Student from Myanmar Studies Human Remains, Hopes to Return Home Despite Coup
Richard Bednarski profiles Nandar Yukyi who left Myanmar when she was 13, found her academic passion in the United States, but still wants to return to her home country if democracy can take hold there.
Moving as a Teenager Escaping Oppression
Nandar Yukyi moved here when she was thirteen, her parents wanting more for their children. Options were limited in Myanmar. They immigrated to the United States to seek better education. Back home, she says education was focused on rote memorization and came with little opportunity for higher critical thinking.
“You either go to medical school, maybe engineering school, or do business,” explained Yukyi, “those were the only options.” Her parents also wanted to flee political oppression.
Yukyi was born in the former Myanmar capital city of Yangon, the country’s largest city which lies just east of the Irrawaddy River. It was the capital until 2006, when it was replaced in that role by the purpose-built north central city city of Naypyidaw. Yangon is still known for the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is currently under consideration to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the most sacred Buddhist stupa, or shrine, in Myanmar. As a Buddhist herself, she and her family brought with them many practices. For example, they employ the use of holy water which is believed to have a cleansing effect when sprayed into a new home.
“The school bus system,” Yukyi said was the thing that surprised her the most when she arrived in America. “We first moved to New Jersey and it was quite a shock for me.” There was not much of a language barrier for Yukyi when she arrived. Her parents helped her and her sister learn English as they were growing up. She does recall struggling to understand slang and pop culture. Her impression of the United States was crafted from movies which led her to believe people were only going to bully her. Because of this, it took her a while to learn the nuances of American culture.
The United States does not recognize the name Myanmar, but instead still uses the former name Burma. Yukyi clarified that the name Burma refers only to the Burmese culture group whereas there are many more ethnic groups throughout Myanmar, making it the widely culturally accepted name. Yet it is also the name chosen by the military who have staged four coups in the last fifty years, including one on February 1st of this year.
Missing the People of her Home Country
Yukyi has fond memories of her childhood and experiences growing up in Myanmar. But what she misses the most is the overall feeling the people give you. “They’re very friendly and helpful,” she recalled. Wherever you go, the people of Myanmar treat most everyone like family, she said. Unlike here in the United States, the culture of Myanmar and other Asian countries are focused on group effort rather than the bootstrap mentality. She also misses her extended family. She grew up with her cousins and has remained close to them, even though she has not lived in Myanmar for almost 16 years.
“In the states, I do have to be more independent and rely on myself more,” she said, acknowledging the irony that this is also her favorite part about living here. She enjoys the freedom to do her research. Yukyi has lived in many places around the United States. When her family first immigrated here they lived for about a year in New Jersey before relocating to California. Graduate school brought her to Texas, Nebraska, and ultimately Reno.
Finding a Passion
“I found my passion in biological anthropology,” Yukyi recalled. “I love sitting down and identifying bones.”
While studying pre-med at UC Berkeley, Yukyi began to work with Dr. Tim White, an accomplished paleoanthropologist. “He trained me in human osteology,” which is the identification of human bones.”
Much to her parent’s dismay, she switched from a pre-medical degree to anthropology. After graduating, she moved on and received a Master’s degree from Texas State University. Now seeking a Ph.D., her parents have come around and fully support her education choices.
Helping Identify Bones from Past Conflicts and Bringing Biological Anthropology Home
Before coming to Nevada to seek a doctoral degree in forensic anthropology, Yukyi worked with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPMAA) in Omaha, Nebraska. Her work involved identifying recovered bones from past overseas conflicts, including World War Two. Through comprehensively analyzing bones she would look for identifiable information such as gender, age, and ancestry. She also helped determine whether there was any trauma or disease with the individual. Her work helped reunite fallen soldiers with their family and receive a burial with full honor.
Yukyi is focused on getting her class work completed and then will start her research. With colleagues in Myanmar conducting archaeology she knows there are no bio-archaeologists working there currently. Because of this Yukyi is focusing her research on studying the old bio-archaeological remains found throughout Myanmar and connecting them to modern skeletal remains. She hopes to develop a population history of Myanmar. “My colleagues are excited to start the foundations of biological anthropology in Burma,” she said.
“It is hard to wrap my mind around that,” explained Yukyi about a failed insurgency here in the United States followed by a successful military coup in Myanmar. She knows there are checks and balances in the United States, “but I don’t think Burma has that kind of system.” Political instability has plagued Myanmar for decades. The military has changed the constitution every few years, she explained, and essentially does what they want.
“It’s always been rocky,” she said “it’s a lawless country right now.”
Impressed by anti-Military Protests in Myanmar
Protests have erupted across the country. And each night, across the country, the people of Myanmar bang pots and pans on their doorstep. It is a cultural tradition practiced to drive evil spirits away and seeing clips of this has brought tears to Yukyi’s eyes.
“You can see the unity,” she said “of everyone coming together. It’s a type of emotional release.”
Many professionals, like doctors and educators have stopped going to work and this is beginning to impact the government. Yukyi believes this is what “holds the key to fighting back this coup.” Many of these professionals are also wearing the same type of red ribbon as Yukyi, as a sign of resistance.
But there have been reports of groups of released convicts, allegedly working for the military, going around Yangon and lighting fires and inciting unrest and chaos. Yukyi has heard of these agitators from reports via Facebook
“I try to keep track of how my family is doing,” she said but struggles due to the random internet outings in Myanmar. Yukyi said everyone remains hyper-vigilant and aware of their surroundings at all times in this new uncertain era. After the last elections were disputed by the military, the democratically elected members of Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, were deposed.
“We couldn’t utter a word about democracy,” said Yukyi of her childhood, despite hopes it could finally take hold for good.
During her youth, the word was essentially banned. Being born soon after the third coup in 1988, she was raised under propaganda and military rule. The military controlled the education system and had she stayed there, would not have the opportunity to earn a doctorate degree in forensic anthropology. She says she is very passionate about fighting this coup, about doing all she can to put an end to it, and restore a democratic government.
“Even though she’s not perfect,” Yukyi said of the former elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, “she is a positive figure for us.” Yukyi explained that the past five years of her de facto leadership, with continuous military heavy handedness, Myanmar still drastically improved.
“The whole idea of democracy was welcomed by the citizens,” Yukyi said “and there were developments going on we didn’t see growing up. It was welcomed by the citizens.”
“I don’t want the future generations to go through that again,” she emphasized of the new upheaval and being under military rule. She wants the world to keep spreading the news coming out of Myanmar and remain aware of what is happening. Her American friends are unable to grasp how bad it truly is, she says.
“The gravity of things is more than what it might seem. Everyone is saying this is the last battle,” she explained “it’s a very important matter to the citizens of Burma.”