I wrote a blog about the city of Yangon last month. I visited there in February, and quite liked the city. It is a vibrant city, busy, without being threatening. I met some teachers there too whose company I really enjoyed, as well as a number of other people. We talked about teaching, complained about students not studying enough—in other words the usual things.
Yangon is the commercial capital of Myanmar, and a five million person (or so) island of bustle and tranquility, albeit one where the ubiquitous Asian motorcycle is banned. I would recommend it highly for tourists. Despite the country having an extremely powerful army running the government, there was little evidence on the street. Nor many police officers, or other evidence of repression. After writing that blog, I promised myself to write something else about Myanmar though too. You see, I teach in a PhD program in Peacebuilding, in which students from Myanmar often tell me about the brutality of the army which has engaged in 70 years of war in the highlands, and most recently expelled 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in what has been called ethnic cleansing. It is just that I didn’t see much evidence of that in Yangon itself.
Much of the highland part of Myanmar is now in a “ceasefire” between the government troops, which has taken advantage of this situation to turn its guns to non-ceasefire areas, like where the Rohingya lived until recently (as well as areas to the north). Today I had two students in my PhD seminar. One of the students is principal of a small college in one of the refugee camps. I asked him how his school is doing now that the summer (April-May) break has begun.
Student 1: I sent the students off to do internships
Me: Where did they go?
Student 1: They are going to do internships in some of the Karen National Union Schools, some of which are deep inside Burma. We have a Facebook page for them! (he showed it to us).
Me: What are they going to do there?
Student 1: Assist with the schools—different kinds of activities in the elementary schools. Internships. Assist with church programs. They have to write a paper when they are done.
Me: How do they get there?
Student 1: They travel deep in side Burma which is a problem, because they do not have passports from Burma, only travel documents issued by the Karen National Union (KNU) which are supposed to be recognized under the National Ceasefire Agreement. I just hope that they are really careful and wise.
Me: Will the be arrested and put in jail if they get caught on their way to their college internship?
Student 1: If they are lucky.
Student 2: They could also be hanged. Or shot.
Such fears are of course very real in Karen (and other) societies which have been at war and attacked for seventy years. Will the Ceasefire Agreement hold, and the KNU documents recognized by all the various units of the Myanmar army? I guess you don’t know until you try. But experience tells my students that the costs of making a mistake, or being foolish can be quite high. And even if Yangon is peaceful, such fears are very immediate and real. Just don’t be foolish, and try to be wise.
I wonder what the Risk Management office in my home university in California would think of this policy?