Academics, students and activists from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and around the world were among those who attended the first Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies at Chiang Mai University from 24 to 26 July.
The conference was jointly organised by Chiang Mai University’s Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) and Mandalay University over the previous nine months.
Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, the director of RCSD, explained how the collaboration came about.
He said: “We thought that if we wanted to do something about Burma studies we should work together with a Burmese university. It so happened that we know Mandalay University so we asked them to join to be co-hosts.”
The conference consisted of 53 panels and roundtables where academics, NGO workers and activists presented academic papers, research work and findings before participating in question and answer sessions and discussions with the audience. There were also photography and painting exhibitions, documentary screenings and book launches.
A wide variety of topics were covered. Amongst others there were panels covering politics, development, human rights, religion, foreign aid and powers, migration, art and culture, media, health, environmental issues and ethnic issues.
Two of the most interesting and popular panels were the ones covering the peace process between the ethnic armed organisations (EIOs) and the government.
Speakers for those panels included: from the government side, Aung Naing Oo of the Myanmar Peace Centre; Johannes Siebert of the Common Space Initiative who advised the EAOs and helped them draw up a draft ceasefire; and Sai Leik who compiles the annual Myanmar Peace Monitor, which details the whole peace process and all the actors involved.
More representatives from the EAOs were due to talk, but unfortunately they could not attend because their meeting in Chiang Mai to decide whether to accept the latest draft of the nationwide ceasefire had overrun.
In his closing speech Dr Chayan said the conference was not just academic and that he preferred to see at as “academic activism”. He explained: “I don’t see that this academic conference can be divorced from local community, be it in Thailand or larger scale in the region.”
Dr Maung Thynn, the rector of Mandalay University, said that for many years Burmese academics have been isolated from the rest of the world, but now, with events like this Burma studies conference they are becoming less isolated and communicating with people around the world.
He also explained that the collaboration with Chiang Mai University went beyond just the conference. He said: “We also have an academic exchange, a student exchange, a staff exchange, research cooperation and collaboration.”
Dr Chayan said that the RCSD holds a regular Burma Forum every two months where they would invite speakers such as academics, NGO and CSO workers to talk about and discuss Burma related topics.
He said: “In the future we would like to adopt this model and do it in Yangon or Mandalay.”
Following the success of this first conference on Burma/Myanmar studies the event organisers are going to discuss plans to hold the next conference at Mandalay University in two years time. They would like to see the conference become a regular event every other year.
In his speech at the close of the conference Dr Maung Thynn expressed his hopes for future conferences and collaborations.
He said: “We would like to change not only the higher education sector, but also the other educational levels and also political, social, health and economics [sectors].”