This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 14 March 2016
In the years after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest ended in 2010, she has gone about reacquainting herself with the wider world. Among all the usual high-level meetings – presidents, prime ministers and more – she has ended up spending a fair bit of time with university leaders.
Given her background and interests, this makes complete sense. It is her Oxford education that she credits with a broad-minded “respect for the best in human civilisation”.
As a result, she is at home in scholarly circles. During the 1970s and 1980s, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s life outside Burma had a distinctively academic tone.
Then, from 1988 onward, university staff and students were counted among her most ardent supporters, both at home and abroad. The National League for Democracy draws much of its activist strength from its association with Myanmar’s long history of student agitation.
Nowadays the outlines of this story are well-known internationally. Her academic sensibilities and resistance to military rule have motivated top universities to offer Daw Aung San Suu Kyi their highest endorsement: honorary doctorates.
At her alma mater, the conferral in 2012 was an emotional day, given all the years she had lived in Oxford and her close personal connection with the university and its staff. That her late husband, Michael Aris, had spent 23 years at Oxford teaching Himalayan and Tibetan Studies ensures the connection has profound meaning for all sides.
When I was a student there – sadly after Mr Aris had already succumbed to prostate cancer – people around the medieval town still spoke of the family with great affection. Sometimes this was tempered by whispered suggestions that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s haughtiness was a long-term political and social liability.
Nonetheless, the University of Oxford, whatever those critical mutterings, was a bastion of steadfast support for democracy in Myanmar. The Lady’s old undergraduate college, St Hugh’s, played an especially important role in this regard. The college’s Junior Common Room was, a decade ago, renamed the “Aung San Suu Kyi Room”.
Since her release from house arrest, Oxford has sought to cultivate stronger ties with Myanmar, with two new academic positions named in her honour.
The incumbent Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow is Matthew Walton, a leading scholar of Myanmar’s tortured contemporary politics. The Junior Research Fellow, currently Khin Mar Mar Kyi, has a doctorate from my own Australian National University. Together they are creating new momentum in Oxford for the serious study of Southeast Asia.
It is fitting that some of the other universities associated with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have also developed a range of new activities. The Australian National University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in November 2013, has generated new initiatives to support what is an increasingly broad range of Myanmar activities, including through our Myanmar Research Centre.
Then there are the major injections of financial, administrative and technical support flowing to Myanmar’s universities from the United States, Korea, Japan and Singapore. Many institutions are working hard to re-connect with Myanmar colleagues and support the improvement of local academic conditions.
It all takes time, patience and energy. These emerging academic relationships will benefit from flows of students and staff – to and from Myanmar – to ensure that momentum can build as quickly as possible.
They will also need high-level support from within the NLD. Happily, there is plenty of academic talent and enthusiasm in the party’s ranks. For instance there is Daw Su Su Lwin who has been spearheading the NLD’s education policy formation. She has served as MP in the Pyithu Hluttaw since 2012, and now chairs the parliament’s international relations committee.
It will be a big week for her and her family, with expectations running high that her husband, U Htin Kyaw, will become Myanmar’s next president. His appointment should mean that the NLD has the power to implement their policies and will be seeking to stamp their values on university governance.
An obvious person to lead this high-level effort is U Aung Thu. Trained as a mathematician, the reform-minded former rector of the University of Yangon will be one to watch.
He has previously held positions as rector of Taungoo University and was also a deputy director general of the Department of Higher Education. Earlier in his career, he taught at universities in Yangon, Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe. Since December he has worked in the three-member NLD transitional committee, seeking to build a sound basis for the new government.
With its long-time support from among student activists, and the involvement of people like U Aung Thu, it makes sense that the NLD will be creative in its effort to bolster Myanmar’s university sector. All around the world, successful democratic governments rely on open and vibrant education systems to provide ideas for today while training the leaders of tomorrow.
Nicholas Farrelly is the director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.