Ausführliche Informationen über die Verwendung von Cookies auf dieser Website finden Sie in unserer Datenschutzerklärung. Sie können Ihre Cookie-Einstellungen unten anpassen.
As a result of the global pandemic, the partners of KURVE Wustrow in Myanmar have rapidly digitised their project work. The examination of experiences and consequences of this change, however, cannot be separated from the even more recent political developments of the military takeover. The subsequent violent crackdowns and widespread civic and in parts armed resistance led to a precarious security situation both on the ground and in cyberspace.
Still, the protests unfolding after the coup of February 1, 2021, lasted much longer than previous instances of popular revolt in Myanmar. This persistence is largely due to the engagement and creativity of a tech-affine generation using online spaces to self-organize, to stay in contact and inform across distances and even across the urban-rural divide, to launch a succession of effective campaigns and later to inform the world about the atrocities committed by the Myanmar armed forces. So, it didn’t come as a surprise that besides retaliating against peaceful protesters and waging war against ethnic armed organisations and the People´s Defence Forces (PDFs) linked to various degrees to the parallel government, the State Administration Council (SAC) of the military junta turned its attention towards crushing dissent in cyberspace.
Civil society organisations and others reacted to the Covid-related restrictions and the deteriorating security situation after the military take over with an intensified interest/use of digital tools and approaches/methodologies: Due to the closing of educational institutions, analogue activities dealing with peace education had come to a temporary halt, but despite challenges organizations were able to adapt and to work out ways to bridge the hiatus. With the escalation of violence and the deteriorating security on the streets, digital tools are here to stay and are currently providing the only chance to keep ongoing engagement with participants possible. At the same time online spaces too become increasingly dangerous which presents a new set of challenges further complicating an already difficult situation. Staying operational requires continued technical and financial support by donors and partners, constant reassessment of and mitigation or coexistence with risks, the shifting of priorities and an immense flexibility on the part of civil society.
After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and following closures of schools and university campuses, KURVE Wustrow’s partner organisations working in the domain of peace education in Myanmar had to adapt training content to an online environment, shift methodology to keep the digital material engaging and deal with the lack of students’ teachers’ access to devices and reliable Internet connection. In the beginning of Covid-restrictions organisations expected to return to ‘normal’ within a short time span and therefore adjusted their activities only superficially. However, as the closure of institutions was extended, more efforts had to be made to find digital alternatives for a wide range of offline initiatives. While some activities had to be suspended pending further consideration, others were changed in regard to format and design.
While working with NGO professionals profited usually from a more stable access to internet and sophisticated devices, working with young teachers and students for instance demanded a closer look. They were removed from school and university facilities, especially in rural areas, which turned the necessary basic conditions for engagement more challenging to recreate. The availability of these resources was crucial in determining how educational programmes could be converted to an online mode and how successful this conversion was. Shorter, specialized trainings were more fit for such conversion, than longer intensive training programmes. Training recruitment processes were also different, as in case of the students, word-of-mouth recommendations and campus presence were much more important to engage new participants and the community-building aspect of the trainings was also more pronounced. In these cases, a careful consideration had to take place, if and how far digital methods were suited for them and allowed them to engage in activities.
Even in the presence of logistics, not all activities were equally adaptable. One of KURVE Wustrow’s partner places a strong focus on post-training support and relies heavily on its alumni network and a range of activities organized by them as peace agents and multipliers. Most of these activities were originally campus based including small events like book clubs, discussions with guest speakers and large endeavours such as a peace festival. Placing these online occasionally proved challenging. While the format of a small discussion or a book club meeting lends itself more easily to an online alternative, a festival combining peace education topics with music and art, or a workcamp to teach children in a remote village, both reliant on immersion, do not.
For instance, the annual gathering of the peace education training alumni being a relatively large affair sometimes involving over a hundred people had to be split into batch groups to allow sufficient time for review, exchange and planning. In addition, advocacy work with university administration to foster the institutionalization of peace education had to be redesigned to rely mostly on webinars for university lecturers instead of research trips and face-to-face exchanges.
The adaptation of activities also had gender-specific effects. Male students were much more active in campus organizing, partly due to the simple fact that female students were not allowed to be outside of their dormitories after 6 pm, which limited their abilities to participate in extracurricular activities. This limitation became less relevant with the emergence of online activities, which could equally be initiated by women. It allowed them to introduce their own thematic concerns. For instance, an alumni discussion on sex education (with a focus on gender roles and gender-based violence) in schools was organised for the first time.
A further change was the increased relevance of self-care and trauma as topics for discussions and webinars in this digitalized mode. Trauma healing as a subject was already present in the peace education curriculum, but it became a topic more often requested by the alumni, no doubt resulting from a need to deal with the effects of a prolonged isolation.
As a framework for all these alterations, one of KURVE Wustrow’s partner organizations provided the supporting infrastructure (Zoom accounts as well as “communication” costs for participants), facilitation and external resource persons. Nevertheless, these alterations all remained on the level of technical and financial support as well as methodology, with only slight differences in in what is being taught and what is considered relevant for the context. The organization´s approaches as well as mid-to-long-term strategies remained undisturbed. This has all changed with the military coup in February 2021.
