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How Myanmar coup forced International School of Yangon to change its critical comms

Critical communications for faculty members at The International School of Yangon in Myanmar became even more so when they found themselves in the midst of a military coup.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Image: Getty Images

Just as The International School of Yangon (ISY) in Myanmar was preparing to reopen and return to face-to-face learning following COVID-19 lockdowns, the country was forced to grapple with widespread political unrest after military forces seized control in a coup d'état on February 1.

For an initial period, it was relatively peaceful, but that all changed when the army was deployed, John Whalen, director of health, safety and security at ISY, told ZDNet, describing how he periodically heard gunfire and explosions from his house in Yangon.

"It was almost like the gloves were off and that's when there were nighttime raids, shootings at checkpoints, lots of arrests … it was bad. [The military] was cracking down on the actual protests, so you had an armed army going after unarmed civilians," he said.

In the wake of the military coup, the ISY was forced to reconsider the way its 200-plus faculty and staff would communicate during such emergencies.

"For the past couple of years, we have been, as a school, discussing various mechanisms to communicate in case of emergency and had never really come up with [one]. We've come up with a lot of solutions, but not really the ideal solution," said Whalen, who was formerly head of the Office for the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Yangon.

"At the time, and up until the coup happened, our solution was a WhatsApp group. It's very simple and the level of security on it is not great … of course, we also have school emails and we put out email blasts.

"But what we were really looking for was something that we could get something out and not only be able to broadcast out, but also have some sort of accountability as well. Knowing where people are was important and knowing whether or not people are in trouble was important."

The other consideration as part of this upgrade, according to Whalen, was to look for an alternative that was not dependent on the internet.

Following the military coup, the country suffered internet and phone disruptions. The country's telco giant Telenor Myanmar then confirmed it was ordered by the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications to temporarily shut down its data network in Myanmar, while voice and SMS services remained open.

"Initially, when the coup happened, the internet was up and running … but at some point, they took mobile data down because the military realised everybody was communicating on Facebook, WhatsApp … but [the faculty] still had access to the internet using foreign SIM cards … and our school still had fixed fibre," Whalen said.

While leveraging mesh networking could have been an option, Whalen said getting the right equipment would have been "almost impossible". The other solution, which was what ISY opted for, was Blackberry's AtHoc critical event management platform that coincidentally was also a system that was used by his former workplace, the US Embassy, in Yangon.

"I'm sitting having lunch with a friend of mine from the US Embassy and he starts getting an alert on his phone and the US Embassy was using that system, so he showed it to me and so that kind of sold me on the demonstration," he said.

ISY rolled out the system just as ISY staff were being evacuated out of the country in March.

"We didn't have a chance to really use it that much, but it did give me an opportunity to test it with our local staff, which we continue to do," Whalen said. "Even though I'm [in the US] at the moment, we're using it now for … informational news segments of what's actually happening within the country, so that when our local staff returns there, they have some situational awareness of what's going on."

Using the AtHoc system, the messages are being delivered in various formats, including email, SMS, through the AtHoc app, and as phone calls. These messages are also being sent in Burmese, Whalen added.

With hopes that ISY will see all faculty return to Yangon and in-person learning resume by January, Whalen wants to incorporate the AtHoc system to be able to track student school buses.

"When everybody is back, and with everything that's going on, we're going to be very attentive to making sure that we can account for everybody all the time," he said.

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