Cornell University [Image: Dantes De MonteCristo / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)]

Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program Assists Myanmar Scholars to Find Safety in The United States


In the months right after the February 1st military coup in Myanmar, a PhD student initiated a conversation with Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) faculty and staff about how they could help at-risk scholars come to Cornell for safety, and to participate in SEAP. Drawing on Title VI, National Resource Center funding from the Department of Education, SEAP, and other Cornell academic programs, assisted four at-risk, scholars, activists, and artists, along with their families, to find visiting fellow positions at Cornell. Thamora Fishel, Associate Director of SEAP, described this process in an interview with East-West Center Young Professional Drake Avila. One of these dissidents is May Sabe Phyu, co-founder of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), and prominent human and women's rights activist.

The current military junta, the State Administrative Council (SAC), wages war on civil society. As of October 4, 2022, the SAC has killed 2,336, arrested 15,757, and detained 12,372 civilians and pro-democracy activists since February 1st, 2021. Before the coup, the Burmese military abused the legal system to target May Sabe Phyu. After the coup, May Sabe Phyu knew the military would persecute her again, so she seized the opportunity SEAP offered.

In 2017, after giving a talk at Cornell, the attentive follow-up questions from SEAP faculty and staff made her feel the Cornell community has a deep interest in Myanmar. The focus on Myanmar, and the personal warmth she felt from that visit, led her to entrust SEAP with the visa and visiting fellow processes May Sabe Phyu explained in an interview with Young Professional Drake Avila.

At Cornell, May Sabe Phyu is a visiting scholar with SEAP and a Dorothea S. Clarke fellow with the Cornell Law school. The generous support of the Cornell Law School in the form of a housing stipend enables May Sabe Phyu and her family to live in Ithaca; however, many obstacles make her and her family’s life far from easy or comfortable. She takes law classes, works for GEN, and takes care of her family. All these responsibilities work her around the clock. While outlining these challenges, May Sabe Phyu repeatedly stated in an interview with East-West Center Young Professional Drake Avila, “I should not complain,” and she warmly emphasized gratitude, adding “Everything has a reason. That's how I believe as a Christian.”

These new arrivals from Myanmar have already contributed much to the Cornell community. One has taught a class on Identity Politics & Ethnic Conflict in Myanmar for the Government Department. Another, who is a personal documentary photographer, organized her work as an art exhibition at Cornell’s Johnson Museum. A few have also given guest lectures about Myanmar to community colleges in and around Ithaca. Especially as Myanmar’s complex political landscape shifts with the intensifying civil war, the breadth and depth of insights from the SEAP visiting fellows are invaluable for the Cornell and Ithaca communities.

Drake Avila is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated with a BA in Government and China and Asia-Pacific Studies from Cornell in 2021. He is an avid student of Myanmar politics.