This is a transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi’s video speech on academic freedom. The video was presented at a British Council and University of London policy dialogue event on 9 May 2013 as part of a UK study tour introducing senior Burmese policy-makers to the UK higher education sector, as they work on plans to redevelop Burma’s universities. The tour was organised by the British Council.
The moves to draft a law on higher education in Burma and to revitalise Rangoon University have to do with much more than mere education. It is really part of our efforts to revitalise and reinvigorate our society. For decades, Burma has suffered from a poor education system and, once the pride of South East Asia, we have now fallen behind all our neighbours. We want to change the situation to give our people pride in themselves and, to do that, we need to strengthen our education system. We need to produce vigorous young people who are capable of meeting the challenges that our country will have to face in the future.
Our university system has almost been destroyed by half a century of military rule. Campus life ceased to exist several decades ago, and standard of our university education has fallen so low that graduates have nothing except a photograph of their graduation ceremony to show for the years they spent at university. We want to make our academic institutions independent. We want to make them vital and we want to modernise them to be in keeping with the developments of the times. We have to learn from everybody because we have fallen so far behind. We are now planning to send two study groups to the United Kingdom to see how we would be able to revitalise our universities, and to draw up a higher education law that will help us to achieve what our young people have been trying to achieve for decades. A country in which we are capable of carving out our own destiny, because we have been educated, we have been trained, we have been equipped to deal with whatever the future might throw at us.
What we need to learn from you is so much that I will not go into the details now. What I would like to ask of you is to support us in our efforts, to tell us what we should do, to take a shortcut to an education system that will enable us to face the 21st century and centuries to come. At one time the education system in Burma was very closely linked to the education system in Britain. In fact, we could say that modern education was introduced to Burma by the British government. Now we have to learn all over again. We have to learn not only from you but from other countries in the world who have managed to change their education systems to deal with the demands of modern times.
Academic freedom, which to you seems natural, is for us a distant dream. Or let me put it this way, it would have been a distant dream but for the changes that took place over the last year. As a member of the legislature I have been appointed to the Chair of the committee for the drafting of the higher education bill as well as the committee for the revitalisation of Rangoon University. I would like to use these opportunities to once again establish Burma on the map of countries with an admirable system of education.
The very first thing we need to do, which perhaps may come to you as a surprise, is to recreate campus life. Our young people have not known campus life for decades. The focus of the military government was on maintaining discipline, not on providing education. Young people gathering at a university campus were considered dangerous. They were looked upon as would-be demonstratrors, young troublemakers who would demand the fall of government. Of course, young people like to voice their opinions and also to oppose what governments do if they think that governments are not doing what they should be doing. But to try to destroy campus life in order to keep our young people quiescent is to destroy the future of our country.
There are no residential universities in Burma. Added to this, hostels are not allowed to be built within the vicinity of universities. These are steps deliberately aimed at keeping our young students separated from one another that they might not gather together and become a force for change, Which young people need to be. We need to transform Rangoon University into the kind of institution where young people can learn life skills, social skills, where they can lay the foundations of the kind of destiny they want to carve for themselves and for our nation. Starting with that, we want to provide them with the highest educational standards possible, not just in our region but in the whole world. We have to be ambitious. We have been left so far behind that we have to aim at the highest peak, that we may be able to catch up with our neighbours and with the rest of the world.
I believe that the study tours that are being planned will help our committee to learn what is possible, and how to achieve it. Perhaps I could go further and say that we should also be prepared to achieve what seems impossible now but what we must make possible through our efforts and through your help and support.
Please help us to put Burma back on the map of those countries where education is enjoyed by as many people as possible, and the education that they enjoy is one that will help not just our country but the world to build a happier human society. Thank you.
Visit the British Council Burma website to see our offer.