On the morning of 1 February 2021, whilst the world was in the throes of a global pandemic, Myanmar’s military deposed the elected members of government a day before they were due to be sworn in by parliament.
The coup has led to widespread civil unrest with devastating impacts on the country, especially the economic, health and education sectors. Still, researchers persevere.
The Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM) program is a five-year initiative launched in 2017 by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Global Affairs Canada to support local research and higher education capacity to generate evidence-based advice for public policy. Since the coup, the Myanmar researchers involved in the program have had to delicately balance continuing their projects while protecting themselves, their colleagues and the program’s stakeholder involvement. Despite many challenges, they remain resolute, continue to break traditional barriers and support their country by providing evidence-based research.
Asia Research News spoke with some of these researchers to find out how their lives and projects have been impacted since the coup.
Alex Aung Khant: Tracking a digital uprising
Before fleeing Myanmar to Paris, France, Alex Aung Khant was the executive director of Urbanize, a Yangon- based policy institute, and an independent candidate in the 2019 Yangon City Development Committee Elections. He is a grand nephew of Aung San Suu Kyi, who served as Myanmar’s state counsellor from 2015 until she was detained in 2021. Khant and a team of researchers are now tracking and documenting social media content to create a record of people’s views and responses in the coup’s aftermath. This ‘digital diary’ aims to be a crucial resource for understanding Myanmar’s political trajectory and the successes and failures of a democracy movement in a time of crisis.
Researchers, especially in the field of politics, face extremely high risks due to the nature of their work. Indeed, many of my friends and colleagues have faced persecution, harassment and surveillance from the military, both individually and to their families.
In such a situation, the ability of researchers to do their work is severely hindered, as we have little physical security. Even for the few of us who can say we are safe, the mental capacity to conduct research under these circumstances is challenging, to say the least. Yet, we do the best we can, given what we have. That goes for all Myanmar’s people. Despite the dire situation, we have no choice but to be resilient and not give up.
Our project mainly looks at social media discussions, as well as reported news, as a kind of historical collection of the events that have unfolded, combined with the public sentiments around those events. Overseen by SecDev Foundation, we call this project a Digital Diary, covering the first nine months since the coup.
We chose to do research on this because many events occur daily in Myanmar that often tend to be left behind by the news cycle. Through our project, we want to track and categorize the important turning points and trajectory of the coup, the military's actions, and the public movement. Through our project, we want to track and categorize the important turning points and trajectory of the coup, the military's actions, and the public movement.
Aye Lei Tun: Research and resilience
Aye Lei Tun was gender program manager for Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation, which conducted a three-year K4DM study on women’s political participation in Myanmar. She is now in Canada, with help from the K4DM network and its connections, studying for a PhD in political science at McMaster University.
The coup strikes me as a nightmare. This is my first time to have witnessed such turmoil. In the first three months, most people in my country struggled with a variety of emotional states, ranging from hope to despair. But, starting in May, I believe the people's uprising to the military shifted to a more realistic approach, where we exited the fictitious universe in which we believed we could be saved by foreign intervention. We understood that we needed to seek out and form a strong alliance among the diverse ethnic groups and to have a strategic approach to fight against the dictatorship.
As the military's suppression of civil society organizations became more severe, we had to halt our programmes, as the staff did not feel safe. Despite our insecurity, we continue supporting pro-democratic forces in whatever manner we can. We still have several limits in terms of our capacity to do research, including communication challenges, security concerns, and other unexpected roadblocks.
Currently, I'm assisting with a study on internally displaced persons (IDPs).
However, the situation is unpredictably volatile, and we cannot foretell what will happen tomorrow. Due to the increased number of serious armed conflicts around IDP areas, even some IDP camps continue to move. As a result, we must frequently alter our research strategy and plan in response to changing circumstances. Even when conducting phone interviews, we are concerned about our safety.
We are still attempting to cope with these issues. If the original plan is no longer working, we consider an alternative approach as a backup.
A collaborative approach with local communities is the most effective method. We've improved our network and communication with local groups so that we can follow updates and potential solutions provided by local groups.
