Prior to the historic election of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi in 2015, myself and 6 other students from around the world were invited by the National League for Democracy (NLD), then the opposition party, to travel to Burma to provide testimony to the federal parliament on the model tertiary funding structures of our universities. Two Macquarie students were selected to represent Australia: Myself and Nicola Amys. Attached to this program were personal meetings with student union leaders, NLD party officials and, of course, Daw Suu herself to influence the protest movement and legislative votes at the time. Burma was going through great turmoil as the government proposed to de-centralise funding to all universities, which would result in further fragmentation and division in access to education. Protests, mainly lead by the youth and students, were breaking out all across the country, with potentially deadly consequences in the military junta’s response.
I must note that writing this document retrospectively is an interesting experience. Not only am I a GLP alumni, but the cause we were fighting for, and indeed the political party we were helping to support while we were in Burma, have now been in power for almost two years to date.
From the very outset our trip was frought with unforeseen difficulty. Due to the lack of support from the ruling party, our visas were left unprocessed in Australia, and we arrived at the airport without a working visa into the nation. At risk of being sent back home, we managed to secure one at the airport sponsored by Aung Shwe, communications secretary of the NLD.
My first impression journeying into the city struck a similarity to the systemic poverty I’d seen on a previous visit to Kaesong, North Korea, but with more bustle, lights and infinitely more traffic.
After visiting the Australian and British consulate in Yangon, massive changes to our itinerary came arose. The military government were blocking our access to visit the universities directly, and as such we had to speedily book and arrange students and union members to fill out community centres and town halls to facilitate our meetings. Double-booked hotels due to miscommunications also arose, and it was at the generosity of Macquarie University that funds were taken from our books as opposed to the speciality fund organised by the NLD. The next day, a 6 hour journey left us in the nation’s capital, a desolate myriad of empty highways, hotel rooms, airports and buildings called Naypyidaw.
Here, we met with government and opposition officials. In a closed room meeting with the Ministry of Education, we gave testimony on the importance of British, American and Australian funding models of education that standardised curriculum, educational standards and resource allocation. Upon meeting with the shadow ministry, we were each lucky enough to meet Daw Suu and her assistants, to ask questions and gain insights into the operations of an effective opposition.
The next few days were devoted to speaking to university student union leaders, holding collaborative forums on how they protested their rights, personal stories of their plight for funding equality, and for us to provide model examples of the effectiveness of the Australian tertiary education system. Stories of hardship pulled on my heartstrings as I sat face-to-face with students my age speak of their struggles: Frim Megwe, a rural, undeveloped area of Burma, students spoke of a healthcare system so poor that people die of heatstroke so commonly that it is estimated almost a sixth of the state’s youth are orphans. Ex-student union members sat in 45 degree cells in political prisons for arbitrary charges with indefinite sentences as we sat in our comfortable chairs.
What struck me the most was the persistence of the opposition to fight for the interests of the students. On the other hand, the military government would intentionally cut out electricity to certain areas to prevent midnight meetings of protest so the students would light candles. Members would suddenly be taken away as political prisoners, and the second in command would pick up the flag. Students would lose friends and parents, rallying on social media as a direct response.
While the testimonies of each political prisoner, student and government official were at times harrowing, inspiring and confusing, it is the strength and iron resolve of these people will stay in my mind for the years to come. Being able to play a small part in a positive overall collective action is a unique sentiment I will likely never be able to repeat.
A special thankyou must be given to the following individuals for making my trip possible. Professor Sean Turnell, academic at Macquarie University and personal economic advisor to Daw Aung Sun Syu Kyi spearheaded this operation and was there to assist us at every stage. Joe Fisher from the British embassy helped formulate our itinerary, and assisted in arranging our meetings with all the ranking members. Zeya, who gave us an outline of his personal ascension to power within the NLD, and the years of prison he had to endure to helped support the power finally in power. Our trip caught the attention of the National Burmese and Chinese media, despite the low-key attribute of the delegation.