By Mat Carney
I have just returned from a three-day visit to Mandalay University where it was revealed to me the devastating situation universities within Burma (Myanmar) find themselves in. I even struggle to use the word ‘university’, due to a lack of students, resources, facilities and knowledge. However I will continue to use the word due to the immense hunger local academics have for improvement, increased knowledge, academic independence and foreign assistance.
The appalling state of Burma’s universities is the result of decades of deliberate neglect due to the former military junta’s fear of students and uprisings. Despite some democratic reforms in recent years there is still a lack of understanding of the necessity to reform the education system and there is an underlying fear in the current government that a strong education system means dissent and rebellion. During the time of the junta universities were seen as little more than problematic havens of protest and left-wing influence, and most of them were restricted, monitored or shut down.
Before entering the grounds of Mandalay University, one is reminded of the brutal surveillance the military had (has) over academia in Burma, with a large military barracks bordering the University perimeter. The all seeing eye of the Tatmadaw (Burmese Military) has strategically located itself next to a potential ‘hub of dissent’, always ready to travel one hundred meters to put a stop to ‘problematic youth’, who may attempt to ‘threaten their power’ or the ‘balance of power’.
Upon entering the campus it is obvious there has been little investment in the university for a number of years. Many buildings are in a decrepit state and a few look completely abandoned. The main administration building is aesthetically colonial with a British official’s name engraved onto stone near the entrance. Such grandeur, demonstrating Mandalay’s once colonial past, is almost lost on this desolate campus. A glimmer of hope is found in the recently opened ‘recreation center’, where there are encouraging signs of student life, and the large on-campus guesthouse that many of the academics speak of with a sense of pride and joy.
After a brief walk around the campus, we were introduced to our host, a senior Professor in Anthropology. Her warm smile, the elegant way she wore the traditional Burmese Hta-Mein and nervous enthusiasm for our arrival all clearly demonstrated the university’s desire for external visitors and assistance. We were taken into a large well decorated conference room, with one small portable air-conditioning that struggled to cool down a room situated in a building constructed in the early 20th Century (keep in mind it was 44 degrees centigrade outside). In the room there were over 20 academics, incredibly eager for foreign scholars to impart and share knowledge with them.
The reason my team was there was to share and teach academic skills, in regards to an up-and-coming conference Chiang Mai University is co-hosting with the University of Mandalay. Although local academics from Mandalay University have a wealth of wisdom and knowledge, their learning style is archaic and they have little ability to provide critical analysis. Much of their knowledge is determined from no more than a few books due to a lack of funding, decades of restrictions, and a lack of research ability.
All academics and scholars, no matter if they are a lecturer or senior professor, earn a standard wage of US$300 per month. They also get a university car, however many complain that university cars are in bad condition. It is evident that with little or no financial incentive it is challenging for academics to be career focused, driven or inspired to continually improve themselves.
On day two we conducted a workshop on essay writing so the senior academics could have a better understanding in how to write for a international conference. It was clear that although we were talking to senior academics, they had little understanding of the ability to be critical or provide positive criticisms. There was also a lack of knowledge on recent events, which made analysis in the field of economics and social sciences very difficult. One Professor in Anthropology was still working with theories that were outdated in the 1970s. Another Professor pleaded with me to return to Mandalay and attend her International Relations classes so I can help her teach students in an internationally acceptable way. Her passion was evident and encouraging, yet it was incredibly sad how senior staff had such a lack of knowledge. Of course, all blame must be directed toward the former junta.
Burma is developing and the democratisation process is slowly underway. However, it is obvious a significant roadblock to Burma’s development is and will increasingly be education and the lack of it. Mandalay University has only recently reopened to students, having been shut down for decades by the junta, and academic staff have little experience teaching and understanding academic material. Learning dates, facts and figures are paramount to the learning style, with no interpretation, argument or the challenging of historical discourses.
If Burma is going to continue to develop, empowering its younger generation, more attention needs to be given to the significantly lacking tertiary system. There also needs to be pressure put on the government to give universities like Mandalay more independence, thus enabling them to have enhanced credibility in the academic world. I have little doubt that I will return to Mandalay University soon, as its journey in the coming months and years will be exciting as it is challenging.
About the author
Mat Carney is Coordinator and Researcher at the Centre for ASEAN Studies at Chiang Mai University, Thailand.