A sample of LUM’s Instagram posts. [Image: Shwe Nemyo and other LUM graphic designer / Instagram]

Young Burmese American Activists in California Use Instagram to Defy Dictatorship in Myanmar


Since the February 1st military coup in Myanmar, Burmese Americans in the United States are finding new ways to challenge the junta in addition to protests.

Noelani and Shwe Nemyo, two Burmese Americans, from northern and southern California respectively, volunteer their writing and graphic design skills to Listen Up Myanmar (LUM)— an Instagram page with a following of over 26,000 that posts extensively on Myanmar politics, society, and culture. On its website, LUM describes its mission as providing free education on a variety of pressing issues in Myanmar. LUM’s posts cover topics ranging economics, politics, and culture. Noe and Shwe are part of California’s estimated 30,000 Myanmar diaspora.

Noelani’s deep connection to Myanmar led her to LUM. Travelling to Myanmar with family as a child, she came to appreciate the rich culture and history of the country. As the coup prevents her from returning, she feels “a part of me is lost because I have had such a deep connection to the country; it almost feels numb now.” Through writing articles and managing the LUM Instagram page, she fights that numbness. In college, Noe wants to study international relations, and then proceed to law school, equipping herself with the education to help Myanmar.

Similarly, Shwe, one of LUM’s graphic designers, joined to do more for her home and contribute to the page’s evocative graphics that complement its written content. Born in Myanmar, Shwe moved to the United States at the age of three. As a member of the Southern California Burmese Association, she spent Sunday’s learning Burmese and traditional dances—as she put it, “I didn’t forget my roots.” After the coup, Shwe participated in protests and fundraisers but wanted to do more. As LUM increased its informational posts post-coup, Shwe gravitated to their concise presentation of information, English and Burmese translations, and good graphics. Now, Shwe judiciously bolds and underlines, combines colors, and selects pictures to artfully amplify the meaning of the research LUM’s content contains. When she becomes more financially stable, she wants to donate more money to people in need in Myanmar.

The lack of prominent media or policy attention on Burma in the United States makes Burmese American communities feel invisible to their fellow Americans. As Noe put it, “I’m the only Burmese person at my school. I feel like no one understands me because they don’t know much, or anything about Myanmar. I hold Myanmar deep in my heart.” Shwe echoed this sentiment: “When Ukraine happened, everyone was informed because the American news showcased it. With Burma, no one knows about it.” This lack of recognition conflicts with Shwe and Noe’s experiences in which Myanmar and the United States are deeply connected. Thus, the ignorance of Myanmar and ignorance of Burmese Americans—both hurt. LUM is fighting to close the knowledge gap and educate Burmese Americans and other Americans about what is going on in the country.

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.