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New Partnership Aims to Rebuild Higher Ed in Myanmar

An entrance to the University of Yangon in Myanmar.

The building on the campus of the University of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, where President Barack Obama gave a historic speech Monday bore little resemblance to a structure you might find on a modern American college campus. 

The exterior was soot-blackened and tumbledown. Like many institutions in Myanmar over the years, it had fallen into disrepair.

A new partnership announced today by American University and the Institute of International Education hopes to change that.

AU, along with eight other universities across the country, was selected to take part in the 2012 Myanmar initiative of the International Academic Partnership Program (IAPP). The program seeks to rebuild higher education capacity in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, as well as bolster democratic governance, business, legal systems, human rights and more.

The effort will be a long-term partnership, said Dr. Pek Koon Heng, assistant professor in SIS and director of the ASEAN Studies Center. The IIE selected AU because of the university’s long-standing commitment to the country.

“We have a very special relationship with Myanmar that goes way back. We’ve been very involved in the promotion of human rights and the spread of democracy,” Heng said. “This is recognition of the work our students have done. We are the most politically active campus, especially when it comes to Myanmar.”

The nation now known as Myanmar came under British rule in 1886, then won its independence from the crown in 1948. During that time, the country’s university system rose in prominence in the region, said Lex Rieffel, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and ASEAN Studies Center research associate.

“The tragedy is when it became independent, Myanmar was viewed as one of the countries with the greatest prospects in the region,” he said. “It was the envy of most Asian countries.”

By the time the military junta took power in 1962, the nation’s university system was well into its backslide. The country’s economy became walled off and the education system stalled. Student riots effectively led to the emptying out of urban universities.

“There was a brain drain in Myanmar,” Heng said, explaining that many Burmese intellectuals left the country during that time. Some of them studied at AU. “That’s why we’re involved in this now. “

Since 1988, around the time the country changed its name, Myanmar has been on the U.S. State Department’s radar. It became focused on human rights and democracy-building in the country with a population of 60 million.

In 2008, Myanmar began to move in a different direction toward democracy. By 2012, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for two decades, had won a seat in Parliament. The Nobel Peace Prize winner visited AU in September to receive an honorary degree.

“They were ready and wanted to move closer to the U.S. and away from China,” Heng said.

The IAPP is part of the commitment. Through the program, partner universities will help design initiatives to help higher education contemporaries in Myanmar with subjects like faculty and curricular development, student learning, quality assurance and other critical areas. The partner universities include American University, Arizona State University, Ball State University, Hawaii Pacific University, Northern Illinois University, Northern Arizona University, Samford University, University of Massachusetts, Lowell and University of Washington.

But partner universities won’t just be assisting with higher education. AU’s steering committee for this initiative consists of representatives from several schools and the Washington College of Law. This is a university-wide initiative, said Violetta Ettle, vice provost for Academic Administration, who has helped oversee AU’s involvement with IAPP.

“We will be involved in many aspects of development in a country where we’ve had quite a close connection,” she said.

Next semester, AU will send a handful of delegates to Myanmar for a weeklong capacity-building mission. Then the university will continue its relationship with various institutions over the long haul, Ettle said. Ideally, this partnership will involve student and faculty exchanges, in keeping with AU’s commitment to international education.

Myanmar’s prospects for growth and change look positive, Rieffel said. The decline in education ostensibly ended in 2011 when current Myanmar president Thein Sein was sworn in and vowed to make education reform a priority. But the march toward modernity and reconstruction won’t be easy, Rieffel added.

“Myanmar has to find its own path in a world that is much more difficult to operate in than when other Asian countries were going through growth spurts,” Rieffel said.

Still, reform seems to have broad support across the country and around the world. Obama is the only sitting U.S. president to visit the country and his brief stop speaks to the West’s commitment to Myanmar.

“Resolve for economic opening and reform is strong in Myanmar,” Heng said. “They understand they have to have the capacity to do this. Even the hardliners realize it’s crucial.”