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OPINION | MADELINE HORAN: Don't ignore them

Myanmar youth are calling out by MADELINE HORAN SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | February 19, 2021 at 3:27 a.m.

After Myanmar's historic 2015 elections, a group of teens -- Burman, Chin, Shan, Sagaing Muslim, Mon, Chinese Myanmar, and Yangon Muslim -- assembled around a table with me for seven months. Their mission? To learn enough English to study in America. To learn the critical-thinking skills their homeland would need to navigate a diverse society into the world community after decades of isolation.

I communicate today with teachers who also worked with students like mine. Our feet are back on safer soil; our hearts remain with young Myanmar. From grainy videos on Twitter and the BBC, we see teenagers and recent secondary school graduates, along with novice monks, even some we knew, marching the streets of Yangon. They hold up messages in English for the West to read, from "Where are our rights?" and "We can't live in the dark era again" to whimsical notes like "I don't want dictatorship. I just want [a] boyfriend."

Many of these protesters use a style of expression they learned from the Internet only a few years ago. In 2011, SIM cards were so expensive that Internet usage was at less than 1%. Most of our students had not received their first SIM card, and their first glimpse of the Web, until 2013. As they connected the first time, they could run their thumbs along a screen and, like magic, see how differently life might look. Today, they use their newfound freedom to share information about human rights, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and "mother" Aung San Suu Kyi.

Throughout my students' childhood years, Myanmar's borders were essentially closed, a country impoverished by sanctions, censorship, and military junta. Myanmar's newest generation arose among bomb blasts, Cyclone Nargis, the Saffron Revolution, and Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest. Schooling was sparse and sporadic, some relying on orphanages or out-of-print books for their education. Some learned English by reading the very same book, over and over, its pages yellowed, its ink faded, the edges torn and taped: the only book they had.

Since the military coup Feb. 1, the world has come to recognize how different Myanmar's newest generation is from those preceding it. The YouTube world noticed when the young aerobics instructor danced, oblivious to the military coup surreally rolling out behind her in Naypyidaw.

Within hours, juvenile activists organized large-scale protests across the country. By day, they march and chant the revolutionary anthem of the 1988 uprising, "Kabar Ma Kyay Bu," in seas of red and yellow attire, the colors of the NLD. They raise their fingers in a three-fingered salute, commonly seen in pro-democracy movements in surrounding countries. They offer police officers flowers and bottled water. By night, they patrol their neighborhoods against night raids, chasing intruders away. Others lean from their windows with their elders, and monks and nuns, as they bang pots and pans into the air, a Myanmar tradition to ward off evil spirits.

Generation Z uses social media to spread the news, warn others, criticize the army's takeover, and organize "civil disobedience" protests through hashtags like #SaveMyanmar, #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar, and #FightForDemocracy. In many ways, their activism resembles Hong Kong's and Russia's recent youth-organized protests.

As in those faraway protests, though, activists are already being targeted, arrested, and silenced. Because the young are naturally more expressive, they are more noticed and marked for capture. The military is strengthening its hold. Words and images are petering out. One by one, the military has blocked access to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Myanmar's teens frantically switched social media sites ahead of the rolling blackout, using their last minutes on the Internet to comment on the news they saw before them.

We must not ignore the cries of Myanmar's youth as their teachers leave, airports close, and last words slip into the world. We teachers already know of former students whose parents are detained, of residents packing to flee.

Last week, the military banned mass gatherings and warned, chillingly, of action. Those who speak up risk being swept away in the night. Myanmar might become, once again, that shuttered, voiceless country between China and India. Its teens might return to the used-book stalls to keep up their English, to read what books are left behind as they wait for democracy once again. If they pick up "The Age of Innocence," they might find Myanmar in its line: "You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It's beyond human enduring -- that's all."

#WhatsHappeninginMyanmar; do you know?


Madeline Horan is an Arkansas native and international school teacher who taught in Yangon, Myanmar, from 2015-2016. She is now a Teachers College, Columbia University graduate teaching in Tokyo, Japan.


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