The Rangoon University I Know / ကၽြန္ေတာ္သိခဲ့ေသာ တကၠသိုလ္ျမကၽြန္းသာ

By Kanbawza Win | 27 November 2012

I could not hold back my tears as I witness the live transmission of President Obama speech at the Convocation hall of my beloved Rangoon University.

Exactly half a century ago to be precise on 7th July 1962, the Myanmar Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) has turned the centre of learning to the killing fields and is still doing today in the ethnic dominated areas, especially in Kachin and Arakan States. But President Obama’s excellent speech has instills us with hope and at least it is trying to bring back the uncivilized Myanmar Tatmadaw back to international civilization, which the ethnic nationalities has been doing all these years. I clearly recollect that fateful day, I was just a young student residing at Taungoo Hall when I witnessed the Myanmar army soldiers mercilessly shot the young students (I used the word mercilessly because I personally saw that when a student’s younger brother was hit he yelled at his elder brother who come to help him up and he too was shot in the breast and the two brothers died arm in arm) and since then the country has gone down to the bottom of the world and shunned by the international community.

The Myanmar Tatmadaw especially the commanding generals hates the Universities and its students because they saw them that they have the potentials to produce more enlightened and educated young people who will surpass them in every aspects and hence all these 50 years they killed, the students, closed the universities and institutes of higher education. Tatmadaw knew that democracy cannot flourish in an education vacuum and has targeted higher education to sustain them in power. The Myanmar Tatmadaw still believes that universities are the birth place of dissent against autocratic rule, and so rather than developing a quality education system as a means of building Burma's human resource base, the Myanmar Tatmadaw have sought to subvert education in Burma for their own purpose - to retain power in perpetuity. The military regimes has bonded the rights to education as a hostage to be always held in captivity and pursued a policy of separating and isolating students. Universities were sent to remote places and the curricula was lowered resulting in sub-standard education, critical lack of teaching facilities, unskilled teachers, and lack of job opportunities after graduation, corruption and bribery.

The people of Burma were very much satisfied with the choice of a venue which Obama choose, the Rangoon University convocation hall, a remarkable political environment that intertwined with the country’s destiny, a sacred place where during the time of the former Junta even try to sell it to Singapore via their cronies (Teza). In contemporary history of Burma, Rangoon University is famous for integral to civil disobedience throughout unfair authorities be it foreign or locals. The practice of mass demonstration initiated by the university students sustained also after the country’s independence. Remarkable student-led protests were occurred in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1974, 1988 and 1996 respectively.[1]

“I came here because of my respect for this university. It was here at this school where opposition to colonial rule first took hold. It was here that Aung San edited a magazine before leading an independence movement. It was here that U Thant learned the ways of the world before guiding it at the United Nations. Here, scholarship thrived during the last century and students demanded their basic human rights. Now, your Parliament has at last passed a resolution to revitalize this university and it must reclaim its greatness, because the future of this country will be determined by the education of its youth.”[2]

By choosing the University of Rangoon as his dais, Obama helped the campus to be liberated not only the country from the clutches of the Myanmar Tatmadaw but has encourage education and has regained its liberation and that modern education for young generations.[3] The struggle of the Students and Rangoon University cannot be separated and has lived up to its motto of “Even though my head is bloody yet I am unbowed” We hope and pray that next time if any US President ever visited Burma, he should give his speech at the new Rangoon Student’s Union Building (still to be constructed blown up by the Myanmar Tatmadaw in 1962).

“Just as education is the key to Americas future, it is going to be the key to your future as well. And so we look forward to working with you, as we have with many of your neighbors, to extend that opportunity and to deepen exchanges among our students. We want students from this country to travel to the United States and learn from us, and we want U.S. students to come here and learn from you.”[4]

The US has practically follow it up when nine top US universities and colleges have formed an academic partnership to help Burma rebuild its higher education.[5] This will be galling to the Myanmar Tatmadaw. May be our dream of sharing our wisdom and knowledge to the country’s youth before we breath our last, may materialise, as we (my better half and I) are tired of teaching in the Western Universities where most of our pupils are Caucasian (white) or coloured (black) and seldom finds any Burmese (yellow) students, even though the quasi military government or the NLD has not tap at the resources of innumerable Burmese academics and professionals in Diaspora.

