Foreign lecturers to tutor Burma opposition

Staff from universities in Hong Kong and Singapore will travel to Burma later this month as part of a programme by the political opposition to boost the academic capacity of its members.

A series of courses have been held at the Rangoon headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in recent weeks that include journalism and training for farmers, and which will wrap up at the end of June.

A week-long political science course is due to begin on 20 June, NLD spokesperson Ohn Kyaing said, and will accommodate four members from the more than 300 nationwide branches it has.

“Training courses will be conducted by lecturers from Hong Kong University and Singapore National University, as well as professors from Institute of Southeast Asian Studies,” he said, without giving details of the identity of the tutors.

But the content may irk the Burmese government, which keeps a close eye on any sort of organising by the opposition. Among the modules on offer are political transition and examinations of constitutional laws, two very sensitive issues in Burma.

Although the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi has never shied away from voicing its desire to see reform in Naypyidaw, particularly since controversial elections last year, any discussion of transition can be met with hefty punishment: Maj-Gen Hso Ten, chairman of the Shan State Peace Council, was sentenced in 2005 to 106 years in prison on charges of high treason after he organised a meeting allegedly to discuss governmental change.

The constitution, which was rushed through in the wake of the 2008 cyclone Nargis became official in March, has been dogged by controversy, with analysts accusing it of enshrining political impunity and denying equal rights for ethnic peoples.

Oversees academics have also fallen victim to the government’s almost pathological suspicion of foreigners: in 2009, two US citizens were deported after delivering workshops on photography and feature writing at the US Embassy-affiliated American Centre in Rangoon. They claimed at the time that their work had been approved by the censor board and police intelligence.

The NLD’s journalism workshops, the first of which ended on 22 May, have been led by the party’s co-founder Win Tin, a veteran journalist who until his release in September 2008 was Burma’s longest-serving political prisoner. Burma has some of the world’s harshest media laws, and keeps nearly 30 reporters behind bars.

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