Taking the Leap for Changes: A new phase for Burma/Myanmar Studies in ASEAN

“One of the major challenges for Burma is the rushing economic wave as the country is seen as Asian last frontier for business. This creates another gold-rush manner where foreign businesses are rushing to come in to seize opportunities in particular on natural resources extraction,“ said Khin Ohmar, a Myanmar Human Rights Activist from Burma Partnership.

Dr. Thidar Htwe Win from Mandalay University pointed out that the  development  and  unity  of a  village depends  on  the  head's  management. “When a strong leader leads the community, the community will be also strong. But if the leader is weak  the  development  and  unity  of  the  community  will  decrease,” she said.  In addition, there is little opportunity for leaders to do development, there is no formal meeting among the social groups so that there are no clear linkages to economic, education and health development of the community within these traditional social networks.

Aung Naing Oo, from Myanmar Peace Center said: “No matter how good the government is, their job is not reflected positively because of the bureaucracy.” He explained that the followings are the big problems that Myanmar is facing: corruption, vested interests, low exposures which can slow down everything. “These are the things that should be taken into account,” he argued.

These are just three of countless notable remarks on Burma/Myanmar in Transition.  As the country’s opening up, it is consistently bringing more connectivity and challenges ahead. Rapid economic wave meets the traditional community/social network as well as the bureaucratic reforms were on the spotlight to ensure that the country is not undergoing just any kind of changes, but instead, a smooth transition.

There are misunderstandings and wrong perceptions towards the real situation in Myanmar. “Not everyone get the updated knowledge and information about Myanmar. Before I assumed my duty, I got many distorted information that need to be clarified,” said H.E. Pisanu Suvanajata, Thai Ambassador to Myanmar who spoke at a 3-day conference, ICBMS 2015.

The International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies 2015: ”Burma/Myanmar in Transition: Connectivity, Changes and Challenges was held at University Academic Service Center (UNISERV), Chiang Mai University, Thailand from July 24 - 26, 2015.

ICBMS 2015 attracted numerous academics, students, scholars, researchers, journalists, and NGO workers. In total, there were 380 registered participants from Southeast Asia as well as those from other parts of the world, in which 130 participants were from Myanmar.

It was the first International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies to be held in Thailand and moreover in ASEAN. Ambassador Pisanu appreciated the fact that this was not only timely but very much relevant.

After 49 years under direct military rule, Myanmar’s opening up to the international world in 2011 has made its growing importance to the region and also international academic arena. Prof. Dr.  Maung Thynn, the Rector of Mandalay University noted the educational reform progress that is on-going that has allowed Myanmar Universities and Rectors to be able to sign MoU without reporting or seeking approval from the Ministry as what occurred in the past.

“This has enabled us to make new cooperation between Myanmar and foreign universities, maintaining progress for Myanmar University to ensure its success,” he said.

He addressed the theme of the conference: “Connectivity is important, somehow we were isolated from regional and international higher education and trainings, but now we can engage and collaborate more. Changes are manifested in positive transformations which mean that we cannot hide ourselves in isolationism and shut our academicians to latest trends in education sector, and Challenges will not go away by just ignoring them. The answer is by recognizing the issues and then to tackle the issue one at a time.”

When asked about the impression on Myanmar reform process, Dr. Thein Swe from Chiang Mai University  gave a positive remarks, he said:  “You have to be optimistic, you should continue to hold on to that optimism like a Scottish Proverb ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’.”

He said that in the past he thought that his generation might die without seeing reform takes place in Myanmar. ”When I was asked what it is at the end of the tunnel, it was dark. But now at the end of the tunnel, we see a fickle of light, so let us try, try and try to keep that light to be brighter for a beautiful golden Myanmar.”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sunait Chutintaranond, Dean of Graduate School, Chulalongkorn University saw this conference as a milestone conference that connects Myanmar to the globe to be internationally recognized. 

From his experience of doing Myanmar Studies, he noted that in the past, Myanmar Studies used to be only inside the country and in the western world. “But there was not much connection between Myanmar Studies conducted inside the country and Myanmar Studies developed in the western world but today, we have a new center in ASEAN and furthermore in Asia, a new academic arena,” he said.

The second point was about academic freedom, he said: “Without this, we will not have a good future for Myanmar Studies. In the past, Myanmar Studies were conducted in a kind of non-academic conditions such as imperialism, nationalism, western-centric, and Myanmar-centric. “

What does the future holds for Myanmar studies? He said: “We will see multi-approaches; we will see studies conducted by scholars from multiple backgrounds, nationalities and disciplines. Not limited for scholars who are graduated from the US or UK but also young scholars who graduated from this region, this will create new picture and new future of Myanmar Studies.”

Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, RCSD’s Director expressed his sincere thanks to Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung as well as other supporters of for a positive collaboration for the successful conclusion of the conference and look forward for more future cooperation. He announced, there will be possibilities for papers presented to be published as proceedings or books.

“And remember the first International Burma/Myanmar Studies (was) in Chiang Mai.” he said.