A light for dark Burmese days

January 5, 2001

George Soros is giving hope to refugees from an oppressive regime. Maureen Aung-Thwin discusses the aims of the philanthropist.

People are intrigued that the foundation network created by Hungarian-born financier-philanthropist George Soros has a project on Burma. The bulk of his work promoting open society focuses on Eastern Europe. As director of the project, I am often asked who "talked George Soros into" Burma. The simple answer is that Burma, whose self-imposed isolation kept it from the world's consciousness for decades, appeared on Soros's radar screen in 1988 when the Burmese military junta brutally crushed nationwide protests against its rule. Although few media were present to record the tragedy, Soros has keen antennae for dictatorships, and this was one he could not resist.

The Burmese populace live in one of the more repressive and closed societies in the world. But it is not always obvious on the surface. Oblivious tourists on luxury jaunts to Rangoon, Mandalay and the magnificent ruins of Pagan often express delight at having encountered such friendly, happy people and at the surprising lack of soldiers in the streets. The reality for the average Burmese citizen, however, is downright grim.

A military junta has ruled Burma since 1962, but never with as much force or manpower (more than 400,000 troops, the largest army in Southeast Asia) at its disposal. With no external threats, the army's main foes are its own countrymen and women. In 1990, the regime confidently called an election, which it lost to the National League for Democracy party even though NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been arrested and was unable to contest it. This humiliating rejection by voters, including substantial portions from their own ranks, should have been a wake-up call. But it only hardened the generals' resolve to consolidate power at all costs.

The cost has been high. One out of every four citizens is believed to spy for the dreaded military intelligence, or MI as it is popularly known, although most of these agents are doing it to make a living. The unauthorised use of computers, fax machines and other appliances requiring a modem can bring a jail sentence of 15 years. Almost every aspect of life for the average Burmese requires some form of official scrutiny: overnight guests in homes and apartments must register with "watchers"; permission must be sought to resign from government jobs; a censorship board vets all publications, advertising copy and pop-song lyrics.

The price that Burma's youth has paid to accommodate the military's insecurities and insistence on total control is incalculable. According to United Nations statistics, the Burmese military government spends only 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product on education. Put another way, the regime spends more than three times as much on defence as it does on health and education. The cost of education in Burma is borne by parents, mostly in the form of indirect taxes and donations paid to the education department, the teachers and the school. Anyone who wants good grades, entry to a particular school, a teaching position, or to surmount bureaucratic obstacles, must pay to join the junta's ubiquitous organisation, the Union Solidarity Development Association. According to sources inside Burma, many pupils are graded not on scholastic ability but for volunteering to participate in such activities as entertaining visiting members of the regime with songs and dances. Exam papers and grades are often for sale. An estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of school children drop out by the fifth grade out of frustration or poverty.

Throughout modern Burmese history, students have challenged authority and acted as the embodiment of a suppressed national will - against the British colonialists, the Japanese occupiers during the second world war and homegrown generals. When university students went on strike against arbitrary rules imposed by General Ne Win soon after his 1962 coup d'état , he dynamited the Rangoon University student union building.

The current junta has gone several steps further. In 1988, an estimated 10,000 demonstrators - many of them students - were killed when the mostly student-led nationwide uprising was crushed. Next to democracy leader Suu Kyi and the NLD, student activism is considered by the regime as one of the greatest threats to continued military rule.

In recent years, the regime seemed eager to forget about education (according to the sparse information available, only Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt of the top three in the junta has attended - though not completed - college). With tertiary level institutions open for only three of the past 12 years, the regime has shortened the academic year in many cases to four months. Because of the sporadic closures, about 5 million high school graduates are waiting to be admitted to universities in addition to the backlog of students waiting to complete their degrees. The government, however, runs some well-equipped medical and technological institutes for military and other elite children. Earlier this year, at the 56th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Suu Kyi said in a taped message:

"There is a dangerous development that members of the armed forces are educated separately... This doesn't augur well for the future of our country. We will become a house divided, a nation of two classes - the military elite and the rest. This doesn't augur well either for the military."

The few schools that the generals did build for the civilian population include two new universities, Dagon and Thanlyin, which replaced the more centrally located campuses of Rangoon University. Not surprisingly, these are far from central Rangoon and only accessible by well-guarded bridges.

Burma will need much help to address the myriad problems created by decades of centralised, authoritarian rule. Since Soros's Burma project was created in 1994, one of our top priorities has been to help with education and capacity building for the thousands of Burmese students who fled to exile, especially those whose schooling was disrupted in 1988 because of participation in the pro-democracy movement. Each year, several hundred Soros scholarships are disbursed to Burmese students all over the world. No doubt the occasional child of the military elite has inadvertently snared a scholarship, but this is not entirely at odds with Soros's vision of helping to open the minds of those who need it the most.

More than 1 million illegal, mostly uneducated Burmese have left the desperate economic situation at home in search of jobs in Thailand. An additional 120,000 ethnic minority refugees, most of them fleeing the Burmese junta's scorched earth tactics, live in camps along the long and porous border with Thailand. The Burma project supports schools that help prepare some of these refugee students for further study at higher education institutions and for work outside the camp with local community or foreign non-governmental organisations. India also has Burmese refugees, including a few Buddhist monks who are on Soros scholarships studying for doctorates in theology.

Promoting the open society inside Burma is our greatest challenge - and probably the cause for one of the regime's bigger headaches. The Burmese MI undoubtedly follows with great interest television, radio and newspaper coverage about all the trouble Soros creates for dictatorships around the world. Of major concern to us, therefore, is inadvertently jeopardising the very people whom we are trying to help.

Both the regime and Burmese people living inside the country appear ambivalent about the work of the Burma project. We are equally threatening and enticing. The energy that junta propagandists exert denouncing perceived foes - usually in colourful, amusing archaic English - is awesome. All the same, it is not unusual for us to receive the occasional handwritten letter in Burmese or broken English from inside the country, thanking us profusely for our support of democracy in Burma. But more often than not they ask for grants.

The thirst for knowledge is great in Burma. Rangoon University was once a top institution of higher learning in Southeast Asia with students from neighbouring countries competing for enrolment. I have heard stories of how, in 1988, young students from Rangoon University and the Rangoon Institute of Technology dropped to their knees to gadaw, or bow in obeisance to their teachers. They were showing respect and asking for pardon before they left class to join the growing crowds calling for an end to military rule.

Maureen Aung-Thwin is director of the Burma project at the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundations.
For more information, contact www.soros.org/burma.html

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