“It has been one of those moments where you really think about your ethical standing – do I stay silent for the safety of my family and myself, or do I speak up for what is just, and I have decided to speak,” said Han Seth Lu as he spoke through emotions on the sudden situation he has found himself experiencing in the past several weeks. In the early hours of Monday, February 1, the early childhood education major from Myanmar received word a military coup had overthrown the government in his home country and had declared a state of emergency for the nation, shutting off access to the internet and capturing military leaders.
Since then, more than 100 citizen protestors have been killed with nearly 2,000 others having been detained. Han has spoken to his family only a handful of times and is now faced with an uncertain future upon his graduation in the fall, likely unable to return to his home country if the military remains in control. One certainty for him does still remain: his passion for education – a desire that has now led him to speak out and advocate internationally for the rights he feels people in his country deserve.
Myanmar, formally known has Burma, spent nearly a half century under strict control of the military junta, following two coups to overturn election results in 1962 and 1988. In 2011, the National League for Democracy (NLD) party obtained control of the country and restored democracy to the Burmese people, opening up opportunities such as access to the internet, renewed foreign relations, and study abroad initiatives for university students. It was under these lifted restrictions that Han was able to first pursue his passion for education by traveling to the United States in 2014 through the Burma Youth Leadership program, a four-week leadership and civic engagement program at Indiana University, where he shadowed teachers in public school classrooms as part of his education studies.
“Growing up during the military regime, there are no private institutions or private schools, the only schools are state schools. And, the only curriculum in schools is written by the government, so wherever you go in the country it’s the same thing,” said Han.
He remembers having assigned seats from the time he entered kindergarten through high school, and most learning only taking place by memorizing and reciting items from a book.
“I vividly remember walking into that elementary classroom in Indiana and they were learning chemistry, they were learning about the environment and doing planters out of plastic bottles, and I had never learned chemistry until high school, that to me was so surprising,” he recalled.
“I finally made the connection that you can start learning any subject at any age. I still have the photo from that class and feeling that this was unreal how they were learning.”
The experience inspired him to return to Myanmar and begin a nonprofit education center in his home town, with the assistance of colleagues from the youth leadership program, to work with local students. It was through this that he realized he was not ready to follow his family’s dream of him entering medical school, an honor he would have achieved due to his high score on the university entrance exam. He wanted to become a teacher.
“I finally reached a deal with my parents that if I could find a college and get a scholarship within one year, I would be allowed to go and study education,” said Han.
The deal was achieved when he applied for and received a President’s Leadership Council scholarship through the University of Central Oklahoma. Since arriving at UCO in 2017, Han has remained active in many student organizations on campus, winning the title of Mr. UCO International in 2019 and serving as the President of UCO’s International Student Council.
Through his work, his dream always remained to return to Myanmar after graduating to help reform the education system there. His experiences in classes at UCO and lessons from faculty mentors in CEPS even encouraged him to use the newly found means of virtual communication brought by the COVID-19 pandemic to lead virtual education trainings every Saturday last summer and fall for Burmese teachers to learn new teaching strategies and curriculum ideas.
But, that goal of education reform in the country has now been put on hold indefinitely.
“Education is so traditional there, and teachers don’t even know things like students’ learning styles. So, last year I was really excited because the government announced that the curriculum had to be reformed, and I was actually able to present at some of the conferences they had for this,” said Han.
“They actually finished the new curriculum and were going to train the teachers on how to use it over Myanmar’s summer break, but then COVID-19 happened and they decided to postpone it for one year, and now it’s probably never going to happen.”
Not only is education reform now on hold, Han’s future now hangs in the balance as he has decided to publicly speak out against the military regime, an action that is not welcomed back home.
“At this point if we cannot restore the democracy back home, everything that I have worked for will be terminated,” he said.
“And I can’t even go back home because I have been speaking out, and I now have a foreign education.”
Prior to 2010, Han explained that several Burmese students who had left the country to receive an education were detained by the government at the airport to ensure they did not intend to speak against the government’s control. Han has decided to speak out publicly against the military coup, causing a concern for his and his family’s safety. Since Feb. 1, Han has been involved with numerous virtual panel discussions, podcast discussions and YouTube videos of Burmese citizens speaking out against the regime, and he recently led a rally at the Oklahoma State Capitol to bring local awareness to the situation.
“Because I have so much freedom here, and as much as I feel powerless to not be in the country with my people striking or protesting, at the same time I know there are a lot of liberties that I can do that people in Myanmar cannot right now. That is why I decided to take up this role.”
This decision did not come easily as he is now faced with having to cut ties with his parents for their safety, people he used to speak with over the phone almost every day. This has been the most difficult part of the situation for him.
“I told my family lately if they needed to cut off ties with me for their safety and concern, they could do that. It’s hard for me,” said Han.
“I am very close with my family, and I am the only child. Growing up, going to school every day, my parents were really the only friends that I had time to hang out with.”
But, in spite of these concerns and challenges, he says he is going to keep speaking out, because international attention may be the only way to restore democracy and eventual education reform to the country.
“Sometimes, you come to a point where you know you have so much more privilege than people of your own community, and words are just empty unless you act on it. I’ll keep speaking up.”