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Undergrads return to crumbling Myanmar university

Wednesday - 12/4/2013, 10:50pm  ET

A woman walks near the entrance signboard of Yangon University in Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, a day before undergraduate classes reopen. Yangon University, which was once among Asia’s most prestigious institutions of learning, reopens to undergraduates Thursday, Dec. 5 for the first time in nearly two decades, finally emerging from a crackdown by military rulers who considered education a threat to their own supremacy. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

AYE AYE WIN
Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- The campus is overrun by a tangled web of weeds and vines. Many of the books in the open-air library are ancient, their pages yellow. Students will have to share a handful of donated computers and put up with slow-speed Internet, at least at first. And professors are struggling to catch up with developments in their fields.

This is Yangon University, once among Asia's most prestigious institutions of learning. It reopens to undergraduates Thursday for the first time in nearly two decades, finally emerging from a crackdown by military rulers who considered education a threat to their supremacy.

"It's a start," Thaw Kaung, one of the country's most respected scholars, said with a smile.

The junta that ruled Myanmar for half a century gutted education, which received 1.3 percent of the budget, compared to 25 percent for defense.

Education spending has shot up since President Thein Sein was inaugurated to lead a nominally civilian government, jumping from $340 million in 2011 to $1 billion this year. But experts say more needs to be done.

"We need educated people to run the country," said Thaw Kaung, an octogenarian in thick, black-rimmed glasses who long served as the university's chief librarian. "We can't just rely on foreign aid and experts. Without a university producing capable persons, it will be difficult to sustain development in the long run."

Foreign investors are eager to do business in this desperately poor nation of 60 million that only recently opened up to the rest of the world. They are no longer hindered by U.S. and European sanctions, but now must figure out how to deal with an enthusiastic but utterly unprepared work force.

Even finding English-speakers for five-star hotels can be a challenge, investors say, let alone business and information technology professionals, lawyers or accountants.

The onslaught on education in Myanmar began when Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962. Troops blew up Yangon University's Student Union because of protests and tightened control over classes. Soldiers stormed the campus again in 1974 to quell protests.

The biggest blow came in 1988, following the failed student uprisings that put a global spotlight on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta shut down urban campuses, seen as hotbeds of political dissent, and restricted what could be taught.

Yangon University produced many of Myanmar's leaders and its most famous dissidents and intellectuals, including Suu Kyi's father, independence leader Aung San. The school closed repeatedly for long stretches under the junta, and up until this week, only a handful of graduate students could be seen roaming the 200-acre campus.

"It's a dream come true," said 16-year-old May Thin Khaing, clutching the straps of her backpack as she looked for her name on the board near registration.

"My parents both went here in the 1980s and often spoke nostalgically about those days," said the teenager, who will study chemistry. "I hope I can feel the same sense of pride that my parents once enjoyed."

The school once had 60,000 students, but it's a long way from that now.

Initially, only 300 students -- 15 from each of the 20 disciplines -- were supposed to head to class on Thursday. Following criticism from academics and lawmakers, the number was boosted at the final hour to 1,000 -- or 50 for each discipline.

That left professors scrambling to prepare extra lab equipment and clean up vacant classrooms. Workers were frantically putting in light bulbs ahead of the reopening and sweeping away thick, dusty cobwebs.

Dr. Phone Win, a physician who heads Mingalar Myanmar, a group promoting education, said enrollment should be even higher: "Why only 50 for each discipline? Who came up with that number?"

He said that despite economic and political reforms in the last three years, the government maintains a top-down approach across almost every sector, including education.

"It's very hierarchial," Win said. The ministry is reluctant to give too much control to the university rector, and the rector limits professors' autonomy, he said.

"What these students need now is academic freedom," he said.

Students also may be skeptical that such freedom has arrived. Political science has returned to the curriculum, but so far only six students have signed up.

With urban campuses closed, 70 percent of the country's students have in recent years relied on distance learning, with graduation depending largely on their memorization skills. Others made long, daily commutes to newly built sterile institutions on the outskirts of bustling cities.

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