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Students measure Myanmar’s embrace of democracy

Sule pagoda at night - ©istock.com | watid

The Sule pagoda — located in the centre of Yangon — is surrounded by busy streets, a market, the Supreme court building and Yangon city hall. ©istock.com | watid.

A recent research expedition to Myanmar gave U of T student Eros Grinzato a taste of how much things have changed since democracy came to the country in 2011.

Conversations with a wide range of people, including the Canadian ambassador, NGO staff and young citizens, attest to a country undergoing a dramatic shift where some are beginning to exercise democratic rights for the first time. One young woman told Grinzato how much she hates the government. “Public comments like this were unthinkable just a few years ago, for fear of landing in jail,” he said. “People really do feel they can speak more freely and think differently now.”

Grinzato was one of 10 students visiting Myanmar, also known as Burma, for meetings with people involved in both democratization and peace-building initiatives, and leaders of parties representing ethnic minorities who will be running for positions in the upcoming November elections. They also met with representatives of state-run, private and international media outlets, leaders of large multi-national and small local businesses, as well as students and faculty at the University of Yangon.

“Many people stated that it’s better now from a professional and personal point of view,” said Grinzato. “Some NGO leaders noted it is easier to get their organizations recognized and operate legally, while before they had to do so in secrecy. People are generally very political and have quickly taken to the Internet and communicating widely about anything in their lives.”

The students also found opportunities to speak with members of the next generation of political activists, bloggers and filmmakers, collecting input from the widest range of local actors involved in the changes.

“The trip consolidated our understanding of many of the theories about authoritarianism, democratic transition, peace-building, ethnic politics and economic liberalization that we had been considering in class,” said Contemporary Asian Studies and history student Anthea Snowsill. “How these factors interact in Asia and Myanmar in particular, provided me with a strong foundation to analyze and evaluate our observations and interactions in Yangon.”

The students were in Myanmar as part of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s International Course Module (ICM) Program. The program provides the opportunity to add a short international learning experience to an undergraduate course.

Only eight days long and with a jam-packed research agenda, the Myanmar ICM was intense.

“Despite the highly compressed nature of an ICM or maybe because of it the experience can be very meaningful,” said anthropologist Joshua Barker, who led the students with political scientist Jacques Bertrand. “We had enlightening conversations at all of our meetings, some of which continued via email and social media long after we returned.”

The students shared their findings upon their return with classmates, at a public event for the U of T community overall, and through several media interviews.

“Not only did the ICM help to amplify the in-class learnings for those who took part, other students who weren’t on the trip, got to benefit from the experience by proxy,” said Barker.

For Snowsill, the experience brought her to the realization that there is a complex relationship between the ways in which the rest of the world is trying to understand how the country is changing, and the ways in which people within Myanmar comprehend the changes themselves.

“International sanctions are being lifted, and foreign companies and governments are looking to engage with Myanmar in new ways,” she said. “Notable endorsements of the reforms being implemented in the country are indicators of an increasing perception outside Myanmar that its developmental trajectory is aligning with liberal Western ideological beliefs.

“The other side of that is actors within Myanmar are compelled to demonstrate clear and measured progress in order to continue to attract investment, and internalize Western discourse about development and democratization sometimes to a fault. It is occasionally criticized as performative for the fact that the process precludes local knowledge and expertise during this time of change.”