Sabtu, 31 Juli 2021

Myanmar students at Australian universities are stuck between a coup and COVID-19 - ABC News

Thomson Lin's* teachers don't quite know the lengths he went to just to hand one of his recent assignments in on time.

The civil engineering student is enrolled at an Australian university, but since the pandemic in March 2020 forced most of his classes online, he's been studying remotely from his home in Myanmar.

That was before the military takeover on February 1, when the country's civilian leaders were arrested, the internet was shut off for hours each day, and electricity supply was sporadic.

It was under these testing conditions that Thomson was trying to submit a paper on steel analysis.

With no power at his house and a military curfew rapidly approaching, his parents decided to make a daring dash across the city to a relative's home, where the electricity was still on.

"My dad started driving as if we were in a Fast and Furious movie," he said.

"On the way, I could see many army trucks and soldiers with guns in their hands, staring at us … never did I expect that I would be having a sense of rushing through in the middle of a war zone."

Thomson is just one of dozens of Myanmar students currently enrolled at universities in Australia but studying from the South-East Asian nation, which finds itself caught between the military coup and a crushing COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the Department of Education, 138 Myanmar students are enrolled at Australian universities but are studying remotely from overseas.

Three women in face masks sitting on a road side looking at their phones
The military blocked access to the internet for hours at a time.(



While Thomson's peers who remain in Australia have been offered visa extensions in response to the chaos in their home country, there remain few options for students in his predicament – although universities say they are trying to bring them back to Australia.

Several universities contacted by the ABC say they have offered financial assistance and mental health support to their Myanmar students in Australia and at home.

Thomson said while his internet and electricity have mostly been restored in recent weeks, the aftermath of the coup has taken a toll.

More than 900 people have been killed and more than 5,000 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Thomson said he blocked his social media to avoid news of the violence swirling around him, and would find himself staring at the ceiling, crying for students who had been shot.

Feeling trapped after DFAT deal

Some young people who recently completed their studies in Australia now feel trapped in Myanmar, after signing a contract with the government, through a program run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

"According to my contract with DFAT, we have to contribute to our country for at least two years after our study. That is why I am here in Yangon," one former student, who asked to be called Michelle*, told the ABC.

A woman in traditional Kachin clothing walks during a protest.
Protesters in Melbourne wear traditional Kachin dress in a demonstration against the military coup. (

Supplied: Julian Meehan


She was granted an Australia Awards scholarship in 2018, completed her studies and returned to Myanmar at the start of 2020, before the pandemic.

According to the Australia Awards handbook, "all awardees must return home on completion of their studies".

"Awardees are required to leave Australia for a minimum of two years after completing their scholarship. Failure to do so will result in the awardee incurring a debt to the Commonwealth of Australia for the total accrued cost of their scholarship."

Michelle had planned to use urban planning skills she learned in Australia and hoped to return later for work or further study.

"When COVID and the coup happened at the same time, I lost my job, then I lost my hope," Michelle said.

She initially took part in peaceful rallies, but when soldiers threatened protesters with live ammunition, her family asked her to stop.

"There is gunfire that we can hear from our houses," she said, adding she had had sleepless nights.

In a statement, DFAT said the government "is deeply concerned by the situation in Myanmar and is actively looking at further ways to support the people of Myanmar, including through our development assistance program".

Australia Award scholars must depart Australia for two years, but the government does not have the power to stipulate in which country this time is spent.

Michelle said she is torn – on one hand she wants to be living safely in Australia, but her family is still in Myanmar.

"I might feel survivor's guilt if I am alone in the safer place, and I could do nothing for the activists in the revolution period," she said.

'They only care for their power'

Between February 1 and the end of June, 211 Myanmar nationals have applied for onshore protection visas in Australia.

Protesters with fire.
Myanmar people continue to protest, as hundreds have been killed since the military seized power.(



With arrival limits in place due to the pandemic, seeking a path to safety in Australia is not as clear for those offshore.

"We are not safe here at all," another former Australian Awards scholar, who asked to be called Clover*, told the ABC.

Clover landed her dream architecture job in Myanmar and was due to start on February 1 – the day the military seized power.

A person with brown hair and wearing a colourful face mask stairs off camera.
Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the military and charged under the official secrets act.(

AP: Aung Shine Oo


She has taken part in the protest movement, including organising donations, which she said puts her in a "risky" situation.

"If we go out, we have to delete all the photos and all our conversations," she said, in case the military junta stop them to check their phones.

"I just start to feel like if I get COVID, no-one can help me – I'm going to die. I feel like this.

"They don't really care for the people. They only care for their power."

Another Myanmar national, who asked to be known as Vaphual, received an Australia Awards scholarship at the end of 2019, but it was ultimately deferred due to the pandemic.

He has since started working as a freelance journalist in his home of Chin state.

"As a journalist and an activist, we are being targeted by the military junta. We cannot stay in our home safely," he said.

Australia's humanitarian intake was slashed from 18,750 places to 13,750 in 2020, and that cap is set to remain in place in the years ahead.

"Citizens of Myanmar, like all other nationalities, are able to lodge applications under the migration and temporary entry programs," the Department of Home Affairs said in a statement.

Younger generation fighting for their future

The country is seeing record high infections and deaths, as the military is reportedly hoarding oxygen and arresting doctors.

A row of oxygen tanks lined up with a child standing in front of one.
Residents in Yangon are defying a military curfew in a desperate search for oxygen to keep their loved ones breathing.(

AFP: Ye Aung Thu


"COVID has been really bad and every day we see news of our acquaintances dying or facing fatal situations," one current student, who asked to be named Jewel, said.

"We all are just trying to survive day by day and staying positive."

After studying online in Australia during Melbourne's hard lockdown last year, Jewel decided to relocate to Myanmar at the beginning of 2021.

"By the time I finished my quarantine, the coup happened – it was just the next day," she said.

Three child monks in red robes walk past a wall showing hand-washing, wearing masks.
Novice monks wear masks to protect against COVID-19, which has seen a surge in Myanmar.(

AP: Thein Zaw


She was in the middle of a Zoom class as the takeover unfolded – her internet connection was abruptly cut off, and the military were announcing their power grab on TV.

"I knew that it happened already in my parents' age, but I didn't think it could happen again these days. It was just very unbelievable at the time," she said.

Although she grew up in a country under the military's control, steadily power was handed over to the civilian government, with elections held in 2015.

"Me and my friends, we are used to what freedom looks like. We had 10 years of a bit of freedom," she said.

*Names have been changed to protect identities. 

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2021-07-31 19:11:25Z

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