Myanmar underlines the importance of supporting social sciences

Autocracy starts with the violent repression of students and academics, say Matteo Fumagalli, Achim Kemmerling, Youngmi Kim and Luicy Pedroza

March 12, 2021
Burmese refugees protest against Myanmar's military government in 2010
Source: iStock

In an acre of the University of Yangon, a bunch of twiggy trees provide surprisingly good shade from intense noon heat on sunny days.

Among them, a modest monument commemorates the 1962 destruction of the student union building that had previously stood on the site, an incident in which at least 20 students were killed and many more were injured.

In Myanmar’s short history as an independent nation, riven with ethnic and regional conflict, there is one constant: university teachers and students have always been at the forefront of any progressive, democratic movement. And every return to autocracy has started with their violent repression.

Teachers and students are a creative, inspiring, resilient social force in Myanmar. They played critical roles in the 1930 anti-colonial struggle, the subsequent nation-building and the 1962 and 1988 anti-coup protests (the latter known as the 8-8-88 Uprising).

The latest military coup is no exception. Myanmar’s streets are filled with people from all walks of life and of all ages, genders, races and religions, protesting against the annulling of the November election and asserting their right to dignity, human rights and a better life. But the activism begins with university staff and students – and so far it is estimated that more than 30 students have lost their lives in the protests.

Myanmar is a prime example of the importance of universities in general, and the crucial importance of social sciences and humanities in particular, for the flourishing of democracy. That point is not lost on autocrats, of course. In Turkey and Hungary, too, universities with flourishing, independent social science and humanities departments have been targeted by governments that live in fear of critical thinking. But Myanmar has gone especially far in its repression.

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After the 1988 student uprising, the military regime closed most of the degrees it identified as fomenting troublemakers, especially political science and sociology. For a long time, only vetted social science disciplines were permitted: docile versions of economics and law, unpolitical forms of geography. In international relations, the only programme that remained was a postgraduate degree in diplomacy, which taught students such important matters as what kind of presents to give to foreign ambassadors rather than content that would equip them to understand an increasingly complex and globalised world.

This culling of degrees was part of a barrage of measures intended to kill the critical spirit of universities. Further measures included reorganising students’ accommodation to limit and control their opportunities to gather and mobilise. And the universities of Yangon and Mandalay – which had previously been lauded as South-east Asia’s higher education beacons – were downgraded into small, provincial-looking facilities that, even until just few years ago, hosted more stray dogs than students.

Against this background, the opening of the country after 2010 was remarkable. It gave Myanmar’s universities the opportunity to reconnect to foreign universities in the Western world, exchanging faculty, hosting conferences and taking advantage of training in all types of disciplines, including the social sciences and humanities.

Little by little, new types of degree programmes were accepted. Granted, the process was rendered painfully slow by unwieldy structures such as the extreme centralisation of higher education even during the governments led (effectively) by Aung San Suu Kyi. But there was hope – and some real change. In particular, universities across the country started to educate students in analysis and critical thinking.

The generation that is now protesting on the streets is one that would have no trouble holding their own in educated discussions about federalism, conflict or migration with students from the Western universities where the authors of this article teach. What is more, Burmese students show a deep motivation for learning and a drive to educate themselves enough to elaborate plausible proposals for a Myanmar after autocratic rule. They know how precious those spaces for open debate are and they do not want to lose them again.

The current options to provide direct help to Burmese students, academics and universities are limited. Nonetheless, the case of Myanmar reminds us of how important it is to support social science and humanities around the world. To safeguard against the rising wave of autocracy we see in so many countries, universities must unite in solidarity and form timely, resolute alliances with those departments and universities under pressure.

These are the true canaries in freedom’s coalmine. Once critical thinking in universities goes down, so goes liberty more generally.

Matteo Fumagalli is senior lecturer in international relations at the University of St Andrews. Achim Kemmerling is Gerhard Haniel professor of public policy and international development and director of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at Erfurt University, Germany. Youngmi Kim is senior lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Edinburgh. Luicy Pedroza is professor of international relations at the College of Mexico, Mexico City.

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