Update from Myanmar 1

This update was originally published in the AAIE COVID 19 Briefing #181

March 5, 2021

As if COVID wasn’t enough to be confronted with, on February 1, I woke up at 5:00 AM to a wide array of text messages and a phone call from our Director of HSSE, all informing me the Myanmar military had seized control of the government in a coup and detained the elected leaders of the country.  Though there had been rumors the previous weeks that this was a possibility, it had been largely discounted.  In the last decade Myanmar had progressed quite a bit economically and politically.  Though COVID had been challenging, the government seemed to be managing the situation well given the limits of its health care infrastructure.  Generally speaking, things seemed to be moving forward with the arrival of the first batch of vaccinations, stores and restaurants gradually reopening, and hopes the international airport would soon be able to begin operating again.  As a result, we were caught off guard by this move on the part of the military.

The first days immediately following the coup can only be described as a period of mourning.  Nothing was happening.  The streets were calm.  Some shops were closed up, but many remained open.  Yet, there was simply a general feeling of sadness.  When speaking with our Myanmar colleagues there was a sense they might start crying at any second.  Here was a population of people who had been so hopeful and proud of what their country was doing.  It was heart wrenching to see them now confronted with the loss of it all.  Then, with the arrival of the weekend, this mourning evolved into something else, and the people began to respond.  We began to see people going into the streets to demonstrate.  It began with small gatherings, but soon grew to millions in the streets across the country.  With it began the civil disobedience movement (CDM) where civil servants across the country quit reporting for work, refusing to carry out the directives of the military regime.  This included the Central Bank, ministry offices, hospitals, and all manner of government offices.  The country came to a standstill.  Then, the military began to respond, shooting demonstrators, engaging in mass arrests, and becoming more and more aggressive.  At the time of this writing, we have just come out of a day in which approximately 40 people have been killed, and large numbers of people have been injured and detained.  There is a sense of despair in the air, yet, at the same time, there also seems to be hope again.  There is a belief on the part of the people that they can do it, that they will prevail.

As a school, the events since 1 February have created a scenario where each day – sometimes each hour – we are confronted with new challenges and the need to be continually flexible and adaptable.  Almost immediately, organizations, embassies, and companies began to put out statements about the coup.  In some cases, this was responded to with arrests and detentions.  In other cases, it meant people needed to leave the country or go into hiding.  Perhaps the first major issue we had to deal with after securing the safety and wellbeing of our faculty and staff, was the demand being placed on us to make a statement.  I am very fortunate I have an excellent Board Chair who clearly sees herself as supporting me in my leadership role.  She immediately made herself available to me as needed.  As these demands increased, she pulled in the governance committee, and we met to discuss the role of the school in this situation.  In these discussions we were very clear in our need to think about the long-term viability of a school that has been in existence for 65 years.  We were very clear that in words we need to remain non-political.  Our focus was to continue to be providing a safe harbor for ALL of our students.  Finally, it would be our actions that would reflect our beliefs instead of our words.  This began the challenging work of a fine balancing act to make sure our words and deeds are properly interpreted.  This is not easy, and we often find that following a particular action or communication we are inundated with emails both criticizing and supporting us, reflecting the fact that our community members are all dealing with this situation in different ways with their perceptions clouded by their own realities.  Having decided on our messaging though has helped provide some clarity in how we approach some of the other challenges that have come up.

One immediate challenge that developed came from our high school students.  Student engagement since the coup has been all over the place.  We have students out demonstrating on the front lines, and others who are completely focused on academics, and some who have completely checked out.  Early on, some of these students strongly felt the school should be more engaged in what was going on, making a statement and holding discussions in the classroom.  They put together a petition requesting this, which created a dilemma for us.  We want our students to be advocates for their beliefs, yet the expression of certain ideas had suddenly become dangerous, especially given that classes are hybrid and anything can be recorded.  As a leadership team, we discussed this and decided to strive to make these students partners in this process.  We invited them to meet with us where we discussed with them the challenges we face, and worked with them to identify ways we could support them in expressing their feeling and ideas.

Supporting faculty and staff has been incredibly challenging.  As one teacher said to me, “Sure, I knew I was coming to a developing country, but I didn’t sign on for this.”  Fair enough!  This means the level of emotional support we need to provide has increased.  Almost immediately, the regime began to shut off the internet and phone service.  This was initially daunting, but now has become a daily occurrence. We responded to this by setting up a daily time we would all meet on campus if other forms of communication were not possible.  As emotions became raw, we made use of Adaptive School protocols to meet and have structured conversations.  This further helped us identify fears and concerns so we could begin to address them.  We also began to realize that isolation in homes was increasing stress at this time, so we began having faculty come to school to teach their online courses and began having students on campus in small groups.  On the flip side were our local staff.  Many of them wanted to demonstrate or participate in opposing the regime in other ways.  We began supporting them by telling them anyone could miss work as long as they let their supervisor know.  As things heated up on the streets and it became dangerous for staff to be out, we reduced to having skeleton crews of workers who often slept on campus.  Our teachers, who generally live near school, volunteered for shifts to cover the tasks needing to be covered so local staff could stay home.  Our goal with our local hire staff has been to again, support them through our actions without making an actual statement.

In many ways, the challenges facing us as a result of this coup are just beginning.  In my own mind, I believe things will get a lot worse before any type of resolution is reached.  That said, I’m beginning to identify key ideas that are supporting our decisions and approaches to this situation.  First, it is incredibly important to have many people to listen to.  I’ve already mentioned our Board Chair.  Our entire Board has been incredibly supportive and available during this time.  I have a fantastic, seasoned leadership team.  Many of them were in Venezuela with me, and have been key in helping maintain the focus, projecting a united approach, and identifying needs and responses.  There is also a fantastic group of school heads here in Yangon.  At another time, these people would be my competitors, but at the moment are my key colleagues with us consulting with each other regularly – sometimes several times per day.  Another key theme has been the idea of keeping a focus on being a support for our community, and especially students.  What that exactly means changes constantly, but it has become a driving force for us and is constantly brought up as we debate each decision.  Finally, we have begun to realize the importance of constantly reading the climate and being able, and willing, to pivot and adapt on a constant basis.  As I mentioned, we are far from the end of this situation.  That said, my faith in the ISY school community to prevail and support the people of Myanmar is as strong as ever.

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