In the future, I want to see our society as politically matured, tolerating diversity, being critical and rational, which we have never had before. I believe that education may be the most important foundation for establishing a democratic society. Following my PhD, I would like to work in academia, particularly in research.
Min Zaw Oo: Monitoring violence
The executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security (MIPS), Min Zaw Oo has a PhD degree in conflict analysis and resolution from Georgetown University in the US and has long been involved in Myanmar’s peace process. He was exiled for 21years before returning to Myanmar in 2012. MIPS was involved in a K4DM project in collaboration with the University of Toronto to study the impacts of centralization and decentralization on public service delivery.
The coup has been a major security threat for researchers. The post-coup security landscape makes research trips impossible. The regime’s crackdown on the opposition movement has also driven many researchers out of the country. Those that have remained have been silenced by security threats from both sides of the conflict.
At MIPS, we are continuing to build our violence monitoring dataset, called the Township-based Conflict Monitoring System. The coup has elevated Myanmar’s violence profile to an extent we have not seen in the last 30 years, so it is critical that we continue to monitor how different types of violence are changing. We hope to continue our research efforts even under these circumstances. Due to the current security challenges, we have had to curtail our research activities in conflict zones, instead resorting to data collection from open sources. We have also increased our efforts to reach out to sources on the ground to triangulate our data collection.
May Pannchi: Studying for the homeland
Before the coup, May Pannchi was working with Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development to build research capacity for the staff of their local partner organizations. She was involved in the K4DM project titled "Voices of Ethnic People in Shan State about Gender Equality". She is now studying for a master’s in environmental science at the University of Wisconsin- Madison in the United States.
The coup affected me personally and professionally. We were not able to do our research or development work. I tried to collect data related to the coup and also to support other people, but it was too risky. I wasn’t able to concentrate on my work and felt lost, depressed, unsafe and worried. I was a semester late joining the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I did not have enough time to prepare for my studies. Also, I had to leave my family and this was really hard for me. I overcame those challenges because I had to. We have to be strong for our country’s future.
I am studying environmental conservation. Before the coup, I travelled across Myanmar because of my work. Every time I went to the same place, I noticed environmental and climate changes that were getting worse. Our country is one of the least developed and most of our people are struggling for their daily survival, so they are unable to focus on the environment. Also, there are so many sectors we need to improve for conservation work, such as land use policies, environmental regulations for mega projects, and ensuring inclusiveness for people of different backgrounds in every sector. I felt I had to do something for our country’s environment and to be more effective for my community. Also, I have a son and I want to bring positive impact and a better future for him and for future generations.
I really miss my home and I want to go back full of hope and security.
ChamTha Kyaw: Responding to change
ChamTha Kyaw is the executive director and co-founder of Pandita Development Institute, established in 2011 to provide a space for political and civic activists to contribute towards Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
Before the coup, K4DM facilitated workshops and ongoing tailored training sessions to build our staff’s research capacities. The program also provided a micro-grant for one of our strategic actions: sharing our social media communication experience among peer local civil society organisations. After the coup, K4DM’s flexible micro-grant helped us conduct pilot research to initiate our revised strategy.
Pandita is now researching civil society in post-coup Myanmar to advocate that international communities secure an enabling funding environment for a healthy civic space.
The research is helping us understand how civil society organisations (CSOs) have responded to dynamic political changes and drawbacks. Thanks to the active and detailed responses from a selection of local CSO leaders, our study uncovers the coping mechanisms, including direct impacts and challenges, and emerging trends in the civil society arena in post-coup Myanmar.
Since the coup, research cannot be accomplished without taking risks. The solidarity among the organisation’s staff and the trust we have established with our research participants and other stakeholders have reasonably mitigated the risks and challenges.
May Sabe Phyu: Ensuring gender equality
May Sabe Phyu is the director of Gender Equality Network (GEN), which is participating in two K4DM projects to improve research capacity among partner organizations and raise awareness of gender issues among various sectors of society. The team has developed training manuals on gender issues and a booklet on gender standard terminology. They also established the Gender Resource Center, which holds reference materials and publications and has hosted a range of activities and discussions.
