When I first came to Myanmar in 2006, information still travelled in secret. Rumours were conveyed in teashops, magazines were smuggled into the country, and international news was accessed through proxy servers in backstreet Internet cafes. It was almost impossible to own a mobile phone, as a sim card cost US$2500. A bookseller on Pansodan Street told me quietly about his prized Myanmar copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The once prestigious University of Yangon had been emptied of its undergraduate students, sent out of the city to study in other universities and colleges around the country.
I remember visiting the British Council's library, teeming with students and filled with books from all over the world, as well as books about Myanmar and Southeast Asian politics and history. Along with the American Centre and Alliance Française, it seemed to me one of the few places in Yangon where the exchange of ideas was openly encouraged, and where events brought students, artists, and writers out to gather in public. As a historian, I've long been fascinated by temples of learning - schools, libraries and universities - places where knowledge thrives. As a centre for global education, the British Council has been a small but important part of the social history of modern Myanmar, and points to the willingness of its people to engage with the wider world, even when it was most difficult to do so.
Histories of Education
The pursuit of knowledge has been a feature of Myanmar society for centuries. Myanmar was long known to have high rates of literacy due to the education provided to boys by Buddhist monasteries. The court of fifteenth-century Mrauk-U in Arakan welcomed Japanese samurai, Bengali poets, and translated works from Persian and Hindi. As European empires stretched their tentacles across Asia in the nineteenth-century, Myanmar's modernising king, Mindon Min, and his princes consumed ideas, believing that knowledge was power. They sent their children to school in India and beyond, read and financed English-language newspapers, and delved into new fields of science and technology.
The violence of colonial occupation in the nineteenth century was followed by decades of rapid social change. The colonial government, as well as new merchant firms, required skilled talent, meaning that English education was the key to lucrative employment and social mobility for Myanmar . Missionaries and colonial officials opened Christian as well as ‘lay schools’, providing education to girls as well as boys. In cosmopolitan Yangon, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, and European communities opened their own schools for children of multiple faiths. Pioneering Myanmar educators combined the teaching of Buddhist religious principles with modern science.
In 1920, Yangon University opened with the support of donations from all sectors of Myanmar society. Initial plans for the university were fraught with arguments between Myanmar barristers educated in Oxbridge and London. When plans for a residential, Oxbridge style system were announced, students instigated a large-scale boycott, seeking to make higher education more widely accessible to those who could not afford the high cost of residential fees.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, nationalist movements emerged across Asia. Students used the languages and ideas they learned as a mirror to their British colonisers, who equated 'Britishness' with notions of liberty but refused to give freedom to their colonial subjects. Colonialism and the onslaught of Western ideas threatened to overshadow the richness and diversity of Myanmar culture, but English also became a vehicle by which students, legislators, writers, and aspiring leaders could read about other cultures and international politics, and make their voices heard.
Britain, Myanmar, and the World
Anti-colonial movements emerged all over the world in the wake of the First World War. No longer ‘the empire on which the sun never set’, Britain faced a crisis of political and cultural legitimacy in the 1920s and 1930s. With the rise of Hollywood, the success of the Russian revolution, and the growing industrial power of the Meiji Empire, it was America, the Soviet Union, and Japan who provided new models to emulate. Learning from the French, who established the Alliance Française in 1884, the British government established in 1934 the ‘British Committee for Relations with Other Countries’, later shortened to ‘The British Council’.
After the Second World War and Myanmar's independence in 1947, a broken Britain returned to Myanmar not as a coloniser, but as a partner on the international stage. Previously, Myanmar students in government schools had to swear allegiance to the King, learn English songs, and read British history. But in the post-colonial era, cultural influence had to be earned, not imposed.
Britain faced stiff competition from the rest of the world to make an impression on the new nation. When the first British Council officer arrived in 1946, the Americans had already set up a U.S. Information Centre, featuring a library and reading room well-attended by university students. Throughout the Fifties, there were visits from the Moscow and San Francisco Ballet, African-American opera singers, Chinese intellectuals, Philippine artists, and Japanese performance troupes. Myanmar musicians, dancers, and intellectuals went abroad on cultural missions. Young, urban Myanmar read magazines and took part in film workshops and seminars provided by various embassies and cultural institutions.