The people of Myanmar are no strangers to uprisings against oppressive regimes, but it is the first time the cyberspace has become an important, if not crucial sphere of resistance. Members of Generation Z, who grew up and were socialized under the relative freedoms of the Thein Sein and NLD governments did not only take to the streets but used the technological advances of recent years to self-organize, launch campaigns, and inform the world about #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar. No wonder, that one of the regime´s first targets to crack down on was the digital space with periodic and localized Internet shutdowns and repressive legislation. These measures were obviously affecting any activity conducted online, especially the ones concerning peace.
As the security situation was becoming more and more fraught with civil war raging in various parts of the country, and arrests, bombings and assassinations becoming daily occurrences, retreating to the online space remained the only viable option. However, it also brought along a whole new set of challenges organizations had to tackle. As most of the protests were concentrated in larger cities, to avoid violent retaliation from the police and the military, many student alumni moved back to their hometowns, making isolation even more complete. While university campuses in large cities have WIFI connection and computers available, most households do not. Although smartphone ownership is very high, participation in longer online activities requiring interactive engagement without computers is difficult, not to mention other issues like trust-building. Beside regular internet shutdowns, power cuts are also becoming an everyday occurrence. SIM cards and data prices are also soaring, so even if the infrastructure exists it is less and less affordable. Organizations are trying to respond to the challenges in creative ways. Former travel cost reimbursements are replaced by communication costs to cover data charges. Recurring, shorter sessions are offered as well as recordings and handouts, to tackle bad connectivity and electricity shortage. For some projects powerbanks and headsets are being provided to minimize outside interference as even things such as heavy monsoon rains can influence meaningful participation.
Cyberspace itself is becoming less and less secure due to growing repression by state actors in the form of a new cybersecurity law, that led to the exit of the most transparent service provider Telenor, and amendments to the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens. Switching to more secure applications is proving to be more difficult than expected.
In the wake of mass violence against the Rohingya in 2017 it became clear that social media, Facebook in particular, played a pivotal role in spreading fake news. It also highlighted the fact that Facebook was considered identical with the Internet and thus regarded as an authoritative source of information by many. And in some cases, like in the presence of extreme censorship of traditional media, it indeed is. When Facebook and Twitter were used extensively following the 2021 coup to share information and to organize protests, both were blocked by the SAC. Nevertheless, the people of Myanmar were instantaneously reacting by transitioning to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to circumvent the blockade. However, it was not long before the regime enacted new laws criminalising the use of VPNs, allowing authorities to inspect devices and impose fines or even arrest people for using them. VPNs were not the only contested field, shaped by the people’s desire to create spaces for themselves, and the regime’s attempts to restrict these. Communication tools also faced a number of challenges when trying to function safely under repressive conditions.
Facebook Messenger still remains a primary communication tool for many, despite having a poor record for protecting its users` privacy. Switching to Telegram provides only slightly more protection as a recent wave arrests of Telegram users by the military regime have shown. When some organizations switched to Signal (considered the most secure) for all internal communication purposes, some had to experience that their target group, for instance even student alumni, showed little interest in following suite. Digital security concerns often clash with usability: BBB or GotoMeetings might be the safer video conferencing options, but their need of higher bandwidth and lack of interactive functions force even organization´s staff to regularly revert back to Zoom. The same is true for email providers: although providers like Protonmail were quick to react to changed circumstances in Myanmar and offered free services and packages for civil society enabling partners to communicate safely, practicality often trumps security leading to a parallel usage of multiple applications, defeating the ultimate purpose. Organizational strategy remains a balancing act between practicality and security, sharing less sensitive information on Facebook and details on more secure apps. KURVE Wustrow keeps on providing technical support through external experts as well as access to the best software available both for the staff of partner organizations and by proxy their participant networks. Often, ensuring digital security goes beyond the provision and installation of specific tools – it requires a change in attitude and behavioural patterns that need time as well as determination to develop.
In addition, even if the technological challenges can be overcome, security concerns now arise from the nature of the work itself too. Some of the topics under peace education are becoming increasingly sensitive, namely such topics as democracy, peace and conflict or human rights, as an unpredictable regime purposefully leaves the definition of punishable dissent extremely vague. In order to have a meaningful exchange, any group activity dealing with such sensitive topics needs a foundation of trust. The aftermath of the military coup and paths chosen shattered trust within existing networks. The reestablishment of this trust is a painfully slow process even more difficult online. The organization`s staff had to resort to individual connections and phone conversations to reach out, gradually moving towards small group activities. Accepting new participants under these circumstances poses a large risk because any new face can be a potential informant for the regime or cause the fragile relations to disintegrate. One approach of KURVE Wustrow’s partner organization is a referral network aiming at accepting new participants through recommendations of trusted alumni only. Another way for the engagement of new people requires anonymization of certain activities (provision of online courses for platforms like Virtual Federal University, Spring University), but this calls for a very different approach as well as the abandonment of original target groups to reach a wider audience, which again will lead to changes in methodology as well.