When COVID-19 hit Myanmar, we had to change our approach and conduct online events and campaigns. Even though we encountered several challenges due to the sudden shift, we found that audience engagement was more than we expected. Numerous discussions and meetings led to the collective development of recommendations for the Prevention of Violence against Women (PoVAW) bill that were sent to Union Parliament.
We had to halt our advocacy activities when the military staged the coup on 1 February. The members of the junta raided offices of non-governmental and non-profit organizations and detained many staff members, social workers and activists. As a result, we have been trying to keep a low profile and prioritise the safety and security of our members and staff. Nevertheless, we continue to address discriminatory cultural norms, beliefs and prejudices while working on restoring democracy in our country.
Less than 48 hours after the coup, GEN organized a meeting with other women’s groups to form a Women’s Human Rights Defenders network to collectively counter the country’s urgent state of affairs. That network has transformed itself into a coalition and now stands as one of the independent voices for the plight of women and girls in Myanmar.
GEN is actively collaborating with the women’s groups and organizations to ensure women’s needs are addressed. Within our membership, we have organizations providing helpline services for gender-based violence survivors. Some of our members are raising emergency funds to relocate and help women and girls to a safer place.
Myanmar is a patriarchal country with very low political participation of women. There have been many structural and cultural barriers for women to participate in politics that have not been systematically explored and documented. GEN hopes its research will improve understanding of the barriers women face to participate in politics so they can receive the support they need in the future.
I hope to see Myanmar on the path towards building a federal democratic union, the removal of the military from Myanmar politics once and for all, and the creation of a socially cohesive society where an individual has equal rights and opportunities by virtue of being a human.
Pausa La Ring: Serving the community
Pausa La Ring was a research team leader at Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation. His work involved interviewing members of parliament and political party gatekeepers to study how candidates are selected for Myanmar elections. He also conducted research with local communities to understand attitudes towards and experiences of women in leadership positions.
The coup cost me a lot. I cannot travel across the country wherever I want to conduct my research now due to security concerns. Since we cannot travel and conduct face-to-face interviews in the communities, we have resorted to phone interviews. We are lucky that we have some contacts in the communities, so we snowball and ask them to introduce us to more respondents. This has been working so far but we still face challenges, such as lack of trust towards the researchers due to the current political situation or interviewees worrying their phone conversations are being monitored..
Our most recent research focus has been investigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the dynamics of community level services after the coup.
I keep myself motivated by doing what I can. My personal security was in danger so I relocated. I am physically safe, but not mentally and emotionally. My team is in Yangon, but I communicate with them every day to keep them motivated, which also motivates me and gives me a sense of doing what I can for the community.
Generally, cultural norms and traditional beliefs make it difficult for our communities to accept and recognize the importance of gender equality. But young women have played a crucial role in anti-coup protests in Myanmar, which is a great example to leave for younger generations.
Shona Loong: Supporting local researchers
Researchers routinely work with partners outside their home countries. K4DM funded researchers are no exception, working with 30 international partners. Research partners must learn to accommodate the complex circumstances of colleagues living in areas of conflict. One of them is Shona Loong. During K4DM, Shona advised on research projects, facilitated by the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian thinktank working at the crossroads of security, development, and new technology.
In my K4DM-funded project with the SecDev Foundation, I am advising three groups of researchers working on Internet-related topics. All teams comprise at least one person from Myanmar, and they are regularly monitoring the ground situation and the safety of their researchers.
The question of what research safety and ethics look like post-coup is a difficult one. In my training as a researcher, I don't think I, or any of the people I have worked with, have faced the kinds of threats people on the ground have. This is where trusting our local partners and admitting humility as a researcher is important.
I think some research is better than none, as long as the researchers are aware and reflexive of the limits of what they can do. I think there are many concerns about
whether research can be as comprehensive and robust as we would like it to be. The answer is probably not. Not because researchers lack abilities, but because they face very real challenges in terms of the communications infrastructure and their own safety. In conflict areas, people cannot carry papers or laptops in case they are intercepted. That has real consequences. Still, research is critical at this juncture in Myanmar, when rumour circulates in international circles, and unknowing is sometimes used as a reason for inaction. The important thing is to understand the limits of what we know and do not know.