In an atmosphere of Cold War competition, the British Council built its foundation in Myanmar. It strengthened its relationship with universities, focused on the teaching of English at university level, trained English teachers and journalists, and gave adult education classes. It provided foreign scholarships, established libraries, screened films, and worked closely with the Ministry of Education. The British Council’s key partner, Yangon University, was at this time one of the best in Asia, attracting students from all over the region.
Meanwhile, outside Myanmar's cities and along its new border with Thailand, civil wars raged. The aftermath of the Japanese occupation had left the countryside in disarray, and ethnic minorities dissatisfied with their place in the new nation. The Myanmar parliament descended into political factions. In 1960, U Nu invited General Ne Win to take over government temporarily. In 1962, Ne Win’s military government seized power for the next two and a half decades.
Under Ne Win’s government, nationalism reigned in its most extreme form. English-educated Indians, Anglo-Myanmar , Indo-Myanmar , and Sino-Myanmar , many from the civil service, and others whose businesses had been nationalised, left the country. In response to a student protest, the Yangon University Students' Union was blown up, and the university temporarily shut down. In 1964, after the university’s re-opening, all the teaching had to be in Myanmar . A generation of Myanmar educators used to teaching in English suddenly had to come up with a new curriculum in Myanmar , including inventing a Myanmar vocabulary for scientific terms.
That year, public performances were banned and libraries maintained by foreign missions were ordered to close. Fearing confiscation of its books, British Council librarian Monica Mya Maung hid 200 precious titles across the Embassy. In 1966, the British Council was expelled from Myanmar, along with all other foreign cultural organisations. Western influence declined, while Myanmar's relations with the Soviet Bloc grew. Ten years later, in 1977, the British Council was called back to Myanmar on account of Ne Win’s perception of declining English standards. (Rumours circulated that the general’s daughter had failed to obtain a university place abroad). It opened as the cultural section of the British Embassy, with Monica Mya Maung's rescued books forming the core of the library.
In 1981, Ne Win reversed his earlier decision and made English the main language of instruction at university. Again, a generation of teachers schooled only in Myanmar had to suddenly come up with a new curriculum in English. The drastic changes imposed on Myanmar's education system caused havoc and confusion, especially for students made to learn in languages unfamiliar to their teachers.
One year later, in 1982, the British Council officially reinstated their offer of scholarships for Myanmar students to study abroad. Throughout the 1980s, the library remained active and a Teacher’s Resource Centre was opened. The British Council also managed the Overseas Development Association’s programmes in Myanmar on education and natural resource co-operation. It sponsored study tours for doctors and civil servants to come to England for educational visits, and worked closely with the Fisheries Corporation and Forestry Department to conserve the fishing and forest industries, under threat from large-scale trawling and logging.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s, the Myanmar economy plummeted and student protests began to escalate. In 1988, a clash between students and police escalated into the first mass democracy movement in the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's nationalist hero Aung San, had returned to Myanmar from Oxford to take care of her mother, and became the unifying symbol of the movement and the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The government announced that elections would be held and established the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). SLORC waged a campaign against the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, complaining of Western intervention into local politics. The NLD’s landslide victory at the election was immediately ignored, and SLORC reasserted its authority as a military regime, suppressing dissent and keeping the country under martial law.
After the crushing of the democracy protests and the failures of the election, Myanmar's image abroad was at an all-time low. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Exile groups and human rights organisations began a campaign for severe Western sanctions to be used against Myanmar.
Education suffered in response to the events. Universities were closed and students were jailed or forced into exile. Teachers, seen as responsible for instigating the students in 1988, were duly punished through ‘refresher courses’ modelled on rural re-education camps in the People’s Republic of China.
