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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

April 13, 2022

“From Our Place to the Frontline”: A Zine on Life in Post-Coup Myanmar

by Catherine Kausikan and Erica Vandenbulcke

Fulbright University students Nguyen Tam and Nguyen Phuong Anh discuss their mission to raise awareness about the Myanmar Coup among their peers in Vietnam. Collaborating with contacts at the Interim University Council - University of Yangon, they produced an English-language digital zine that is now reaching a wider audience than they anticipated. The independent publication, From Our Place to the Frontline, features interviews, poetry, artwork, and other Burmese reflections on post-coup life in Myanmar.
Since the military seized power in February 2021, Myanmar has been riddled with turmoil. The people of Myanmar have continued to face brutal waves of mass killings and civilian torture. Millions of individuals have been deprived of external communication as well as displaced from their own homes. Given the ongoing atrocities in a country halfway across the world from New Haven, the simple, yet pressing question of “How can we help?” is one that has surely run through many of our minds.

For Fulbright University Vietnam students Nguyen Tam and Nguyen Phuong-Anh, the answer to this question lay in the creation of an independent, student-led organization committed to shedding light on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Established in collaboration with the Interim University Council - University of Yangon (IUC-UY), From Our Place to the Frontline (FOPTTF) is a non-profit zine that combines interviews, poetry, artwork, as well as articles and reflections, to document the raw narratives of individuals living in post-coup Myanmar.

When asked about why, as university students in Vietnam, they felt compelled to spearhead a Myanmar-centered initiative, sophomore Phuong-Anh recalled that her interest in the situation in Myanmar was sparked by a course she took in Fall 2021 titled “Scholar Activism and the Spring Revolution in Myanmar”. The class addressed the troubling lack of international news coverage on the Myanmar coup despite the urgency and chaos of its ongoing humanitarian crises. It was Phuong-Anh’s empathy for young activists in Myanmar and her determination to raise awareness about the atrocities of the military regime that led her to collaborate with the Fulbright Historical Society, organizing a webinar about the humanitarian crises in Myanmar.

The subsequent decision to establish a zine was made in response to the time pressure placed on reporting on Myanmar’s fast-changing conditions. They explained that a zine was fluid and flexible as a medium of communication while also able to incorporate myriad perspectives in a way that could truthfully represent the experiences of those in Myanmar. For Tam, an art student, the zine represented the possibilities of creativity as a form of protest and as a defiant expression of self against all odds. The photographs littered throughout the zine viscerally capture current life in Myanmar. A poem in the zine contributed by a student expresses grief for those lost in the fight for democracy. As an elegy, it is both hopeful and evocative in illuminating how the Burmese continue to struggle amid their terrible circumstances. Phuong-Anh stressed that the establishment of FOPTTF would not have been possible without the contributions of friends from the University of Yangon, known by the pseudonyms Costa, Marla May, and Ohn Nyo. For the team in Myanmar, the dangers of political resistance remained ever-present throughout their work with FOPTTF. Costa related how her phone interview with a People’s Defence Force soldier was punctuated by the sound of explosions from aerial bombs.

And yet, despite the precarious situation in Yangon, they persisted, worked tirelessly to conduct interviews and translate material from Burmese to English. Marla May and Ohn Nyo carefully translated the issue’s interviews and poetry and were also responsible for initiating contact with various contributors across Myanmar. For example, Ohn Nyo sought the consent of a Burmese poet to publish their poetry, while Costa circumvented the stringent surveillance of the military junta to conduct interviews with those resisting the regime. At present, Ohn Nyo and Phuong-Anh are working on an interview with a Tatmadaw defector who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. As eyes and ears on the ground, Costa, Marla May, and Ohn Nyo play an essential role in communicating stories of their local community to the FOPTTF team and consequently, an international audience beyond Myanmar.

Vitally, each piece included in the zine was carefully selected to place individuals and their stories at the centre. Listening to the two editors, one can sense the care they have taken in curating these stories, particularly the empathy with which they have engaged with their interviewees. Phuong-Anh spoke about the struggle she faced in balancing truthful expressions of life under the junta with their interviewees’ safety and mental health. For her, prioritizing her subject’s interests was just as important as honoring the struggles they face in making their voices heard to the world.

As the first undergraduate students to lead a talk in the Brownbag Series hosted by Yale’s Council of Southeast Asian Studies, Tam and Phuong-Anh are examples of the importance of student initiatives and transnational solidarity amid humanitarian conflict. From Our Place to the Frontline is, after all, the fruit of their collaborative efforts with peers in Myanmar. Their collaboration helps to model a path that future scholarship and activism can take to reach, inform, and raise awareness across regional and global communities.

If you’d like to reach out to the team behind From Our Place to the Frontline, you can contact them through these channels:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/fromourplacetothefrontline
Instagram: @fromourplacetothefrontline
Email: fromourplacetothefrontline@gmail.com
Telegram: @pwmpnmh (Ms. Phuong-Anh)

Questions? Email the authors:

Catherine Kausikan

Erica Vandenbulcke