Myanmar coup ‘could stall decade of higher education development’

Experts call on global community to support Burmese scholars

February 3, 2021
Source: iStock
Election poster in 2012, at a time when Myanmar was opening up

Myanmar’s universities, which had begun reopening to the world only about a decade ago, could backtrack in their development after a military coup and a communications blackout, experts warned.

On 1 February, the junta detained President Win Myint and several lawmakers including Aung San Suu Kyi, the governing party leader who was elected in a historic 2015 vote. Global leaders have been lobbying for her release.

Just a month ago, Ms Suu Kyi said in a new year speech that she wanted to invest in an education system that met “modern-day standards”, according to The Myanmar Times.

She had previously reached out to UK institutions, including her alma mater, the University of Oxford, to partner with her country.

Myanmar’s universities have suffered from decades of political turmoil. The legacy University of Yangon, for example, had all undergraduate classes suspended between 1996 and 2013. It was only in the 2010s that campuses opened to larger cohorts of students and more opportunities for exchange and travel. Reform sped up last year, when the government granted autonomy to 16 higher education institutions.

Nicholas Farrelly, head of social sciences at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Myanmar, has written about the growth of the country’s higher education system through the 2010s.

“The number of Myanmar citizens actively involved in research activities has grown rapidly in universities, think-tanks and a wide range of other institutions,” he wrote in New Mandala in 2020. “The number of foreign scholars devoting part or all of their research effort to Myanmar as a subject matter is at an all-time high.”

“Myanmar’s universities have been an important engine for dialogue and knowledge creation over the past decade,” Professor Farrelly told Times Higher Education. “Until the pandemic, campuses around the country hummed with youthful energy and socially relevant work. The coup will temporarily curtail such activity.

“We hope that global ties can be sustained, but Myanmar now faces dangerous and uncertain years. The global academic community should be ready to offer Myanmar scholars our fullest possible support.”

FORSEA, a network of academics and activists across south-east Asia, condemned the coup and related detentions in a statement.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a co-founder of FORSEA and an associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, told THE that “at the end of the day, the army, tatmadaw, continues to dominate politics, and there is a tendency that the freedom of the people, including academic freedom, could be under threat”.

He warned of the potential suppression of any future student protests.

Professor Farrelly also voiced concern that campuses could be a target for surveillance and crackdowns.

“The armed forces are always nervous about young activists drawing together the strengths of a disenfranchised population,” he said. “Sadly, under military rule, there is no obvious mechanism to sustain the free discussion and open enquiry tasted by Myanmar scholars in recent years.”

Scholars around Asia rallied behind their Myanmar counterparts. One protest, held outside the United Nations University in Tokyo, drew hundreds of demonstrators.

Students from countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) also voiced their concerns.

The Asean University Network Myanmar Student Association stressed the regional network’s “principles of democracy, rule of law, good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms” in a statement. “Political stability…is essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asian community,” they wrote.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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