Helping Education to Keep Pace with Reform
By DAVID I. STEINBERG Monday, March 12, 2012


RANGOON—Burma is opening to the world. This is apparent in filled hotel rooms, crowded aircraft and increased prices. But the openings are far more broad. Journalists have been allowed in, and the pervasive censorship that marred the media and publications has been largely relaxed—the limitations of the residual censorship are said to be eliminated later in 2012.

Ever more scholars have been allowed into the country. This is a vast improvement—the most positive intellectual developments in 50 years.

Yet for half-a-century scholars in Burma have been denied the ability to write honestly on aspects of their own society, and foreign academics have had only limited access. Most often their books have been banned.

This has unfortunately deprived those Burmese who can read English and other foreign languages of some of the controversial and nuanced views of their own society, history and foreign affairs. It is indeed difficult to form policy under these conditions. The Burmese who cannot handle complexities in foreign languages have been continuously deprived. Education has suffered.

Burma is not alone with this problem. Many other countries have experienced the same misfortune. But one group took action to mitigate this deficiency. Some 40 or so years ago, a Dutch-American
intellectual noted this issue in Indonesia. Indonesians had little access to modern works describing their own society, which were generally written in English.

With a modest grant, he founded OBOR, a foundation (yayasan) composed of Indonesian intellectuals who would chose books on their country to be translated into Bahasa, and then sold. The proceeds then would be used to finance further translations. The project was so successful that a number of other countries copied the OBOR model for their own societies and languages with great success.

With the anticipated end of censorship in Burma, the time might be appropriate to consider establishing a non-profit Burma entity registered with the government, but independent, to translate and publish salient works.

Intellectual property rights would not be violated as international presses would be delighted to see their offspring published in Burmese. The choice of the works to be translated would rest with this intellectual Burma board.

Such works would offer hitherto unavailable views on Burmese society and developments that would be invaluable to those who, even if they read English newspapers and magazines, would not attempt to wade through some hundreds of pages of dense prose. Those works chosen would be selected by some criteria determined by the Burma OBOR board.

Many years ago, the U Nu government established Sarpay Beikman, a program to translated self-help works into Burmese for the undereducated population. A noble effort, but it had many problems. A Burma OBOR, however, would be quite different—addressed to the educated and socially aware population that can only get such works if they are smuggled in and often surreptitiously read.

If, as President Thein Sein has instructed, education must be improved, and as plans progress for reforming higher education, the materials produced by a Burma OBOR could be instrumental in
improving education on Burmese society and Burma’s foreign relations.

When societies open to the external world, as Burma is now doing, it is not only in economic and foreign investment, and it is not alone in increased foreign aid. Essential to the process is intellectual growth and an understanding of one’s own society and how that society has been viewed from abroad. A Burma OBOR would be a step in the right direction.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume (with Fan Hongwei) is Modern China-Burma Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence. (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, April 2012).The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Irrawaddy.

Tom Tun Wrote:
There is only one sick patient with acute disease, but there is thousand doctors. In the end the patience did not die with disease but prescription over dose. Are Burma disease and many doctors such as Steinberg and South any difference?

Ohn Wrote:
Education is important to understand the wider world and people so that one can fit in, get adjusted to it and make use of the knowledge.

English language does not have the monopoly of the education but it is perhaps currently most used and therefore most useful.

Ohn Wrote:
The biggest Social Engineering in human history by Mahathir Mohammed involved sending about 20,000 students a year to English speaking country and current Malaysia is the proof of the success.

While it is well advised to educate oneself by all the available means, after working for 25 years in academic circles in three different English speaking countries as well as in Burma, personally, my grandmother who never went to school, was the wisest person I have the honor to have contact with. She did read of course in Burmese.

There is knowledge and there is wisdom. Wisdom does not require university credentials or language ability or urban upbringing or broadband iPAD. The reverse is also true.

People can tailor what knowledge public is exposed to as suggested in the article.. But the wisdom comes from within.

tocharian Wrote:
Most younger people in the West get most of their information from the Internet, for example I read most of the newspapers on-line nowadays (not to mention making comments lie this one!) and of course everyone uses Wikipedia. I do remember using libraries funded by the British Council and the USIS (a defunct name) when I was a kid in Burma during the 50's. The key issue is free access to information and adequate literacy (including knowing a few foreign languages) and numeracy.

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