To support trust-building efforts in online spaces KURVE Wustrow´s peace education network consisting of all partners engaged in peace education in different parts of the world provided a training earlier last year, which, although extremely useful, could not address the specific situation in Myanmar with this complete breakdown of social ties and added difficulties of online communication.
As useful as online tools prove to be considering the circumstances, having been constrained to such methods for the past two years resulted in a certain amount of “Zoom fatigue”. This combined with the far-reaching psychological effects of the political turmoil ranging from the above-mentioned trust issues, through anxiety about the future and present livelihood constraints, to severe trauma from experiencing or being witness to violence led to a general lack of motivation and hopelessness that is difficult to break through with activities in the digital space. Especially, if many feel that meaningful action lies elsewhere (such as armed struggle) or does not exist at all. That is why some reconceptualization of not only methods, but their prioritization needed to be undertaken. In the face of these multi-layered challenges and risks, civil society organisations have to make case-specific decisions based on their close familiarity of their context and their target groups. Still, ignoring the digital space in the current situation is not a viable option either.
First regarded as a short-term solution, with the prolonged conflict digitalization of training and peace education in general is being seen more and more as standard modus operandi for the coming years. A larger question however also presents itself, namely what does peace education even mean under circumstances like this. To answer this, some thematical changes as well as strategic adaptations need to accompany the already mentioned risk mitigation practices.
a. Peace education sometimes “just” means education:
With schools and universities closed many children in Myanmar have been out of the formal education system for almost two years. With an overwhelming number of teachers joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), education is happening outside institutional settings and mostly online. However, these educators need to acquire new skills to navigate the current situation. Media awareness and digital security are being added as topics of special concern to the alumni training curricula to assess online risks. Individual teaching projects, including peace education concepts, initiated by alumni both online and offline are supported with financial means and technical expertise.
Unfortunate as the circumstance are, they also create an opportunity to experiment with alternative teaching methods. Without a rigid centralized curriculum to follow, individual educators are provided with more freedom to design their own lesson plans which includes peace education concepts in different ways. Online facilitation skills and support for education in low-resource environments also enable educators to be more creative in their methods. There is more focus on the creation of teaching resources as well as on creating online repositories or platforms where these resources can be collected and made accessible for individual projects. All these elements are crucial in making sure that peace educators continue to educate under the changing circumstances.
b. Peace education means strengthening networks:
Staying connected with the outside world is crucial when donors retreat from the messiness of a political context and people´s attention turns to the next disaster unfolding somewhere else. Connection with civil society engaged in peace education work in other countries can provide for organizations’ staff both a source of expertise and motivation to keep going. Today, university administrations and state agencies are seen as representatives of an illegitimate regime, and for obvious moral reasons, are not considered as acceptable partners for cooperation. Therefore, network building outside the country is gaining increased importance. This process is aided by the organizations’ growing digital skills. Online exchanges with other partner organizations of the Civil Peace Service (CPS) tackling similar issues in different contexts creates space to gather ideas and find creative solutions for reaching target groups and keeping them engaged. Larger exchanges between alumni in Myanmar and other partner countries – enabled through the growing use of digital tools - can inspire increasing solidarity and motivation as well. Digital communication tools can also strengthen cross-border cooperation and coordination of activities. With institutionalization of peace education out of sight this network-building is a necessary source of resilience laying the foundation for a future when larger scale advocacy work will be possible again.
c. Peace education means nothing when basic needs are unmet:
All these strategic considerations mean very little when people on the ground are in constant fear of arrest and persecution, when they have to flee their homes to escape military raids, when they have to live under ongoing threat to their livelihood. Most of these issues are outside of organizational control but need to be addressed by any means possible. The inclusion of small stipends and other compensations like coverage of communication costs into individual project support for instance makes a considerable difference in sustaining participation. Adding online psychosocial support activities such as group and individual counselling, other self-care activities like guided physical exercises and workshops and the distribution of easily digestible self-care materials try to ensure that educators build up resilience to continue working for peace and take care of themselves before taking care of others.
Despite the space for peace education initiatives both on the ground and online growing smaller by the day, civil society organizations still find creative ways to continue crucial work aided largely by their newly acquired skills in the post-pandemic wave of digitalization. What was then seen as a temporary solution is now becoming the standard and sometimes sole way to operate under increasingly challenging circumstances in the analogue world that push organizations not only to adapt their methods, but also to rethink their priorities and start slowly regarding digitalization not as a limitation, but a potential opportunity. However, its important, for funding agencies, to understand that expecting civil society actors in Myanmar to adhere to a rigid definition of peace education just doesn´t reflect the realities on the ground. In addition to technical and financial support, a substantial amount of donor flexibility, in the interest of sustainable, locally led peace education, is needed in order for peace education work (either online or offline) to remain possible.