Students participating in the US government-funded Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) exchange program. [image: YSEALI/ Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

Scholarship Programs Allow Burmese Students to Pursue American Higher Education Post-Coup

ASEAN The Mekong Asia

When the Burmese military seized control of Myanmar on February 1, 2021, the dream many local students held to escape Burma’s domestic instability and receive an education in the United States dissipated nearly overnight. On a broad scale, the economic and political fabric of the country collapsed, plummeting the value of the kyat to 60% of its worth in the months following the crisis. Suddenly, Burmese families who had saved up for years to send their children abroad were left with nothing to pay tuition. Students who were already enrolled in universities went from stressing about finals to wondering if their families would even survive the conflict, let alone support their education. Moreover, the once-trivial bureaucratic policies that facilitated education abroad became major obstacles: universities closed and refused to provide needed transcripts and records, and student visas to the United States became increasingly hard to come by.

However, in the year and a half since the coup, a handful of US organizations, federal agencies, aid programs, and universities are ensuring Burmese students are still able to study stateside. While some new scholarship opportunities have been created since the coup, Burmese students continue to be welcomed into exchange programs within the United States.

The Myanmar Scholarship Fund is a standout program launched by the charitable arm of the US-ASEAN Business Council (USABC) in direct response to the economic crisis following the coup. The Council fosters economic growth and trade ties between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Jack Myint, USABC’s Senior Manager for Myanmar, spoke with East-West Center Young Professional Meghan Murphy about the group’s mission to ensure the coup’s impacts do not force Burmese students out of university programs. A decade ago, Myint’s degree at Washington and Jefferson College was made possible by a scholarship from Prospect Burma Trust, an organization that early on received money from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize funds.

Recognizing what American education can provide—one with “intellectual freedom” and an appreciation of the social sciences—Myint helped USABC set up the program to ensure the next generation of Burmese leaders are not left behind in their educational goals during the war. Myint argues the scholarships are only for US universities because it is the sole way to support Burmese students without the possibility of funds ending up in the hands of the junta and providing them “ammunition.” After raising 1 million dollars in funds, the scholarship was launched in April 2022, with 50 of the 300 applicants receiving the $5,000 award this summer, with more on a waitlist for when additional funding is secured.

Su Myat Noe, a current Young Professional at the East-West Center, is one such recipient of the USABC scholarship. Noe encountered new financial challenges when the junta seized control because they arrested her father, a campaign leader in the National League for Democracy, on fabricated COVID-19 charges similar to those brought against Aung San Suu Kyi. Now the sole breadwinner for her family, Noe had to not only support herself but begin saving in case her remaining family escaped the country and needed her aid. As a Master’s student at the University of Oklahoma, winning the award allows Noe to pay for university fees, books, rent, and food, alongside setting aside funds to someday pay for her younger sister’s education.

Beyond USABC, the United States government continues to welcome Burmese students into programs that bring students from around the world to American schools. This includes the Fulbright program for both Master’s scholarships and language teaching programs, which has “increased scholarships for Burmese students this year with support from the US Government’s Billion Futures Initiative.” USAID also funds the Lincoln Scholarship, a fund started in 2019 that is only for students from Myanmar. In 2021, applications for the program increased three-fold. Other fellowships and programs currently open include the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship open to “accomplished professionals” and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) exchange program.

On the EducationUSA Burma Facebook page, an academic center run by the Department of State, scholarships from American universities open to international students are regularly highlighted, including schools like Drexel, Kent State, and Texas A&M. While not all universities have filled the funding gaps created by the coup, some have stepped up and announced plans to provide full scholarships to students from Myanmar, including Brown University and Southern New Hampshire University.

As the civil war in Myanmar continues, teachers and students are still protesting junta rule by boycotting teaching or attending state universities. The boycott means many schools have been closed for over two years, and the open schools remain under strict military control. To ensure Burmese students can engage freely in academic discourse and train as future, post-junta leaders, it remains imperative that US organizations offer pathways for Burmese students to receive a comprehensive education.

Meghan Murphy is a Young Professional and Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a rising senior at Brown University studying International Relations with a focus in Indo-Pacific Affairs.