Testing Change in Myanmar

The following is a guest post by Desaix Myers, a professor of national-security studies at the National War College. He spent four months in Myanmar recently preparing for the opening of a U.S. Agency for International Development office in the country.

Yangon University’s Convocation Hall, in Myanmar.

On his historic visit in November to Myanmar—or Burma, as it is called by the U.S. government—President Obama pledged that the United States would “extend a hand” to support the country’s nascent move toward democracy and an open society. As part of this, the U.S. Agency for International Development issued a call to American higher-education institutions to help rebuild universities in Myanmar. The agency is also reaching out to businesses, foundations, religious organizations, and civic groups to assist with the project.

The plan to revitalize academe in the country holds great promise but many challenges, too. A quick tour of the campus of Yangon University, the country’s most venerable, is telling in this regard.

The gap between aspiration and reality is apparent in the way the university wears its years of neglect—buildings crumbling, tin roofs rusted, vacant lots of tall grass, empty spaces reclaimed by jungle. At one end of the campus stands Convocation Hall, where President Obama gave a speech promising support for democratic reforms. Dedicated in 1923 by Sir Reginald Henry Craddock, the lieutenant governor of the then-British colony, the hall was the center for the nation’s claims to intellectual leadership in an emerging Asia. And for many years the claim was justified. With a sophisticated faculty, many educated abroad, and guest professors from overseas, Yangon was a university of international renown.

On the front of the hall a bronze plaque states: “Our Vision: To create an education system that can generate a learning society capable of facing the challenges of the Knowledge Age.” That wistful hope, until recently, has seemed most unlikely. At the other end of Chancellor’s Row, past faculty homes in poor repair, a library with only a few computers, and a recreation center built by the Asia Foundation in the 1950s, is an empty field where the student union once stood until the dictator Ne Win, fearful of student revolt, blew it up in 1962. Next to it, and not far from the main entrance to the university, is a sign that contrasts sharply with the call for a learning society. In bold English it says: “No Trespassing.”

The juxtaposition of the two signs, one heralding a knowledge age and the other forbidding outside influences, says much about Myanmar’s path. The campus offers a poignant reminder of what was—and a small hope for what could be. Last May, U Myint, economic adviser to Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, wrote an open letter calling for “restoring the university to its former glory.” In the letter, he compared the university to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River in its lost splendor. Restoring it, he wrote, would “be an important landmark of national reconciliation.”

In fact, restoring the universities across the country will be critical to reconciliation and the process of integrating Myanmar’s diverse and often-warring populations. One of Myanmar’s greatest challenges is developing a new generation of leaders in health, education, business, agriculture, and government. Another is connecting the majority Burman ethnic group with other populations here. Finding innovative ways to teach in the multiple languages of the country is important to this integration, honoring the wealth of Myanmar’s cultural diversity.

And a focus on education could also help reconcile Myanmar with the outside world.  Restoration of higher education would offer the possibility of drawing back Myanmar’s diaspora—more than 100,000 in the United States alone, and millions more in Thailand, Malaysia, Britain, and Australia—as researchers, teachers, and professors. And it would also open to outsiders Myanmar’s rich history and culture through exchanges and joint research.

Significantly, the impetus for improving higher education has widespread support. President Thein Sein has called for new centers of excellence; Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has introduced a bill to improve the quality of education. There are few things people here value more highly. Education is built into their culture.

But there is still resistance to change fueled by concern that rebuilding universities and allowing undergraduates to congregate in urban centers and to use the Internet freely will be destabilizing. Indeed, U Myint’s letter to restore Yangon University caused enough controversy that presidential advisers felt it necessary to call a press conference to make clear that his thoughts were not necessarily representative of the president’s office.

The effort by the U.S. Agency for International Development will be a good test, both of American interest in working here and of the Myanmar government’s readiness to open higher education to the outside world.

If all works well, the lawns and seminar rooms across the Yangon campus could once again bring together students and faculty from around the world, building the learning society that was once the great hope of a newly independent country.

[Photo courtesy of Soe Nandar Linn]

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