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Commentary: Where are Burma's scholars and educated people?

Naing Ko Ko

Jan 15, 2008 (DVB), Many contemporary Burma scholars and analysts have been pessimistic about prospects for democratization in Burma. Now, academics need to use their knowledge and work with activists for democracy in Burma.

Before Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution, many Burma-oriented essays, conferences, seminars and articles were being produced by Burma scholars and experts, and regular Burma Update conferences were held at Singapore National University, Australia National University, Winston Park Talk, Charleston Park Talk and so on.

Many of these were characterised by wishful thinking, false assumptions and fatalistic assessments suggesting that Burmese democratization was a fallacy, a Titanic bound to founder. The ruling military junta was seen as the only sustainable power-holder in Burma, as though nothing could counter the junta’s power, so, they said, let’s do business with the military regime. In addition, these Burma analysts claimed that there was a lack of strategic leadership in the Burma democratic movement both internally and externally.

To move beyond the present disjunction between such academic scholarship and the development of Burma’s political landscape, we need to rethink strategically what it means to be a scholar in modern Burma, and her educated sons and daughters need to practise their moral responsibility to society.

If the Burma-watchers' statements were accurate, why didn’t they formulate an alternative winning strategy for the Burmese context? Which Burma experts and activists predicted the Saffron Revolution? Were there any prophetic articles, essays and conferences presaging what took place in late 2007?

The term "Burma scholars" used to embrace many respected scholars, such as John Sydenham Furnivall, J A Stewart, Gordon H Luce, U May Aung and U Pe Muang Tin, Saya Zawgyi, U Khin Maung Latt, Saya Min Thu Wun, Dr. Hla Pe, Dr. Than Tun and others, who were globally well known and had expertise in their disciplines, scholarship and knowledge.

However, in our contemporary period from 1988 to 2008, how many true Burma scholars have there been? Are they applying their advanced knowledge to Burma’s democratization process? How many of them are beacons to inspire the new generation to become well-educated?

The Burmese democracy movement needs to analyse the contribution of such Burma scholars who were born with the 1988 democracy revolution. You may argue that, based on liberalism’s rational choice theory, it is a choice whether to support the movement for Burma’s democratization or not.

But let me rephrase: the role of a modern scholar obviously includes developing knowledge, but must also extend to integrating and applying that knowledge through teaching, application and sharing knowledge with society. Even "google scholars" are helping millions of people to get more basic and academic knowledge around the world.

In the real scenarios on Burma’s political horizon, she needs all the multidimensional scholarships and professions of her native sons and daughters. Let’s look at the history of grand revolutions: almost every system-change, power-shift and revolution has been led by well-educated leaders, interpreted as Antonio Gramsci’s "counter-hegemonic agents" or "social entrepreneurs".

There are many remarkable scholar-activists, political strategists and social entrepreneurs in this modern world. In most successful states, educated people have been either self-sacrificing or leaders in nation-building, statecraft and economic growth.

However, in the Burmese context, there is a huge vacuum of scholars, experts and professionals in Burma to draw up strategic, results-oriented policies to cure the country’s chronic tragedy and reveal the "Burmese road to democracy". Yet there have been thousands of Burma experts, scholars and professionals living in first world countries ever since General Ne Win took over state power in 1962.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions of people in Burma are brutally oppressed by the current military thugs. Thousands upon thousands of respected Buddhist monks have been disrobed and locked up by the military junta. Millions and millions of Burmese people have emigrated to hunt for dirty jobs on low incomes in neighboring countries, especially in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. An estimated 1 million internally displaced persons of ethnic nationalities are running away from persecution and atrocities by Burma army personnel.

Where are Burma’s educated people? Remember: the more educated you are, the more moral responsibility you have to society. You all have a moral responsibility to help the people of Burma get out from under this military oppression and build a knowledge-based society.

Now, following the Saffron Revolution, it is not the time to maintain the status quo or to argue with one another. In particular, it is not the time for democracy activists and scholars to be arguing. We are all are in the same boat. It is time to work hard to achieve winning strategies and develop results-oriented approaches for what the people of Burma need: peace, democracy, justice and national reconciliation.

Naing Ko Ko is a postgraduate scholarship student in International Relations at Auckland University, New Zealand, and a former political prisoner of Burma.


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