Universities across the world are under increasing pressure to break ties with institutions in Myanmar in the wake of the country’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
More than 600,000 Rohingya from the Southeast Asian nation have been displaced since the end of August as a result of the crisis, which has been described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
The crackdown has raised the question of whether universities should continue partnerships in the country.
Institutions with close links with Myanmar include the University of Oxford. Last year, Ed Nash, the institution’s international strategy officer, told Times Higher Education that Oxford was “doing more than any other university in the world” in Myanmar and that the former British colony was the country where it had its “largest ‘development’ role”.
Staff from the University of Yangon visited Oxford in 2014 to discuss strategic planning, student support, curricula and research, while Oxford academics have collaborated with Burmese researchers.
Meanwhile, the University of Technology Sydney last year announced a new partnership with Yangon Technological University, aimed at fostering collaboration in engineering and IT innovation as well as study programmes, and Ball State University in the US has an agreement to provide scholarships to students at Thanlyin Technical University.
In the UK, the Open University is negotiating a £4.6 million grant from the government in order to work alongside Oxford and the University of Manchester to promote higher education through distance learning in Myanmar.
Penny Green, professor of law and globalisation and director of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, said that universities should be “boycotting all government institutions in Myanmar”, including higher education providers.
“It’s a genocide and we should have nothing to do with Myanmar,” she said. “And we should make an absolute fuss about why we’re doing so because universities aren’t independent from the regime. It is unconscionable for us to have any dealings with the government and military.”
An anonymous group of academics at the OU wrote to THE to express their concern about the university’s project. They claimed that the OU “seems willing to give up its principles…for £4.6 million”.
But a spokesman at the Open University told THE that the institution was “sensitive to events in Rakhine state and the human rights record in Myanmar” and would not provide any funding to the military.
“We believe that there is no more effective antidote to oppression, wherever it may occur, than an educated population,” he said, adding that the university was “actively investigating the possibility of extending this opportunity to people who have been forced to flee Myanmar”.
Others also agree that universities are uniquely placed to help stem the crisis.
“Withdrawing projects now would be pointless virtue-signalling. It would have no impact whatsoever on the way the Myanmar authorities are behaving,” said Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary.
“Myanmar’s education system is in a truly atrocious state and help is desperately needed. Adequate education is one way that the racist and xenophobic attitudes and historically false beliefs driving the Rohingya crisis can gradually be challenged and changed.”
Khin Mar Mar Kyi, the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi gender research fellow at Oxford and the first senior Burmese female academic at the institution, said that education in Myanmar has been “destroyed by the military” and it is only just beginning to be “opened up”.
“At Oxford University, like many other universities, our duty is to them more than ever,” she said. “We need to focus on strengthening education in Burma. This is the only way we can transform society and build peace and democracy in the country.”
Kelly Smith, pro vice-chancellor (international) at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who is a board member of the Australia Myanmar Institute, added that the suggestion that universities should “disengage” from Myanmar was “patently absurd”.
“It suggests a form of collective punishment of the very institutions in a country that may be able to influence the direction of public policy through the principles of academic freedom that we cherish and so vigorously defend,” he said.
Tamas Wells, research fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, who has studied Myanmar's opposition movements, added that Myanmar universities “likely have relatively few ties to members of the military elite”.
But he said that any partnerships that “were in danger of giving legitimacy or funding to the military” would be “a problem”.