Carolina Asia Center Hosts Panel Discussion ‘What Is Happening in Myanmar?’
The Carolina Asia Center hosted a virtual panel in late February to discuss recent events in Myanmar (also known as Burma), where the military took power in a coup and arrested civilian leaders, including political leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The panel included Frances O’Morchoe, lecturer in history at Parami Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who joined asynchronously from Yangon, Myanmar, due to internet blackouts. The discussion also featured Sarmuna Wei, a member of the Karen diaspora community in North Carolina. The Karen are an ethnic minority group in Myanmar with a large diaspora community in the U.S.
Ann Suk, doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill, moderated the panel. In addition to the panel, the event featured video recordings from students and activists currently living in Myanmar describing their experiences and actions since the coup occurred.
O’Morchoe provided context on Myanmar’s history and previous events in the democratization process before describing the latest developments and the uncertainty over where the country will go next and how people around the country have responded.
“We’ve been wondering which kind of junta we will see, which direction it will go,” O’Morchoe said. “Will it go back 30 years to the repressive, awful days of zero free speech and spies everywhere listening to you, when talking about politics was completely banned, or will it be a temporary attempt by the military to reset the democratic transition?”
O’Morchoe said that the response of the people in Myanmar has been inspiring and discussed the creativity of protestors and demonstrators in their outcry against the military.
“There has been a huge up swelling of popular anger and desire for democracy again,” she said, “I think there’s hope in this, because in 1988 there was no civil society, everything was illegal. There weren’t any ways for people to organize… This time, we’re seeing the effects of the recent flowering of civil society.”
Sarmuna Wei described the effect the coup has had on those living in the diaspora community, particularly ethnic minorities, many of whom still have relatives living in Myanmar. Wei said the situation has been traumatizing for her and her family, who fled Myanmar in 1990. She said they are very worried due to a lack of ability to communicate with family members.
Two Burmese university students in Myanmar shared their experiences via video recording as well. One student described the protests in response to the coup in Myanmar, as well as the restrictions on internet services and curfews throughout the capital city of Yangon. Another student expressed the hope that those living outside Myanmar would hear their voices and stand with them.
A Q&A session followed the panel discussion where the audience of about 105 people asked questions to Wei and Kevin W. Fogg, associate director of the Carolina Asia Center. The discussion touched on more specifics regarding how minority communities may be acutely affected by the coup, the role and complicated legacy of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s democratic movement, and the potentially disproportionate effect on women as a result of a renewed military dictatorship.
This event was organized by the Carolina Asia Center, as part of its expanding programming on Southeast Asia. Founded in 2002, the Carolina Asia Center is the University of North Carolina’s flagship organization for Asia-related activities and plays an important role in promoting the university’s global strategy.