Would I be willing to accept a son or daughter of a member of the Burmese junta into a course I teach?

Of course.

The Sydney Morning Herald is reporting today that:

Children of some of the most senior members of the Burmese regime are studying at Australian universities… They include the son and daughter-in-law of a minister, whose names are on a list of banned figures, and the son of a colonel in the Burmese military. The former foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, said it was “likely that some elements of the regime would have children studying here.”

This has naturally, and quite reasonably, alarmed members of the local Burmese community. Financial sanctions imposed against members of the junta and their families don’t seem to preclude access to Australian universities.

But is this such a bad thing? Perhaps I am naive, or overly optimistic, but exposing members of Burma’s junta-youth to the openness, irreverence and democratic sentiments of the Australian academic scene may lead to some broadening of political and social viewpoints. Getting them up close and personal to the disgust that their parents generate among thinking Australians may encourage some self reflection.

If there is a scandal here it is that many more Burmese are not studying in Australia. AusAID currently refuses to provide scholarships to Burmese citizens. If you are from Bangladesh or Bhutan, then AusAID is happy to help. But from there it is an alphabetical jump to bastions of democratic values such as Cambodia and China. Laos yes, Mongolia yes, Myanmar no.

Of course, given the role that “partner” governments play in scholarship allocation, there are legitimate concerns about AusAID money supporting the careers of the junta-ettes. But is it beyond the wit of the Australian government to come up with an improved and more independent selection process? (Applicants in other countries may benefit from this too.)

Burma’s current humanitarian tragedy is going to require a huge medium and long-term aid response. As noxious as the current regime is, it is surely a good time for Australia to review its policy of development non-engagement. Provision of higher education scholarships to Burmese citizens would be a good place to start.