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What I have done at my 26?

By Kyaw Hsan Hlaing

Turning 26 reminds me of accelerating my profession, but I have to return to school next year to accomplish my undergrad at least six years after dropping out of college. Of course, I will concurrently keep continuing my work.

Despite being born and raised in Mrauk-U township just about 20 miles from the ancient city of Mrauk-U in western Burma, It wasn’t until I was 16 that I never visited. Once the centre of an Arakan Kingdom, Mrauk-U holds thousands of Buddhist temples and was recently nominated to be a UNESCO world heritage site. What could be a popular international tourist attraction like Angkor Wat or the Great Pyramids, Mrauk-U is goes unvisited because it is in an active war zone.

Growing up under military rule, in a community afflicted by fear, Mrauk-U was too far even for me to visit.

After I completed primary school in my village in 2007, my parents sent me to board at a free Buddhist monastery so I could continue my education. I wasn't good student, but when I passed the exams in 2013, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment for me and my family.

In 2014, I used the internet for the first time in my village. It offered me the opportunity to escape the confines of my village, opening my minds to new concepts and connecting me with a world of learning I had never known.

Turning into 19, I had completed two years of distance education at Sittwe University. Though I wanted to continue my education, my family’s poverty made that impossible. Then, as an illegal migrant worker, I went to China’s Yunnan province to find work. To get to Yunnan, I sat with 10 others in a small truck bed for 24 hours without stopping. When I arrived, I immediately began work in a plastic factory, working more than 12 hours every day.

I thought one thing the whole time I was in Yunnan: just stay alive. As an uneducated illegal immigrant in China, I was powerless, but I had no other option.

Returning to home in late 2016 didn’t make me unable to continue my education. But, I started to work as a social worker. For the first time I visited Yangon in 2017 as an iPCE-er. Through the Wing Institute program in 2018, I went for the first time to Myitkyina where I found Naushawng School, where I spent the entire year of 2019. It was memorable as always.

When I thought the worst was behind us, a new war broke out in late 2018 between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. In early 2020, COVID-19 ravaged Rakhine, but fighting continued.

The government led by NLD not only ignored the suffering of our people but tried to silence us by imposing the longest internet shutdown in the world. I was enraged, sleepless and fearful because my people—thousands of whom were being displaced—were caught between the military’s rifles and the coronavirus.

My rage turned to motivation, and I relentlessly shared one-the-ground information with researchers and former colleagues from INGO, hoping that would do some good. It didn’t. My only platform was social media. Fortunately in mid-2020, Emily Fishbein contacted me via Facebook’s message after seeing my post on social media.

We discussed and began pitching stories together to the international media like TIME, VICE, and Al-Jazeera. At first, all rejected us, but, unexpectedly, Foreign Policy accepted our pitch. I was ecstatic and worked around-the-clock on the piece, which I co-wrote with my new US colleague. At first, our language barrier made collaborating a challenge.

It was so exhausting, but I told myself I was working for my people.

Our first report was published in Foreign Policy in September 2020. It was an incredible learning experience, particularly for a young journalist from a tiny village who hadn’t finished college. I gained the confidence to keep going, and subsequently co-reported a series of articles on the civil war in western Myanmar, funded by the Pulitzer Center, to publish in various international media outlets, including TIME, VICE, and Al Jazeera, which had rejected us just a month before. 

My focus was to highlight the diverse and underrepresented voices heard outside of Rakhine. I felt an extra sense of responsibility to document what was happening on the ground during the crisis because the war was hidden from view. I worked intensively for at least 12 hours every day. And I spent my few free hours trying to build the foundation of formal education by taking classes on Coursera. And, I learnt so much from Emily in a short time. I assume that she is a co-reporter and an instructor of mine as well.

On 1st February 2021 after the military unjustly took power from the civilian government, returning to school for my dream disappeared but also three months after I was forced to flee the country. But, I co-wrote more than 14 feature reports in that February alone.

Early a week before my flight, an American Journalist Danny Fenster was arrested at the airport and sent to Insein prison. Consequently, I didn’t sleep the entire night on my flight day, but I deleted everything in my phone and laptop, carried only one backpack, and was ready to inform my friends if I was arrested. Before the flight, I had to pass at least four check-points that I passed with full composure.

I have now co-authored or authored nearly 100 pieces for at least 21 international publications. I was invited by many organizations including Yale, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, American, and George Washington University to share my reporting experiences and thoughts on Myanmar affairs.

Answering the question for “What I have done at my 26” is simple. I have been a teacher, illegal migrant worker, social worker, researcher, journalist, displaced, and now making a new chapter of my life as a student at University of Hawaii.

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