The pathway to change in Myanmar has not been a simple one, with riots, religion and reformist ideals clashing openly and often since the process began back in 2011. Yet despite the many bumps in the road, real progress is being made, with the University of Melbourne one of many external organisations helping build capacity in the country formerly known as Burma.
Long-time opposition politician and peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi has frequently described education as one of the keys to the country’s security and development. Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr went a step further and declared that Australia would be the largest aid donor to Myanmar with programs focused largely in education.
Professor Simon Evans, Pro-Vice Chancellor (International), says this state of play has led the University to take a much closer look at both the existing and future opportunities that exist for academics in the country.
“The University is well positioned to support research and capacity-building work in Myanmar, through our own researchers’ engagement with development agencies and collaborators on the ground, and also through the relationships that Asialink and its Myanmar Business Taskforce have cultivated,” he says.
“An exciting further development is the Australia Myanmar Institute which seeks to facilitate engagement by the broader higher education sector in Australia.”
Part of the University’s response has been the creation of a seed-grant program to provide support to Melbourne academics keen to engage in capacity building programs in Myanmar. The five projects that received funding covered a range of research areas, from teacher education and geology through to infant health and the law.
“Overwhelmingly, the response has been positive from all stakeholders both in-country and internationally,” says Professor Tim Lindsey, one of the grant recipients and a Melbourne Law School academic who is co-editing a book with alumnus Dr Melissa Crouch on the impact of recent reforms on the legal system in Myanmar, the first of its kind.
“Democracy is not just about elections,” he says, “and we need to look at the legal system to find out how society is really transforming. This book will fill an obvious gap – it seemed very important to provide a detailed look at what’s happening on the ground in law and policy.”
Professor Lindsey’s hope is that the book will be useful for everyone involved in the reform process in Myanmar, not just the lawmakers.
“Politicians, aid workers, foreign investors, academics and, yes, lawyers … I’m hoping they can all pick up this book and that it will help them make the decisions they need to make.”
Being able to make the right decisions is also behind a project led by Dr Angus Campbell of the Mackinnon Project at the Faculty of Veterinary Science. The grant he received is going towards a project on building capacity for improved livestock production and disease control.
“The grant has enabled us to bring together the people working at the coalface of this work in Myanmar and get them to share their experiences,” Dr Campbell says.
One of the biggest challenges vets and farmers face in Myanmar is the almost complete absence of veterinary involvement in sheep and goat production. Improve this, he says, and you improve household production.
“Our idea is that by bringing these experts together, it will improve the resources and technical expertise they have in animal production,” says Dr Campbell, whose project will also involve Myanmar’s University of Veterinary Science and the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries.
“It’s important work as the Central Dry Zone in the middle of Myanmar is in a fragile agriculture area – with a variable climate and short growing season – so there’s only modest cash crops available and food security may be threatened by climate change.
“While we’ve already carried out extensive village surveys where we hope to work, the big challenge for us so far has been that communication lines are very difficult, due to politics but also culture. So this grant will not only allow us to hold a workshop for the right people to share expertise, but also allows us to trial a different model of communication.”
In some projects there have already been tangible outcomes. Professor Beverley-Ann Biggs from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences received funding for a project supporting more research into the health of Myanmar’s women and children, particularly those infants in their first 1000 days of life. In July Professor Biggs led a Maternal and Child Health seminar in Myanmar to help raise awareness for the need to support policy-focused research in this area.
“These are vital aspects to maternal and child health that focus on the formative years of a child’s life, from conception to two years old,” she says. “What happens during this time is critical both for a child’s development and in preventing chronic diseases later on, in everything from cardiovascular issues to chronic fatigue.
“If we can raise the profile of these issues then the next step is to try and come up with plans and strategies to address problems.”