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.
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.
“[My education] plans have stopped now because of the military coup. For now, I am in the jungle,” he said. “I am carrying an iron stick because I cannot do anything regarding my studies, plans or hopes. I am planning to study after this crisis is all over … [but] I’m not sure whether I will still be young enough.”
For those who have focused on pursuing higher education abroad, the coup has created new problems.
In addition to the challenge of obtaining transcripts from a ministry where tens of thousands have gone on strike, students who want to study abroad must prepare and take English proficiency and other prerequisite exams in a volatile environment in which the military has repeatedly shut down the internet.
Procuring a student visa can also be daunting, especially when students must visit a visa application centre in person, but some centres in Myanmar have been closed for extended periods.
With entry into Thailand also barred for months due to COVID-19, many students have travelled to the South Caucasus or the Middle East to apply for onward visas, according to Al Jazeera’s conversations with several students and a travel agent.
Student visa applicants must also show they have a certain level of funds in their bank accounts, but COVID-19 and the coup have depleted savings, and the value of Myanmar’s currency, the kyat, has also plummeted.
On top of these challenges, applicants must demonstrate that they will leave the country to which they are applying once they complete their studies, but that has become harder to prove as professional prospects dim in Myanmar and the security situation deteriorates.
This factor appears to have cost Dilldar the chance to study for a master’s in business administration (MBA) despite being accepted by a university in Canada in late 2020.
As an ethnic Rohingya, Dilldar had hoped to finally pursue further study free from discrimination – a chance that Myanmar has systematically denied to Rohingya people, along with their access to citizenship and freedom of movement.
Dilldar, whose parents moved from Rakhine State to Yangon before she was born, had to hide her ethnic identity her entire life.
In 2017, she suffered silently as her classmates denied and even laughed at the military’s human rights atrocities against Rohingya in Rakhine State.
When she graduated from university in 2019, she was made to walk last at the ceremony because she lacked a National Registration Card.
‘I broke down and cried’
It took Dilldar almost a year from the time she graduated before she was able to obtain the card, and subsequently her passport and graduation certificate. Her documents describe her as Bengali, a designation that Myanmar has pushed on Rohingya people for decades and which denies their ethnic identity.
Once she got her offer from Canada in September 2020, Dilldar began applying for her student visa.
Her final appointment was on February 1, but because of the coup, she could not complete the process until June. She received a response a month later.
“When I opened the email and saw the visa refusal, I broke down and cried,” she said.
According to the immigration officer’s notes, her application did not satisfactorily indicate that she would leave Canada at the end of her stay, that she intended to be a genuine student, or that her course of study was a “logical progression” of her academic and professional career.
The number of people from Myanmar trying to study abroad in some countries appears to be increasing.
VFS Global, an outsourcing agency that handles visas for seven countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, received 38 percent more student visa applications through its centres in Myanmar this year than last, despite months-long closures, a representative told Al Jazeera.
A travel agent in Yangon, who requested anonymity, estimates her agency has helped hundreds of people apply for student visas since the coup – more than twice as many as it received before.
For Canada, new student visa applications have more than doubled since last year, with 210 received from January to August, compared with 92 during the same months last year, according to data provided by a representative from the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Office.
But the number of new student visas approved for Myanmar nationals rose only slightly over the same period, from 46 to 61.
For the US, according to publicly available data, the number of student visas approved for Myanmar nationals increased more than tenfold from February to July of this year compared with last, with 652 approved in 2021 and 64 in 2020. The US Embassy did not provide data to Al Jazeera on student visa applications received.
The coup has put other unexpected wrenches in students’ plans, including for some scholarship recipients.
Nyein, a longtime public sector worker, beat hundreds of applicants in 2020 for a US government-funded master’s level scholarship and had planned to start classes in August.
She told Al Jazeera that even though she joined the Civil Disobedience Movement on February 7 and left her job, her scholarship was rescinded in March because of her alleged support for the military regime.
“I got refused not because of my shortcomings; I was refused because of political issues. It is really hard for me to understand,” said Nyein, who is now jobless and living in hiding due to fear of arrest.
“When the coup happened, everything turned upside down in just a day.”
A US Embassy spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that US government-supported educational exchange programmes “continue unabated and are only available for those not affiliated with the regime”.
Bawi Za, also the recipient of a scholarship to study in the US, is stuck in India, which has made it impossible for him to attend his master’s level programme in person.
He had been active in supporting police to defect after the coup, and when police and soldiers raided his home in March, he escaped into the Indian state of Mizoram. Days later, the military issued an arrest warrant against him.
He has since secured a student visa to the US, but India rejected his application for an exit permit because of his unauthorised entry.
“I have been stuck in India…I cannot get out of here,” he said.
His classes started in June, and he has spent the first half of his one-year programme studying online despite the nine and a half-hour time difference.
“Sometimes I feel like I am left behind…I have to struggle a lot,” he told Al Jazeera.
On top of the academic challenges, isolation, and disappointments of not meeting his classmates or living on campus, he faces the emotional strain of the crisis back home.
His close friend was recently shot dead and photos surfaced online of the mutilated body.
A significant military offensive is also under way across his native Chin State in Myanmar’s northwest.
“Sometimes, there is some information, like clashes in my hometown and people dying. When I get that kind of information, I cannot even stay focused,” said Bawi Za. But he is resolved not to let the military kill his spirit.
“The motto that I keep currently is there is no way the [military] will withhold my dream education,” he said.
Deborah, who is also from Chin State, is now facing the prospect of violence while living at home with her parents.
Instead of attending lectures, she is cooking and selling food to raise money for the anti-coup resistance.
“If people ask me, ‘Do you feel safe? I just answer, ‘Yeah, I’m safe,’ but actually, I don’t feel safe,” she said.
“Every day we hear gunshots flying over our roof, and sometimes, it really looks like a battlefield. Who would feel secure in this situation?”
This article was supported by a grant from ARTICLE 19 under Voices for Inclusion, a project funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.