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Bitcoin Policy Institute Awards Human Rights Fellowship to Win Ko Ko Aung

Born and raised in Myanmar, activist Win Ko Ko Aung is a McCourt Scholar at Georgetown University with first-hand experience leveraging Bitcoin to protect human rights.

The Bitcoin Policy Institute is pleased to announce that it has awarded a Human Rights Fellowship to Win Ko Ko Aung, a Burmese activist and McCourt Scholar at Georgetown University pursuing a Master's degree in Data Science for Public Policy. Win will contribute to BPI's ongoing research into the ways open monetary networks like Bitcoin can safeguard civil liberties and improve the lives of those facing economic or political turmoil. Learn more about Win by reading our interview with him below.

Interview with Win Ko Ko Aung

Q: Who are you? Tell me about your upbringing.

A: My name is Win. I was born and grew up in Yangon, the largest city in the country of Myanmar (also known as Burma). I lived through the tail end of Myanmar’s decades-long military dictatorship and witnessed the country’s transition to “quasi-democracy” in 2011. Myanmar’s mobile connectivity revolution in late 2013 inspired me to contribute to the development of the country’s technology and innovation ecosystem.

Before 2010, Myanmar had fewer smartphone users than North Korea. In 2009, Myanmar's GDP per capita was just $600, and a SIM card cost $1,200. At that time, if you had a personal cell phone number, you were either wealthy or connected to the military regime. I still remember when almost everyone had to rely on public telephone services run by neighborhood mom-and-pop stores. If somebody needed to reach us, they would come to our house, knock on the door, and then charge service fees at the end of the call.

Regarding the internet, I started using it in 2007 at my neighborhood cybercafe. At that time, the military junta intentionally brainwashed our parents and teachers, saying the internet was just a dating place for teenagers and for viewing adult content. As our country held conservative values, those things were very sensitive. However, as a happy kid, my friends and I always knew there was something on the other side of the suppression. Sometimes, we skipped after-school classes to spend our time at the internet cafe. We used VPNs to bypass blocked websites, play games, listen to Western music, and learn English, all while dealing with just under 12 hours of electricity per day.

Q: Can you tell me about your career and professional experiences in Myanmar? What originally inspired you to get into your field?

A: I was not a good student, but I somehow managed to graduate with a law degree in 2013. However, after a 3-month internship at a law firm, I realized that I wanted to be a part of something bigger, especially with the unprecedented internet adoption happening in Myanmar at the time and many international tech companies entering the market. So I spent the next 5 years working in tech startups and the entrepreneurship industry.

One life-changing moment occurred during my first trip to the United States in 2018. I was awarded a Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative Professional Fellowship by the U.S. government. Before visiting, I had only seen the Hollywood version of America and imagined the country as such. However, I soon realized that only reflected certain cities like Washington D.C. and downtown Chicago during my visit. In the program, I was assigned to the South Side of Chicago to teach tech literacy to underprivileged Black American youth. I worked alongside my supervisor, also a Black American, to develop web-based curriculum and review students' coding and business startup skills. Half the students didn't own computers and wrote code on paper. Many couldn't attend college due to generational poverty. Witnessing this side of America was an immense wake-up call.

When I returned to Myanmar, I left my lucrative corporate job in April 2019 to launch PROJECT WIN LTD (PJW) full-time. I founded it with the mission to help young people access opportunities like I had. As PJW's founder, I created social media content on Facebook in Burmese, spotlighting Myanmar's startups, development, and social issues. “PJW Scholarship” is one of the initiatives that brought the eyes of thousands of local young people. I also authored "A 21st Century Burmese Guy," one of 2020's best-selling books locally. I introduced a series of best practices and hacks that work in Myanmar for Myanmar youth because I did not trust the method from the developed world could work in the developing world in most cases. The book has received generally positive reviews beyond my expectation. On top of that, my book has been well known for being anti-fake guru lectures. I believe the motivational industry is making tons of money by selling easy shortcuts to despairing people, especially to low-income families. The messages such as “take risks”, “wake up early morning”, and “if you work hard, you will be rich” are misguided in society. My counterintuitive techniques are “use the internet as a tool to navigate the future”, and “take the calculated risk.”

Q: You had established yourself professionally in Myanmar and were running a successful company prior to the political turmoil. How difficult was it to leave that all behind when you fled the country?

A: As a public figure and social entrepreneur, I decided to become an activist after the 2021 coup, leveraging my trusted public persona and social capital to initiate social movements. I did not want the military junta to steal the freedom and dreams that people, especially tech-savvy youth, had cultivated during the decade of quasi-democracy. As a result of my activism, I became a wanted person, profiled as a target on Myanmar's military-controlled state media. My bank accounts were frozen. Eventually, I was compelled to flee the country for my own safety, crossing the border to Thailand. I was able to use a small amount of Bitcoin, which I had purchased for experience, to help sustain me in my journey.

However, as circumstances in Myanmar shifted, I re-evaluated how to best keep my community safe and made the difficult decision to step back from public platforms. This was an immense personal and professional sacrifice to make, as I had to leave behind what I had built. But ensuring my own safety and my community's safety was my utmost priority.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges or surprises you faced during the American Experience after the trauma of your experiences in Myanmar?

A: I’ll never forget what it feels like to start everything from a humble beginning. I arrived as a refugee in August 2021 with little more than hope, $200 in cash, and some digital assets. In the process of rebuilding my new life in America, professional careers in my field of expertise were discredited, as I encountered some invisible barriers when applying for entry-level jobs in my field. Simultaneously, I was a very nice customer service member for customers, always being the first person they had ever met from Myanmar, a country most of them had never heard of. In my free time, I regularly attended Orange County Bitcoin meetups. I noticed the Bitcoin community indiscriminately supporting me regardless of genetic characteristics.

I always keep in mind that struggles and hardships are vicissitudes of our lives. I drew inspiration from America's history and lived each day with the same spirit as George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River 250 years ago when an uncertain nation with a group of insurgents won an important victory against the world’s strongest military at that time.  Though I am just an underdog in America, I believed I could drive change through technology and a grand innovation like Bitcoin.

Meanwhile, between working shifts and studying Bitcoin, I spent countless hours preparing to launch my moonshot vision - pursuing education to expand my intellectual capital and bridge my past with the future. Getting accepted into Georgetown's Data Science for Public Policy program as a McCourt Scholar is my version of the American Dream.

I'm excited to see what the future has in store for Bitcoin, America, and refugees of color like myself. I am eternally grateful for this chance to restart my life in America despite its imperfections. 

Q: Why did you decide to accept a Fellowship from BPI? What draws you to the intersection of Bitcoin and public policy, and what are you hoping to achieve during your time with us? 

I accepted the Bitcoin Policy Institute Fellowship because it is an incredible opportunity to work alongside great people and research the interactions between Bitcoin, human rights, and U.S. national interests. I grew up wondering why America invents and distributes breakthrough technologies and innovations globally. Ironically, many attacks on the Bitcoin system reminds me of the practices of the Myanmar military junta's propaganda to restrict internet usage in the country.

During this fellowship, I hope to further contribute to the Bitcoin space, expose policymakers and academia at Georgetown to this grand innovation, and gain a deeper understanding of Bitcoin's potential in the developing world. Furthermore, I intended to research, discuss, and share ideas on how Bitcoin can promote financial inclusion, uphold human rights, and align with American values of freedom and open access to information.

My background gives me a unique perspective on Bitcoin's liberating power, and I will also break invisible barriers, and leave it open for talented immigrants and refugees to join the Bitcoin space.