After over a century, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) will eliminate its Professor of Burmese position, leaving the future of the historic program uncertain.
While SOAS declined to comment on the Professor of Burmese position, the university’s press office told DVB, “we can confirm that we continue to teach Burmese within the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at SOAS.”
The university’s decision, while not publicly announced, was made known through social media and a petition from the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre. In the petition, the centre implored the university to reconsider, lauding Justin Watkins, who currently holds the professorship, for his contributions to the program. Watkins declined to speak at this time.
“We…are horrified to learn the news that SOAS has decided to cut the post of Professor of Burmese,” the petition reads.
“This is a devastating, short-sighted decision, to the ultimate detriment of the scholarly endeavours and institutional vibrance of SOAS as well as to the fields of Burma/Myanmar Studies, Southeast Asian studies and Southeast Asian linguistics in general.”
The petition will be submitted to SOAS Monday and has nearly 1,000 signatures, including former students of the program, professors, researchers, and those working for nonprofits globally. Luke Corbin, a member of the Myanmar Research Centre, says that beyond the specific reduction in number of classes, this is a loss felt in the Burmese language community as a whole.
“This is also symbolic professorship with a tremendous legacy behind it– and Justin does so much outside of the UK as well,” Corbin told DVB, adding that he worked with Watkins to manage intensive Burmese courses within Myanmar the last six years.
John Okell, who previously held the Professor of Burmese position, was widely recognized for his accomplishments in language learning through audio technology, and Burma-U.K. relations after teaching the language in multiple countries. He passed away in 2020.
Many journalists, educators, and activists point to the timing of such a decision. As the Burmese people and their supporters have been in the midst of revolution against the February 2021 military coup that upended the country’s transition to democracy, they argue the need for Burmese language education has never been so vital.
Kenneth Wong is a popular Burmese language professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He uses contemporary art and memes created during the coup in his classes to help students learn the language, but also to help them understand Burma’s complex politics.
“I think it’s all the more important right now if we really want to understand the root causes of the coup and the ongoing tug-of-war between the different stakeholders– to understand the language so we don’t draw some simplistic conclusions about why the coup is happening,” Wong said.
“In order to do that, people really need to invest time and study the language so they understand the nuances of what people are saying.”