Military coup kills higher education dreams in Myanmar

When the Myanmar military seized power on February 1, Deborah’s plans to study abroad fell apart.

Last year, the 21-year-old won a conditional place at a university in the United States, pending submission of her transcripts. She requested them from the Ministry of Education in December and was informed they would be ready in early February. But within days of the coup, civil servants walked off the job, and Deborah is still waiting for the paperwork.

“Because of the coup, [my transcripts] still aren’t in my hands until now and my plan got cancelled,” she said.

Deborah is not the only one whose dreams of studying overseas have been derailed.

The coup has left Myanmar’s higher education system, already among the world’s weakest, in shambles. As domestic opportunities to study dwindle, the economy collapses, and killings, torture and arrests multiply, studying abroad has offered a ray of hope for many young people. But numerous obstacles lie in their way.

“When we talk about education, everything has been stuck in Myanmar,” said Bawi Za, a student from Chin State who has been unable to travel to the US to attend the master’s programme for which he received a scholarship. “It is kind of hopeless for Myanmar youth and Myanmar students.”

Al Jazeera has used pseudonyms for the young people quoted in this article to protect them from possible reprisals.

Shutdown

When the military first seized power in Myanmar in 1962, it dragged the country into a half-century of impoverishment and isolation, which had devastating effects on higher education.

The generals heavily censored access to information and tightly controlled the country’s universities by imposing rote learning models and even shutting down institutions for extended periods.

In 1988, student-led protests which swept the country were not only met by deadly violence and mass arrests; universities in Yangon, the biggest city, were closed for 10 of the next 12 years.

Those years saw thousands of students head to the country’s remote border areas to train as revolutionary fighters alongside ethnic armed organisations, and the February coup has led some down a similar path.

“Many educated people and professionals left their bright futures to serve [the revolution],” said Thomas, a violinist who had been preparing to apply to music colleges in the US when the military seized power. In February, he performed protest songs during mass street demonstrations. Now he has traded his violin for a gun.

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