Before February 2021, Supyae Yadanar had never spoken publicly about the politics of her home country. Like most Burmese people, she was worried about the implications of criticising government officials and was shocked to see her Irish university peers openly chastise leading politicians.
"I was struck by the sheer freedom of speech displayed in Ireland," she wrote in an article for Trinity College Dublin's University Times published in March of this year. "I come from a country in which students run not the risk of expulsion, but repercussions in the form of detainment or being taken away in the silence of the night, should you speak anything remotely negative about the military government. Even writing this article is a privilege granted to me, studying abroad, that is not granted to my fellow Burmese citizens in Myanmar."
When we speak over Zoom, Yadanar is keen to underline that she enjoyed a privileged upbringing and thus her views do not represent the beliefs of every person in her home country. “My perspective comes from a very privileged place; I don’t face the discriminations of ethnic minorities. I’m studying medicine in Ireland so that means I don’t speak for the average person in Burma, I just wanted to make that clear.”
Born and raised in the city of Yangon, Yadanar attended an international school and moved to Malaysia aged 15 to study for her A-levels. While both her parents used to work for the military, she grew up surrounded by family members who were against military rule. “My mother’s side of the family have always been extremely anti-military. My uncle marched in the 1988 protests and nearly got arrested and shot. My parents are separated so my entire upbringing was centred on my mum’s family.”
Moving to Malaysia, where her mother was already living, opened Yadanar’s eyes to the reality of her country’s history. “Before then I didn’t realise the flaws of Burma or the struggles of ethnic minorities. It was the peak of the Rohingya crisis when I went, and everything just came into focus. I started debating at school and became more politically aware.”
Two years later, in September 2018, she arrived in Dublin to study medicine at Trinity. She joined the university’s Philosophical Society, where she met students who encouraged her to express her opinion. “I was really naive at the start, especially about the Rohingya. I started by saying it was a civil war but by second year I was saying it’s actually genocide.
“I’m still very proud of my Burmese heritage but the more I debated and talked to others the more I thought wait, this is wrong. I will never be discriminated against in Burma based on the way I talk, based on my nationality, based on my religion. But ethnic minorities will face discrimination for this.
“Growing up in Burma you’re taught to obey the authorities and just go along with what they do. But here, Irish students stand for what’s right and watching them being so fearless, for me it was a brave thing and inspired me.”
Criticising public figures in Ireland, however, is totally different from speaking out in Burma, she adds. “We have a history of people getting arrested and shot for speaking up.”
Before this year, Yadanar kept her criticisms to the debating chamber. But then, on February 1st, 2021, Myanmar’s generals seized power in a coup and hundreds of thousands of people Burmese people took to the streets. More than 800 people were reportedly killed in the weeks and months that followed with over 6,000 arrested. The country’s military leaders dispute these figures.
In Ireland, Yadanar denounced the military takeover in social media posts and, with the help of college friends, wrote letters to TDs calling on the Government to condemn the coup. She received support from the Civicus global alliance of NGOs for her activism and also connected with Burmese activists worldwide after joining the Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy.
She is now the international NGO’s advocacy co-ordinator while continuing her medical studies. “They recruited me based on what I was doing in Ireland and helped me connect with the Burmese diaspora here. A lot of them are older but I realised I wasn’t the only person screaming into a void.”
When asked why she refers to her home country as Burma rather than Myanmar (the name it was given in 1989), she explains she does not want to use a name forced upon the Burmese people. “The name change happened under the military regime, they changed it to signal that Burma was becoming more united while simultaneously killing ethnic minorities. Burma comes much more easily to me. I’m Burmese.”
She admits her family are worried about her activism. “When you put your name and face out there there’s always the possibility that you won’t be able to return to Burma, that you’ll be arrested at the airport. My grandmother is the most important person in my life. She has emphysema and if she gets Covid it will be bad. I’m extremely worried if anything happens to her I won’t be able to go back.”
Yadanar fears she may not be able to return home until the military regime falls. However, a more pressing issue is her passport is about to expire. “There’s no Burmese embassy in Ireland, we have to send our passports to the UK, and the embassy there is part of the military rule. That’s been weighing on my mind, can I send my passport over there? If I don’t I’ll have to seek asylum here, and that changes everything about being able to go home.
“Of course, this in no way compares to what people are going through in Burma but I don’t know how to cope. Being in Ireland is the best and worst thing – the best because I’m safe but the worst because I feel so isolated. But people here have been so supportive. I do think Ireland is the best place for me right now.”
Asked how she feels about the future of her country, Yadanar says she “oscillates between feeling hopeful and helpless”. “In February I very naively thought we’d be over this coup by now. But even though it’s not in the global news, people are still being shot and detained. What keeps me going is that people on the ground are still resisting.
“I’m furious that I can’t be there protesting alongside my friends. They’re so brave and I’m so far away. I love Ireland, it’s my second home. But I’m incredibly homesick. Summer is a time to be back with family.”