I will say that some of that neglect has also taken place on university campuses.”

Similarly, GOE has also experienced difficulties due to a lack of awareness. According to Coti, they receive few donations and are too small to get funds from larger foundations. 

Despite this challenge, Coti believes the work they do is still meaningful. 

“We’re small, but we’re powerful,” Coti said. “I feel like we’re very impactful in our small corner. It’s meaningful work, and I think it deserves to continue.”

Though Harms said his education efforts are not targeted at solving a specific issue, he believes they allow students to be excited by learning. 

Harms also hopes that these programs inspire others to take action. 

“Sometimes I think that people need to stop waiting for huge amounts of funding to make things happen and just do little things,” Harms said. “[That] is the kind of agent of effort people can do to make a difference.” 

More than 300,000 state education employees joined the CDM immediately following the coup.