A version of this blog post has previously been published in the Exchange Alumni Blog, here.
In November 2019, Lar Phar Dee (“Dee Dee”) attended TechCamp Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, with hopes of learning how to use his blossoming career as a social media influencer to impact the world. Neither Dee nor the rest of the world could have imagined the havoc that would overtake Dee’s home country, Myanmar (Burma), as well as the rest of the world, in the following months. .
Born in a rural village, Dee grew up in the only home in his town with a generator. “I never thought I’d be able to go to a city,” he said. However, when he was 16, Dee moved to Myanmar’s largest city, Rangoon, where he walked for hours every day to learn English from a youth pastor.
After three months of studying, Dee passed an entry exam that gave him the opportunity to study for a diploma in construction engineering in Singapore. As soon as he arrived, he knew he was in a very different place from his home country. “When the taxi driver opened the door, I was shocked!” he recalled. “All the taxis had air conditioning!”
For three years, Dee balanced school alongside a part-time job to afford room and board. After finishing his studies in Singapore, he was accepted to the University of Wollongong in Australia, where he studied civil engineering. While he was there, Dee started creating videos and blogs to document his time studying abroad. In less than a year, he had over one million followers on Facebook, the most-used social media platform in Myanmar.
In 2019, Dee was invited to participate in TechCamp Mongolia: “Countering Disinformation with Collective Innovation.”
TC Mongolia promotional video:
At the TechCamp, participants joined in “Speed Geeking” sessions with industry professionals who discussed multiple topics, including creating social media campaigns, digital storytelling, design thinking, and media monitoring to combat disinformation.
For Dee, some of the most valuable skills he obtained were learning how to verify the information he shared and provide references for his viewers to do their own research. “I learned how to recognize fake news and give credit to everyone I reference,” Dee said. “If I want to talk about a book I read, I give credit to the authors. I always speak to my audience very honestly.”
As a culminating piece to his time at TechCamp Mongolia, Dee created a video explaining his strategies for improving engagement on social media. The number one tip? “Be authentic,” he says. “People are tired of fake news, fake articles, fake YouTubers, and fake personalities.”
While others created projects related to news media, Dee said that he wanted to make something relevant to his own work. “I’m a creator and storyteller,” he said. “Wherever I go, I make videos.”
Dee also connected deeply with the other participants in the TechCamp. On the first night, after the program’s welcome dinner, a Mongolian singer performed and the participants joined in with karaoke. “After singing and dancing and drinking,” said Dee, “we all sat in a circle and talked until two in the morning.” Dee found a particular connection with fellow participants from Nepal and Bhutan, some of whom he is still in touch with.
However, in early 2021, Dee and many of his compatriots found themselves cut off from the outside world.
Coup and Shutdown in Myanmar
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military took control of the country and detained many of Myanmar’s elected officials, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup triggered nationwide protests, which the military responded to with a heavy crackdown. At least 800 civilians have been killed since the coup and mass protests began in February, 2021.
Myanmar’s military also shut down the internet and social media in Myanmar for a period of time, and has since both relaxed and subsequently reinstated restrictions as the situation continues to develop.
Dee, like countless others who make their name on the internet, was not sure that he could maintain his following and post consistently and safely. When the government began releasing the names of celebrities to be arrested, Dee deactivated his Facebook page for two weeks.
Every night at 8 p.m., Dee would watch the releases on the national TV channel, dreading the day his own name would appear on the list. “My best friend is on the list,” he said. “Now she is hiding somewhere in the forest.”
Eventually, fearing for the safety of himself and his family, Dee escaped Myanmar for Thailand. “When I went to the airport, I wore two masks and a face shield,” he said. “I was worried they’d recognize my voice or face, so I didn’t even speak.”
Once he reached Thailand, Dee said, “I stopped watching the news at 8 p.m.. I started sleeping very well.” However, he’s still unable to continue normal life. “Now I cannot post anything on Facebook,” he said. Dee may not be able to resume his work as an influencer for six months or longer.
In the meantime, Dee plans to study for his Master’s in Business Administration. “After I finish my MBA, and if the world is in a better place,” he said, “I’ll travel around the world and make documentaries.”
Freedom to be Himself
Freedoms of the press and of speech, both important themes at the 2019 TechCamp Mongolia, are close to Dee’s heart these days. “Everyone has their own opinions and can say how they feel, as long as they don’t attack other people,” he said. “I don’t want to do harm to others, but I always speak up.”
Dee feels that it is important to be true to himself and open with others about his sexual orientation. “I came out as bisexual the day I returned to Myanmar from Australia back in 2018,” he said.
Fortunately, Dee found support in his online community. Dee’s followers, some of whom were closeted LGBTQ people themselves, used his video as a way to share their feelings. “When I came out online, more than 5k people shared my video and said, ‘Me too,’” he recalled. “It made me so happy. They were afraid to say they were bi or gay, so they shared my video post.”
Dee also found a supportive community in his cohort at TechCamp Mongolia. “One of the organizers at the American Embassy was also gay. We sat together and talked about LGBT communities in Mongolia and Myanmar,” Dee said.
However, Myanmar’s conservative society made life for openly gay people challenging. Although most of his young social media followers had been accepting online, says Dee, he encountered discrimination when he returned home. “For the first three months, I was open about it. But after six months, I lost confidence,” Dee said. “I was disappointed in them for not accepting who I am. People would say, ‘this guy is bi, he’s gay. Don’t work with him.’”
One result of discrimination against LGBT people in Myanmar is the spread of HIV/AIDS. “People are embarrassed to go to the clinic,” explained Dee. “Most people don’t know they have chlamydia, syphilis, or another STD. People don’t talk much about sex education.”
Recently, Dee began working with a nonprofit organization in Bangkok to promote Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, a drug that can prevent HIV. Dee produces videos to increase awareness of PrEP’s usage and availability for the LGBT community. “We hope to reduce HIV cases in Myanmar,” he explained. “At the moment there’s many HIV cases. I have two friends who have been affected by it.”
Dee also expresses his support of fellow members of the LGBT community in Myanmar, especially by speaking out against stereotypical portrayals of gay characters in locally produced films. In addition, he is dedicated to promoting sex education and the use of PrEP for youth and LGBT people in Myanmar.
To other LGBT people in Myanmar, Dee says: “I wish the best for them. I hope they are happy with who they are and that they can have the freedom to express their sexuality. All I wish for is the safety and acceptance of my community in Myanmar.”
Fundraising for Kayah State
Even more recently, Dee has also put his efforts into fundraising for the civil war-stricken state of Kayah in Myanmar. The war has internally displaced over 100,000 residents into refugee camps and forest hideaways.
Dee, having seen Kayah state’s plight on social media, decided to help by leveraging his follower base to raise funds for the cause.
“I connected with an NGO from Thailand that was supposed to help the refugees,” Dee said. “But they were very slow.” Due to bureaucratic slowdowns, the NGO wouldn’t be able to send help for at least two weeks— too long for the displaced residents.
Dee decided to take matters into his own hands. In two weeks, he raised over 60,000 U.S. Dollars and used the funds to buy food and supplies for over 15,000 women, children, and elders. Dee hopes that the funds will help refugees survive as they shelter from the violence that has taken over their streets.