But it is a fact that after two generations the marauding uncivilised Myanmar Tatmadaw has come to realise that they will soon lose the country’s independence as it tends to become the vassal of China, if not an autonomous region of greater China as they had to depend not only for arms and ammunition but also diplomatic support. Hence the only option is to appeal to America and so they shed their uniforms and put on the longyi (Burmese Sarong), make some semblance of democracy and welcome President Obama. This is the crux of the story of Obama going to Burma, at least from the Burmese perspective. On the other hand President Obama is trying to strike a balance between praise and pressure, something that the realpolitik faction of his administration will celebrate, when we know that the US is more worried about China and North Korea than democracy and human rights in Burma.[6]

Burma has started to change from the pariah to find a seat among the civilized nations but the one institution not touched by the reform process is the Myanmar Tatmadaw, it shows its intention of continuing its carnage as even as I am writing a Burmese military delegation headed by Deputy Commander-in-Chief Gen Soe Win visited China’s largest bi-annual defense exhibition in the Zhuhai with the aim of purchasing more arms to eliminate the ethnic resistance forces. yet the US has already extended a hand in its direction.[7] Isn’t a still rapist Myanmar Tatmadaw marauding in Northern and Western Burma with its ethnic cleansing policy?

The Deputy Defense Minister Aung Thaw told Reuters that the Myanmar Tatmadaw has no plans to lessen its clout in parliament where a quarter of seats are occupied by military officials according to the Nargis Constitution. The simple question is how can there be a functioning democracy in Burma, if the Myanmar Tadmadaw still view the ethnic nationality as somewhat the necessary evil of the country where he is destined to live forever and that it is his unbounded duty to lead him to civilization. It construed that the Myanmar Buddhist community led by Myanmar Tatmadaw has a bounden duty to show the real civilization of the Myanmar people over the Non-Myanmar and finally lead him to Theravada Buddhism on to Nirvana.[8] This superior hypothesis led to the senseless killings of Muslims in Arakan State, and Christians in Kachin State and is diametrically opposite of what President Obama said

“Among the four freedoms laid down by President Roosevelt is freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. We could not realize one without realizing others…freedom of worship as you please, not everybody worship in the same way, there are pagodas, mosques and Christians churches standing side by side...

No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation. You now have a moment of remarkable opportunity to transform cease-fires into lasting settlements, and to pursue peace where conflicts still linger, including in Kachin State. Those efforts must lead to a more just and lasting peace, including humanitarian access to those in need, and a chance for the displaced to return home.”

Change is happening in the upper levels of government but the lives of the people are largely the same as before.[9] Dr Zarni said, Thein Sein’s reforms “are largely geared towards creating a `late developmental state’ along the lines of Vietnam and China. Sadly, the West and the rest alike are choosing to overlook the apparent pitfalls of Burma’s reforms, ignoring the cries of the wretched people Burma and Burma is still remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.” According to the World Bank Report almost one third of the people of Burma are living under the poverty line.

Burma’s failure to contain sectarian violence in Arakan State and hold accountable those responsible calls into question the Burmese government’s stated goal of becoming a rights-respecting, multi-ethnic state. [10] In fact the government is using Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s image as a democracy icon to promote and protect their way of reform. Their strategy is one of using your enemy’s good name to reach your own objective. It is just a “window-dressing” reforms to please Western governments and enable the lifting of sanctions.[11] There are more civil liberties in the cities but these are not guaranteed in law, and human rights abuses have actually increased in the past year. However, the changes so far have been enough to persuade the international community to rush to relax pressure and normalize relations.[12]

“I have confidence that as you do that you can draw on this diversity as a strength and not a weakness. Your country will be stronger because of many different cultures, but you have to seize that opportunity. You have to recognize that strength.”[13]

But in practice systematic hate speech and entreaties for the local population to isolate and attack the Muslim minority are pervasive in Arakan State and worst the Tatmadaw actively participate in attacks against innocent men, women and children. An entire people are under attack not because of what they have done but because of who they are.

