Humanities ‘decimated’ by Myanmar academic suspensions

Fields essential to country’s development could become ‘unviable’ as faculty are forced out, observers say

June 23, 2021
Source: iStock
Bagan, an Unesco heritage site in Myanmar

The Myanmar junta’s mass suspension of academic staff could “decimate” some areas of study, particularly smaller humanities fields that rely on local access and knowledge, according to overseas experts who have advised Burmese institutions and students.

Gustaaf Houtman, the editor of Anthropology Today, told Times Higher Education that the flagship University of Yangon had lost 80 per cent of its anthropologists.

He has taught at Myanmar universities and had made months-long visits to the country to “assist its academics in building up their capacity”. “I feel distraught by the destruction that I now witness,” he said.

According to Dr Houtman, 42 anthropologists at five national universities – or 67 per cent of the total – have been let go for participating in the civil disobedience movement. He feared that the field could become “unviable with so few places, and now so few faculty, just as its critical importance to the country is at its height”.

A coup by the junta in February led to thousands of arrests, violence against students and academics, and the military occupation of campuses.

The events of 2021 marked a significant backtracking in the higher education sector, given the progress that universities had made starting in 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament and foreign advisers and professors were welcomed into the country.

“When it comes to smaller subjects important to the country, such as anthropology, in which skills have been carefully nurtured since the 2012 elections, the consequences are devastating,” Dr Houtman said. “The country has hundreds of ethnic languages and ethnic groups that somehow need to be considered when nurturing a sense of belonging and mutual respect.

“To see the decimation of the subject in this manner at this time is devastating for a country finding its feet in the study of who they are and what their diversity represents.”

Bernard Hibbitts, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been mentoring Burmese students remotely during the past four months via The Jurist, a news service that he founded to give a voice to law students.

The Jurist’s student volunteers in Myanmar reported in May that 10 law professors at the University of Mandalay and eight at the University of Yangon had been fired. This is a more serious and permanent action than suspension, which had already happened en masse earlier in the month. Several law professors are allegedly in hiding and one has been charged with incitement.

“The universities are now starting to reopen by order of the junta, but their law school faculties are seriously depleted and the vast majority of law students are not in attendance,” Professor Hibbitts told THE. “The younger, more activist faculty, whom the law students seem to have looked up to the most, are now absent. Our students wonder what kind of legal education they would get if they did go back to school.”

He said many students were now considering overseas study, given the country’s long history of educational disruption caused by previous military regimes.

“Most cruelly, our Myanmar law students are trying to come to terms with the failure of a legal system just as they were beginning, in the last few years, to believe in it,” he said.

A spokesperson at Scholars at Risk (SAR), which is based at New York University, said there was not enough data from Myanmar yet to compare dismissals between specific fields of study.

However, “the possibility of entire departments being stripped of research and teaching faculty – especially specialised fields like Burmese studies – is alarming and would have major consequences for students, individual fields of study, and society more generally”, SAR told THE.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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