A group of ANU students became the first group of international students to meet with Myanmar’s Minister for Defence, during a two week study tour of the former military junta. We spoke to two of the students, Tom Murphy and Claudia Mooney, for their thoughts on the course, and life in a country fast transitioning towards democracy.
1. Why did you choose to take The Political Economy of Myanmar?
Claudia: I’m very drawn to South-East Asia; I find the region compelling and fascinating, and Myanmar particularly so. The course was a rare opportunity to gain insights into the nation’s remarkable transition from those close to its centre.
Tom: I left for Myanmar knowing very little about it. I knew that it was a very poor country, and that it had significant challenges with its non-democratic governmental system. I took the course because I wanted to learn more about the country’s history, culture, and people.
2. What did the course involve?
Tom: Over two weeks our group of 11 bachelors and masters students met people who are heavily involved in the political economy of Myanmar. We met with people from parliament, the electoral commission, small business, the Myanmar Peace Centre, the Myanmar Times, the United Nations Development Programme, the Myanmar Institute for Strategic and International Studies, and the World Bank. We also met with students from three different universities.
Our highest-profile visit was with the minister for defence; we were the first group of international students that the ministry had authorised. We walked into the meeting room under the impression that we would be meeting with only the minister, and so were very surprised (and slightly intimidated) when the minister entered the room followed by 15 generals.
Claudia: It was two weeks of crowding onto buses and in and out of arctic air conditioning, three or even four dense and incredibly interesting meetings every day, and learning more than I thought it was possible to learn in a fortnight.
3. What was the highlight of the course?
Claudia: My highlight came at Shewsandaw pagoda in Bagan. There was this moment after I’d just hauled myself up the impossibly steep stairs, sweaty and spent, and I stood up and looked out and the view was simply breathtaking. There is no other word to describe it.
Tom: The highlight for me was the links we made with the university students there. Myanmar’s students have historically been extremely repressed by the government through police harassment, government bombing of the student union building, and university closures. Undergraduate degrees were also cancelled, with no new students admitted for several years. Today, students living on campus have curfews (6pm for women, 9pm for men) and there is no student union.
Despite all of this, the students we met were progressive, intelligent, and highly engaged with their studies. They were optimistic about their country’s economic and political future. Facebook has taken the country by storm as the nation’s primary source of social media engagement. I now have several new Myanmarese Facebook friends!
4. What was the most surprising aspect of the course?
Claudia: I’d known we’d be meeting with some high-level officials, but I don’t think I’d quite understood the magnitude of what we were doing until our day at the Hluttaw (parliament) in Naypyidaw. That we got to meet with the defence minister – an active member of the armed services – and ask him about the military’s gradual withdrawal from power in Myanmar is mind-boggling to me!
5. How was the food in Myanmar?
Tom: I think you can tell a lot about a country by the food you can find. I have travelled through Asia and the outside influences on Myanmar are truly unique. Sandwiched between China, India, Thailand and Malaysia, on the same street in Yangon you can find dim sum, biryani, tom yum and roti. The ethnic minorities living on the country’s borders also bring their own cultural spin to Yangon food – you can see this in the diverse range of noodles, soups and stews sold on the street.
6. What was the most challenging aspect of the course?
Claudia: It was a lot of work. I usually ended the day physically and mentally exhausted after three or four meetings, and then there were dinners most nights and some coursework to complete. But it was all absolutely worth it.
7. What did you gain from completing the course?
Claudia: I’ve gained insights into Myanmar’s political and economic transformations from some of the people driving them; connected with the next generation of leaders in Myanmar, the inspiring and dedicated students who are determined to help their country; seen some of Myanmar’s breathtaking beauty; and learned things I could never have learned in any classroom or as a tourist.