Yangon University is modelled on Oxford, but there are no dreaming spires

Mia Millman explores the history of university in Burma and imagines life without education

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Walking around Yangon, though there are the affluent areas and fast food restaurants that exist in nearly all big cities, these areas are few and far between. Poverty pervades in this former capital city to a greater extent than in many of its Southeast Asian counterparts. The military regime, though removed in 2013, has had lasting effects on Burma (also known as Myanmar) and especially on its education. In Oxford—in the UK in general—we take our right to an education for granted. For certain periods during the last 50 years, university education in Burma was neither a right nor a luxury—it did not exist.

Universities, especially large ones, provide an opportunity for political discontent to manifest and for groups to mobilise. Oxford has been at the heart of student unrest many times in the past. The University of Yangon, too, is a prime example of this: in 1988, the 8888 Uprising—which occurred on 8th August 1988 (8/8/88)—began as student protests at Yangon University. It was during these protests that Aung San Suu Kyi became established as a source of hope and possible future leader of the country. In the aftermath of the uprising she co-founded a pro-democracy party, of which she remains president, that governs Burma today. This infamous uprising protested against the socialist autocracy which, with General Ne Win as leader, had ruled the country since 1962. The immediate response to the uprising by the government was a massacre of protestors. Officially, several hundred died as a result of the 8888 Uprising. Unofficially, the number was in the thousands.

The immediate impact of the uprising was clearly devastating, but the long-term impact can still be felt today. In response to the uprising, to prevent further mobilisation, the government shut down both Yangon and Mandalay University. The exact length of time for which the universities were closed is ambiguous, due to censorship. It appears that the universities were shut twice: once for roughly four years, immediately after the 1988 protests, and again just before the turn of the millennium. A quick Google search suggests that the second closure was brief, but speaking to people residing in Yangon tells a different story. Of the many people I asked, very few could give me a specific answer. The majority of the conversations I had went something along the lines of: “When did they reopen the university?”, “Not long ago”,“How long ago?”, ”Not long”.

The clearest answer I received suggests that, while the university has officially been open again since roughly 2000, they only reopened the accommodation. It was only just before Obama’s first state visit in 2012 that the university began running graduate lectures and classes again. It took even longer for undergraduate courses.

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Though the main Yangon University central campus temporarily reopened in the 1990s, protests in 1996 again led to its closure and it remained intermittently closed for some time after that. Even at the bare minimum, using official figures which are likely to be an under-estimation, there are at least five school year groups who were not given the opportunity of a university education. International options at the time were equally scarce with the political regime barring most opportunities to leave and study abroad. Only the rare few in financially and politically privileged positions would have been a afforded the opportunity.

There was no option to look around at university open days, to have the dilemma over what course to apply for, to worry that you would not find the right university or that, when you found the right one, they would reject you—there was no university. By 1988, there were more than 50 universities established in the United Kingdom. Oxford had been established long, long before that. In 1988, Oxford was little different to what it is today. Oxford students still had their tutorials, went to bops, and were coerced into attending their JCR meetings with the promise of free food.

The University of Yangon, when established in 1848, was modelled on the University of Oxford. It had been one of the most prestigious universities in Asia. And yet in 1988, and the years that followed, it lost its prestige. There were no tutorials and no opportunities for formal education beyond school, not in that university nor anywhere in Burma. Yangon University was modelled on Oxford, but it had neither the same dreams nor spires.

Though Yangon University has been intermittently closed since 1988, it is no longer one of just two universities in the country. Even before the uprisings, the military regime converted the faculties into separate state-run universities which operated from the central campus, essentially functioning as a single university. After the closure however, when the government felt it safe to at least partially reopen, these faculties acted as separate universities. As the government refused to reopen the central campus out of fear of students mobilising once again, they opened these universities—now much smaller—in outer regions of the city. The university buildings were constructed quickly and in areas where there was little else other than these buildings. By keeping students separated, they prevented them from mobilising.

Decentralising the university, along with other actions by the government, has had lasting effects upon the quality of the education. When talking to people from Burma, though I could find little consensus on when the university reopened, one thing was clear—the education today still is not as good as it was before 1988.

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The government didn’t just employ this tactic of fragmentation with universities–the same was done with places of worship. Burma is a religious country with 87.9 per cent of people being Buddhist, the majority of whom actively practice the religion.

Despite the large number of practicing Buddhists, the tradition and its places of worship are fragmented throughout the city and country. This is at least partly to prevent groups being able to mobilise against the government. To see such blatant disregard of crucial aspects of society, of education and of religion, purely for the purpose of maintaining power is something hard to stomach. Regardless of whether we agree with our current government’s agenda, their actions are not solely motivated by a desire to repress discontent–they aren’t that self-destructive. The same cannot be said in Burma.

We can’t know for certain exactly how much of an impact the university closure had on the city, as well as the rest of the country, but it is not insubstantial. For many, the best education still lies abroad and, though getting a visa may be easier than in the 1980s, the financial burden of an international education means that only the richest have access to a good education.

There is some good news. Following the dissolution of the military regime in 2011, there has been increased autonomy and investment in Yangon University. In 2013, they even started welcoming back undergraduates for the first time since the 1980s. The university may remain fragmented but it is slowly being restored. The benefits of improved education will take time but the effects will be lasting. Who knows, in the future the university modelled on Oxford may hold a similar prestige.

For now, Burma remains a product of the past governments’ failures. Education is still considered a luxury and a novelty—it is an opportunity which large portions of the adult population missed out on completely. Yangon University had been deemed a ‘bastion of academic freedom’. Though the doors of the university are now reopened, opportunities for education are still limited.

Education is such an ingrained aspect of all our lives that the concept of its non-availability is unfathomable. We complain about endless reading lists and essay crises on a daily basis, but we all had the opportunity and privilege to choose them. We should be grateful that it is an essay deadline that we’re missing rather than the opportunity to study at all.