In November 2019, Lar Phar Dee (“Dee Dee”) attended TechCamp Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, where he hoped to learn 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 both the world and Dee’s own country, Burma, in the year to come.
Born in a rural village, Dee grew up in his town’s only home 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 Burma’s largest city, Rangoon, where he walked hours every day to learn English from a youth pastor.
After three months of studying, Dee passed the entry exam 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 at 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 Burma.
In 2019, Dee was invited to participate in TechCamp Mongolia: “Countering Disinformation with Collective Innovation.”
At the TechCamp, participants joined in “Speed Geeking” sessions with industry professionals who discussed 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, 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 other Burma citizens found themselves cut off from the outside world.
Coup and Shutdown in Burma
On February 1, 2021, the Burma military took control of the country through a coup d’etat and detained many of Burma’s elected officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The coup triggered nationwide protests, which the military responded to with a brutal crackdown. Security forces have killed at least 800 people since the coup. Large-scale protests began in February 2021, as the people of Burma rejected military rule.
The Burma military also intermittently shuts down the internet and social media in Burma. Dee, like countless others who make their name on the internet, was not able to be 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.
“My best friend is on the list,” he said. “Now she is hiding somewhere in the forest.” Every night at 8pm, he would watch the releases on the national TV channel, dreading the day his own name would appear on the list.
Fearing for the safety of himself and his family, Dee escaped Burma 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 8pm. I started sleeping very well.” However, he still can’t 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.”
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 Burma [Burma] 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 Burma,” Dee said.
However, Burma’s conservative society brought challenges to being out of the closet. 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 Burma 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 in the LGBT community of PrEP’s usage and availability. “We hope to reduce HIV cases in Burma,” 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 to fellow members of the LGBT community in Burma, especially by speaking out against stereotypical portrayals of gay characters in Burmese films. In addition, he is dedicated to promoting sex education and the use of PrEP for youth and LGBT people in Burma.
To other LGBT people in Burma, 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 Burma.”
Fundraising for Kayah State
Even more recently, Dee has also put his efforts into fundraising for the civil war-stricken state of Kayah in Burma. 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.