Update from Myanmar 2

This update was originally published in the AAIE COVID 19 Briefing #182

March 24, 2021

The situation in Myanmar has quickly deteriorated since my last update written at the end of February.  At that time, response to the military coup that had taken place appeared in the form of massive peaceful protests, attracting literally millions of people, throughout the country.  While the initial response to these protests was initially one of tolerance, this quickly changed when it appeared the demonstrations were building.   As a result, moving demonstrations began to appear, where people would gather to demonstrate, and then move to another site when the military showed up. Early on, the military imposed a curfew at 8:00 PM every night.  Demonstrators responded with nightly demonstrations.  The military quickly responded to this as well.

Simultaneous to the demonstrations taking place, a civil disobedience movement (CDM) developed.  Initially, doctors and public hospital staff quit working, this was followed by teachers, banks, stores, and then essentially all offices of government.  This has caused the whole country to come to a standstill.  It has become difficult to access cash.  Many local families are subsisting on minimal food levels, and there is hardly any traffic on roads in a city of 7 million people.  The military response has been more aggression, destroying homes of people refusing to work, and arresting more people, and placing some areas under martial law.  This has resulted in people fleeing their homes, including some of our local staff at the school, resulting in a need to help look after their daily needs.  While the initial demonstrations had given people hope they could change the situation, there is a growing sense of fear for the future and a loss of optimism.

As a school, we have had to continuously be on our toes, trying to be proactive in preparing for all contingencies.  For example, as the CDM developed, we realized cash might end up being in short supply.  We immediately increased our cash holdings at the school so we could cover several payrolls, meaning our employees would be able to meet their needs.  We loaded up on food and housing supplies in anticipation of needing to support people who would be dislocated, and we planned for ways to accommodate people in need of a place to live.  The military was also cutting internet access on a regular basis, as well as all communications channels from time to time, so we set up meeting times for faculty to get information, and offline learning opportunities for when school wasn’t in session.  Part of our daily leadership approach became one of trying to constantly anticipate what could happen next and make sure we were prepared for it.

One of our greatest challenges has been trying to balance the needs of various members of our community.  Often these needs conflicted with each other, for example trying to support faculty who want to leave, while having students who are still in country, or supporting staff who are afraid to go on the streets to come to work, with families who need access to the facilities to support their mental health.  Many times, we found ourselves struggling with trying to make decisions that balance all of the needs.  Fortunately, I have a supportive board and board chair.  At one point, while struggling with a decision, our board chair asked me, “Greg, if you had to step back and support your decision, what would you say?”  I replied that I was making what I believed to be the moral and ethical decision.  She told me that if I believed that, then it is clear what decision I should make.  That became our focus.  From that point on, we have asked ourselves, what is the moral and ethical way to go?  We certainly have critics, but this has helped us to focus, and choose a course as we’ve moved forward.

As things have deteriorated further, we’ve continued to have to make challenging decisions.  We began to realize that at some point we might find ourselves in a crisis situation where we need to get all faculty out of the country.  Rather than waiting for that to happen, we’ve decided to implement plans to move all faculty out on a chartered flight during spring break so they have time to settle into their homes of record before resuming online learning following the break.  We’ve also realized enrollment will be way down in August.  So, we established a list of criteria, and based on that have put in place a reduction in force.  We are currently in the process of meeting with every faculty member to review with them their status for the next school year.  While this is happening, we are continuing to teach classes synchronously, making our facilities available, supporting dislocated refugees, and trying to maintain routines for our students.  By 11 April, the majority of our faculty will have left Myanmar for the remainder of this school year.  Our COO and myself will stay in Myanmar to support our local staff for as long as it is reasonable for us to be here and we feel we are serving a purpose.

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