Moreover, just because Than Shwe and the other top generals have formally retired does not mean they are not pulling some strings from behind the scenes. He had seeded the ruling party with hard-liners who will make sure that any reforms proposed by Thein Sein or Suu Kyi don't get too far, too fast. If the NLD were to win the 2015 election, these hard-liners, through the military's seats in parliament, could squash it completely. In addition, the constitution still gives the military the right to step back into power if it feels it is necessary, in the case of a national emergency, thus essentially offering the possibility of a coup at any time in the future. While the old guards and senior officers retired with considerable wealth, younger officers did not get a chance to amass significant assets before the transition. These middle-ranking officers may find themselves without a job, and without the access to government funds and natural resources and like Thailand, can stage a coup when under the pretext of mild unrest. Such a pretext is not hard to find in an ethnically diverse country where conflict remains rife. Already, many Burmese believe that the army is meddling in events in Arakan helping to stoke anger and violence between Buddhists and Muslims resulting in a greater deployment of forces in Arakan State and just like the past, the Tatmadaw was accused of summary executions, forced labor, rape as a weapon of war, and other atrocities when it inserted itself into ethnic conflicts. [14]

Burma's economic reforms also hardly guarantee that Burma will enjoy growth that actually benefits most people. The majority of investment is oil and gas sector, hardly known for its transparency or for broadly benefiting large numbers of locals. Yet some Western countries try to please the military by calling a chauvinistic name of Myanmar supporting the theory that dictators can change the name of the country and flag without consulting the people just to get a an economic pie. Hypocrites cannot support the Burmese democracy movement.

Economically some manufacturing and textile firms, of the kind that have powered broad-based growth but the poor infrastructure will most likely keep the majority of companies away and the transport costs rises. Transparency International ranked Burma as the second most corrupt nation in the world. This clearly indicates that higher-tech firms will also likely shy away from investment in the country because of the country's low levels of education.[15]

For two decades the former military regime shuttered the finest Universities students to prevent students from gathering for protests, so even though the country has a young labor force, its skill level is on par with the poorest countries in Africa. There are only a handful of well-educated young people skilled in information technology, communications, or management and have no plans to tap the Burmese Diaspora, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Burma. Many parts of the country bear a closer resemblance to an African country like Rwanda or Angola emerging from years of severe civil strife, with low-level insurgencies still flaring in outlying regions. The legacy of war and government mismanagement for more than half a century lacks basic physical infrastructure -- electricity, usable roads, and rails. Worse, unlike Vietnam or China, the Burmese government still has little control over many large areas of the country, making investment in these regions -- which also happen to be the center of major oil, gas, and mining deposits -- extremely risky. And neither the government nor the NLD has come up with a workable plan for creating an effective federal state system in one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has miss stepped time and again, finding it difficult to make the transition from activist to politician, served by a staff with little training in the basics of policy-making. She have little grasp of economic policy-making, and even less of a handle on how to enact policies that would ensure long-term foreign investment and protect investors from the types of nationalizations that have crippled the country in the past. A May Suu also seems to have become far more reticent to speak out on rights issues as she has become an active politician. She has done almost nothing to try and heal the rifts in Arakan State or Kachin State, earning severe criticism from many rights activists around the world, as well as from Muslims in Arakan State itself. With A May Suu refusing to take a strong public stand, aggressive and xenophobic Buddhist groups across the country have taken control of the conversation about the Arakan crisis, and have prevented many aid organizations including IOC and MSF.

The one thing which I definitely know is that as long as Myanmar Tatmadaw continue to wield power, the country cannot progress in any respect and I like to endorse Thein Sein’s theory that there must be only one army which must be a Pyidoungsu Tat (ျပည္ေထာင္စုတပ္) a federal army and not the bullying Myanmar Tatmadaw to defend the country from external forces and not to suppress the Non Myanmar.

[1] Linn; Zin President Obama rejuvenates Rangoon University of Burma 20-12- 2012
[2] Speech of President Obbama at the Rangoon University
[3] Linn; Zin President Obama rejuvenates Rangoon University of Burma 20-12- 2012
[4] Text of President Obama Speech
[5] K Jha Lalit Universities Launch Higher Education Initiative for Burma Irrawaddy 21-11-2012
[6] Lintner;Bertil, numerous writings.
[7] Wade;Francis, Obama to Burma Propelling Reform or Legitimizing Abuse EuroAsia Review 20-11-2012
[8] Win;Kanbawza The raison D'être of Obama Going to Burma Asian Tribune 19-11-2012
[9] Myint;Soe Chief Editor of Mizzima
[10] Adams.Brad Human Rights Watch
[11] Mizzima Soe Win remarks
[12] Mark Farmener of Burma UK Campaign
[13] Obam speech
[14] Foreign Policy USA 24-11-2012
[15] Ibid

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