Yangon, Myanmar – Once a hotbed of political subversion, the old foundations of the Rangoon Student Union now sustain a grove of trees that sway sleepily in regimental rows. A student sits on a wall nearby, leafing through a text book.
The old building was blown up in 1962 by the first of Burma’s secretive military juntas that steered the country through decades of misrule and eviscerated its once-prestigious higher education system.
Half a century and a name-change later, the leafy avenues of Yangon University are crawling with the first crop of undergraduates to study a curriculum free from the interfering hand of the military.
Until recently the word “poverty” was banned, alongside any discussion of domestic politics at the University.
After an outburst of student-led protests in 1988, the political science department was shuttered. Further protests ten years later led to the shut-down of all undergraduate teaching, but things are now changing.
“We have full autonomy,” says a beaming Kyaw Naing, a rector at the school, two weeks after the university re-opened its gates to undergraduates in December.
A government largely composed of retired generals took power in 2011 and, to the surprise of many outsiders, began a radical political and economic reform programme they called a transition to “disciplined democracy”.
They ended pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest and began releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
As a result, the West suspended or lifted most of their trade and economic sanctions, heralding a cascade of frontier investors sniffing fresh opportunities.
US President Barack Obama made an historic speech at the university in November 2012, hailing the country’s “remarkable journey”.
Observers say the government’s objective was to yank the South East Asian country out of isolation, away from an increasingly overbearing Chinese influence and into the 21st century.
Founded in 1920, Rangoon University became known as one of the best in Asia, commensurate with Burma’s former position as a regional powerhouse, but the institution’s misfortunes have matched that of the country.
The campus has long been a hive for nurturing political dissidents and intellectuals, beginning with those striving for independence from Great Britain in 1948.
In 1988 the student uprising broke out because they were unhappy with the educational system and economic development
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, rose from the ranks of the Student Union to lead the charge for sovereign rule, but was assassinated six months before realising his goal.
“He wanted our country to become the most developed country and he wanted democracy. After he died the country was not democratic,” says Kyin Ya Mone Zawa, a 17-year-old international relations student.
She is one of an initial intake of 15 students in each class, but the university has now decided to re-open the campus dormitories to allow 50 students in each major, bringing total enrolment to 1,000 for the year.
Fearing unrest, the junta closed the dormitories in the 1990s and forced students to attend classes dispersed on campuses across town.
As one of the first batch of new undergraduates, Zawa says she wants to become a politician or an ambassador, fulfilling the hopes of both her father and that of the reformist government seeking to foster a new generation of intellectuals.
“One of the plans is to nurture outstanding students,” said Zaw Myint, deputy director general at the Ministry of Higher Education. “This is a great change at Yangon University.”
In 1962 the revolutionary council led by President Ne Win began to dismantle the academic establishment, replacing political science with study of the disastrous “Burmese Path to Socialism”, a programme that ran the country into the ground.
Once the largest rice exporter in the world, Myanmar is now one of the poorest countries in East Asia with a per capital income of $1,200, according to the World Bank’s most recent data.
Under the generals the faculty system collapsed and foreign professors stopped visiting.
“The education system wasn’t very good,” says Chaw Chaw Sein, head of the international relations department and an artist of understatement.
She proudly announces she was part of the 1988 generation, a student group who spearheaded the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations which culminated in a bloody military crackdown that left hundreds, possibly thousands dead.
“In 1988 the student uprising broke out because they were unhappy with the educational system and economic development,” she says, resplendent in an indigo skirt and blouse, the colour worn to identify lecturers.
Despite its abundant academic failures, the socialist experiment wasn’t devoid of virtues, Sein says. She credits a socialist literacy program for helping cultivate a nation of book-worms.
|Average annual income in Myanmar is about $1,200 [Al Jazeera]|
Second-hand bookshops spill into the streets across Yangon and, according to World Bank figures, Myanmar has an adult literacy rate of over 90 percent, on par with Turkey, a country with a per capita income almost nine times larger.
Even so, decades of Western isolation and a vandalised education system will make it difficult to execute the government’s democratic rebranding.
“There is a generation gap between those talented ones and (us), the new students with a new government system,” says Ye Yint, a political science undergraduate.
“We are changing and developing gradually… we will have to watch what happens in the long-term.”
Sai Khaing Myo Tun, secretary of Yangon University Teachers’ Union, says people in Myanmar profess a desire for democracy, but don’t understand the ingredients of liberalism.
“We were taught to memorise things, not to categorise them, to analyse them, or criticise them. It’s let our younger generation be left behind other countries,” he says. “We were taught to believe what is in the text book and that has a great effect on the society.”
Although the education budget has tripled since 2011, Myanmar’s expenditure remains far lower than its Asian peers.
As a journalist, freedom to stroll around the University would have been impossible a couple of years ago and it is a mark of progress made. But an attempt by Al Jazeera to walk around the grounds of the former Student Union is cut short with a shrill whistle and frantic gesticulation from security guards.
Disciplined democracy, it seems, has some way to go.