In the nearly three years that have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état, the global media has shifted its attention to other crises, from the sudden withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But despite a lull in headlines, the turmoil that resulted from the coup remains life-altering for the generation of young activists who have been displaced by the shattering of democratic ideals.
Myanmar’s military — the Tatmadaw — staged a coup d’état on February 1, 2021, detaining top government officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military claimed that the election results were fraudulent, but independent observers have dismissed these claims. The coup has sparked widespread protests and civil disobedience, with many people calling for the release of the detained leaders and the restoration of democracy. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization dedicated to justice in Myanmar, more than 4,000 people have so far been killed by Myanmar’s military junta since the coup, and upwards of 24,000 have been arrested, charged or sentenced.
For JURIST, coverage of the Myanmar coup is personal. Despite the risks, Myanmar law student correspondents – most of them women – covered the coup for JURIST from its beginning and have kept reporting in its aftermath. In a bid to keep the crisis in the public dialogue, we have conducted a series of interviews with some of the law students and young lawyers whose lives have been affected by Myanmar’s tumult, ranging from law students who fled abroad to save their futures and continue their studies to those who put down their textbooks and went into the jungle to take up arms against the junta as part of the pro-democracy resistance. Their accounts reflect the full range of emotional responses, from despair to anger to hope.
The interviews, which will be published in a series of articles, explore the challenges and opportunities facing young people in Myanmar as they navigate a country in political turmoil. This is the fourth interview in a seven-part series, with links to all that have been published so far below. Please note that our interviewees’ names have been kept private to protect their security unless otherwise noted.
Interview 1: ‘Surviving is sometimes the only way to live in Myanmar’
Interview 2: ‘I truly believe our lives will be brighter after the revolution’
Interview 3: ‘The coup has made me both tougher and more compassionate’
Interview 4: ‘The fact is, I cannot bear to live under oppression’
Interview 5: ‘We will win. We will restore democracy’
Would you briefly introduce yourself? What was your life like before the coup?
When the coup happened, I was a fourth-year law student at Yangon University. I was a legal intern and an assistant at a local law firm. I wanted to be a judge after graduating. When the coup happened, all of these dreams deflated. I decided to leave my jobs because I did not want to support the government with my tax payments. This was my initial means of supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
What are you doing now, two and a half years after the coup?
I have been facing significant challenges over the past few years, particularly concerning my educational path. I decided to leave Myanmar and move to Thailand due to my concern for personal safety. I was worried about the prospect of being arrested by the police or individuals associated with the military. And these concerns were not baseless; I’ve received a number of threatening and harassing messages from unidentified sources; it seemed clear that someone wanted to do me harm. After the coup, I didn’t know where to seek refuge. I initially opted to go to a liberated area. Unfortunately, I came up against some unexpected obstacles in the process, leading me to make the difficult decision to relocate to Thailand through unofficial means.
At present, I am employed at Irrawaddy Law School, an interim legal educational organization. Our institution offers courses in human rights, humanitarian law, and various other subjects to students actively engaged in the CDM movement. Additionally, I am dedicating my time as a volunteer teacher, focusing on educating migrant children.
What are your living conditions in Thailand right now?
I am unable to travel because I do not have any legal documents. I am not even safe to go outside to buy food or other necessities. The school where I teach is far from my home, and this area is surrounded by mountains. I have to stay at work during the week and return home on weekends, but the journey is not safe. It is possible that I could be arrested by the Thai police on my way home. I am not yet sure if I plan to stay in Thailand for the long term, or if I will move elsewhere.
Are you able to stay in touch with your loved ones from Myanmar?
I have not been able to make contact with my family since I left my home because speaking to me could place them in danger.
As a law student who is now a refugee in a neighboring country, what are your thoughts on the progress of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution?
Myanmar’s Spring Revolution has shown us how much we all yearn for democracy and human rights. Fighting for justice and standing up for the oppressed is never easy, so I believe we have a long journey ahead of us in standing for what we believe in.
As a law student, do you think the international community is showing enough support for the people of Myanmar? What more could they do to help?
We need more support from the international community, such as effective action against the military junta and support for people participating in the CDM movement. The Myanmar military is violating international human rights and humanitarian law by burning villages and committing genocide and crimes against humanity. They must be penalized. The international community should also provide more humanitarian support for displaced persons.
What are your thoughts on the Civil Disobedience Movement as a law student when the military junta is pressuring all university students to go back to classes?
The idea of studying law and justice under a military junta makes no sense. How could it make sense to learn about concepts like human rights and fundamental freedoms from a junta that routinely violates these rights? I will not return to my university under the Tatmadaw.
What do you think about the leadership of the National Unity Government (NUG) as a parallel government of Myanmar?
I am disappointed with the work of the NUG. As a parallel government, it needs to focus on strengthening its principles and taking meaningful action.
Do you intend to keep pursuing legal education after the revolution?
Absolutely. I have a strong passion for studying and applying legal education. I’ve devoted a significant amount of my time to it, and I’m determined to keep learning about laws and human rights for as long as possible.
What inspires you to keep persevering despite the countless difficulties you’ve endured since the coup began?
The fact is, I cannot bear to live under oppression. I am resolved to face down these difficulties in defense of our principles.
Do you have any parting words for law students and lawyers across the international community?
To me, the study of law is about striving for justice for the oppressed and working towards a society that is more just and secure. The legal system should never be utilized as a means of oppression.