Senior management teams of 11 universities received capacity training through Transforming Higher Education Leadership and Management Project in 2017/18. Photo ©

Boothee Thaik Htun Photo/BritishCouncil adapted from the original.

August 2020

‘Only by our long connections and on terms acceptable to both parties can Britain forge closer ties with Burma and respond boldly to the challenge of a new age’ JS Furnivall, writer and historian

(Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India Cambridge University Press, New York 1948)

I first read those words in 2015 when preparing to take up post as British Council Director Myanmar. Five years later, as I prepare to leave my posting aboard a UN charter flight during a global health pandemic, Furnivall’s words still ring in my ears. 

In the sphere of international relations, it is true: only through long connections and on terms acceptable to both parties can the UK build relationships internationally, respond boldly to the challenges of new ages, and position ‘Global Britain’ for a fundamentally different 21st century landscape.  

Myanmar in 2015: all change?

In 2015 landmark elections swept the NLD government of Aung San Suu Kyi to power, closing a chapter of relative isolation and military government and bringing in a new phase of change.

Amid the hype and the excitement of Myanmar’s ‘triple transition’ of political, economic, and social reforms, many were hopeful at the ‘transformations’ the country sought.

Others were more cautious. Real and meaningful change, they warned, will take time and be the result of much struggle to overcome the deep divides and complex challenges the country faced.

Myanmar in 2020: plus ça change?

Five years on, there is much debate about the nature of change in Myanmar, the extent to which reforms are being implemented, and whether ‘change’ is happening at all.

The situation in Rakhine has strained relationships with the international community. More recently, the pandemic has required a huge nationwide response, adding further pressure to an already difficult set of circumstances. 

For Myanmar, dealing with COVID-19 is, like many other issues in recent years, a delicate balancing act. Working with the military while maintaining civilian oversight. Engaging with international partners while preserving national interests. It’s a fine line for the NLD government to walk. 

In parallel, as Myanmar emerges from relative isolation to re-connect with the world, it is experiencing momentous intergenerational changes. As described in Dr Su Lin’s essay Where Knowledge Thrives, and as evidenced in recent British Council research, Next Generation Myanmar, young people’s expectations about work, life and Myanmar’s place in the world are significantly different from their parents’. 

Our research found that while an overwhelming 90 per cent of young people in Myanmar say they are committed to continued reform and to sustaining the peace process, there is clear recognition of the challenges facing the country.

A quarter of the young people surveyed were unemployed, one in five reported being discriminated against due to religion or ethnicity, and many said there were few opportunities available for them to participate in the country’s politics.

One particularly telling finding related to young people’s feelings about security (perhaps not surprising given their country’s history): nearly 70 per cent of the young people surveyed said they valued security and welfare ahead of freedom.

In troubled times: the role of trust and understanding in international relations 

Amid the many challenges Myanmar is facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic, common themes emerge.

A trust deficit underlies many issues.

A lack of understanding and appreciation of different perspectives hinders the development of mutually acceptable solutions.

Situations are compounded at times by Myanmar’s international partners, many of whom struggle to understand the complexities behind the headlines. 

As a result, more traditional and formal interventions fail to gain traction as they lack the connections and mutuality Furnivall refers to which create the social capital for lasting and meaningful change.

Cultural relations, by contrast, with its long-term approach to building networks and trust, has continued to prove an effective way for the UK to forge understanding between people and institutions in Myanmar, even as challenges have emerged at the political level.

The impact of a long-term approach – difficult to sustain and even more difficult to measure – is something detailed in the newly released Cultural Relations Collection essay on soft power and civil society in Myanmar.

Scholar Ang Su Lin provides a historical and comparative analysis at the decades long relationship between the UK and Myanmar, demonstrating the reality of foreign cultural activity in Myanmar by the UK and other countries to adapt and change according to the political context and operational limitations.

What is evident is the importance of adaptability in periods of challenge in order to support people and institutions during and after moments of difficulty.

Building on ten years of British Council work in the justice sector in Myanmar, our EU funded MyJustice programme is finding new ways to help resolve social issues and disputes over land rights.

Elsewhere, our work strengthening the teaching and learning of English continues to open doors for people and institutes in both countries, enabling them to connect and exchange ideas. UK qualifications, delivered in all regions of Myanmar, are providing crucial opportunities for local and international mobility.

Even at the height of the Rakhine crisis, and with political relationships between the UK and Myanmar under great strain, the British Council’s engagement in Myanmar was undiminished. On the contrary, it was often the only channel through which dialogue could continue.

With each individual and institutional connection all sides benefitted from increased understanding which in turn paved the way for other political and trade relationships to develop. 

Mutual understanding aside, Myanmar is a good example of how cultural relations delivers bottom-line value for the UK, as evidenced by recent research on the link between trust and the propensity to trade. It supports the UK’s internationalisation agenda at home. There is huge benefit for UK teachers, university faculty, and young people across the UK to be connected internationally. 

In retrospect: a personal perspective on change

Reflecting on my recent experiences of the landmark changes in Myanmar, it seems that on one level change is easy. People create PowerPoint slides, they speak of ‘transformation’, they add a Gantt chart to demonstrate the ‘change process’ and voila! Change.

I’ve seen this a lot in Myanmar in recent years, particularly in the development community as international consultants bring their ‘best practice’ to Myanmar. Unfortunately this kind of change often confuses form with function and leads to little more than isomorphic mimicry. 

Lasting change rarely, if ever, happens in this way. We can’t capture it on PowerPoint slides or in Gantt charts.

Building trust and understanding often happens intangibly, behind the scenes. It happens in the many thousands of conversations that take place between people from different backgrounds. It happens in our hearts and in our minds. Only then can we create lasting outcomes. 

International relations, like many areas of our lives, will certainly be different as a result of the current pandemic. Furnivall’s words will, however, still hold true: ‘only by our long connections and only on terms acceptable to both parties’ can Britain forge closer ties internationally, and respond boldly to the challenge of a new age. 

Irrespective of the circumstance and challenges ahead, cultural relations will continue to be at the heart of the UK’s efforts to be a force for good, and position Global Britain on a rapidly changing world stage. 

Richard Sunderland, outgoing British Council Director, Myanmar

See also