Throughout the 1990s, the British Council moved cautiously, maintaining a policy of quiet engagement, focusing on supporting education and building relationships with civil society groups within the country. In 1996, it re-opened its Teaching Centre, providing a training programme for English teachers in both the state and non-state sector. It maintained regular contact with women’s groups, the Attorney-General’s office, the Ministries of Forestry, Education, Information, and Health, radio and television industries, and Institutes of Economics, Archaeology, Medicine, Foreign Languages, and Education at Yangon University.
In 1997, SLORC was replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ the government of corruption and give it more respectability as Myanmar prepared for ASEAN membership. Severe Western sanctions took hold during this time, as foreign companies pulled out of Myanmar, arguably reducing Western leverage in the country. Myanmar, instead, turned to China, Russia, India, and its ASEAN neighbours.
As relations with the West grew increasingly strained, the British Council assisted ordinary Myanmar with access to information, books, English, and internationally recognised UK qualifications. It opened an office in Mandalay and helped establish a network of libraries throughout the country, expanded its Yangon library and teaching centre, and launched diploma courses with the Open University. In 2005, as the Internet boom took hold in the rest of the world, the British Council offered one of the few sites in the country where Internet access was provided to the public.
From around 2003, the British Council focused on engaging with a new generation of leaders in Myanmar. It began a series of courses on economics, the environment, gender, and human rights that gave aspiring politicians, educators, activists, and ethnic minority leaders resources to reflect on their society and its institutions in wider and international perspective. It also offered a space for conversation clubs, started in 2005, for ethnic groups to meet, discuss, teach, and learn from each other in a safe environment. Through the British Council's library, a local volunteer network began engaging in fundraising and community initiatives, from working with street-children and the elderly to teaching English at orphanages and schools for the disabled. Participants of all these initiatives continue to be active in politics, the private sector, and in civil society today.
In 2007, thousands of monks protested on behalf of the public on the prohibitive costs of living for ordinary Myanmar in what Western media sources dubbed the ‘Saffron Revolution’. Myanmar saw the rise of ‘citizen journalism’, as videos and photographs were broadcast via the Internet to the world. The failures of the movement to enact political change left many in the country disheartened, as international organisations searched for avenues of support.
When Cyclone Nargis tore up the delta in 2008, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and millions were left homeless. In the wake of such a devastating event, an extraordinary volunteer effort followed. Monks and monasteries channelled aid through their networks, while students, artists, and taxi drivers drove out to the delta with bags of food and clothing. Gitameit, an independent music school, turned into a rapid relief centre, while photographers went out into the delta distributing food and documenting stories of the hungry. Nargis also provided openings for renewed relationships with the United Nations, Western countries, and ASEAN partners seeking to provide humanitarian assistance.
During this time, the British Council's DFID-funded Pyoe Pin programme, launched in 2007, began supporting grassroots civil society organisations all over the country, particularly to improve the lives of the poor. These engagements lay the foundations for work with farmers’ and fisheries' coalitions, HIV/Aids networks, teacher education groups, and journalists, as well as improving access to justice through mechanisms like legal aid. From 2011, Pyoe Pin focused on strengthening relationships between civil society groups, government and the private sector to support collective action on policy reforms.
In 2011, under the leadership of Thein Sein, the Myanmar government undertook a series of reforms, including loosening restrictions on the country’s media and releasing a number of political prisoners. Slowly, international organisations and businesses began arriving back into the country, providing new opportunities, as well as challenges, for ordinary Myanmar. Thousands of Myanmar sought to learn and refine their English skills. Funds, training programmes, and opportunities emerged for civil society organisations operating in an increasingly more tolerant political environment.
In 2013, the University of Yangon began accepting undergraduate students, now allowed to choose their own major. A university professor told me recently that some of the students have better English skills than their teachers because they have been able to go to the British Council and American Centre to access the Internet, books, international media, and language resources; traditionally these were sites where the university faculty, as government employees, were not allowed. But today, opportunities for university faculty to travel, access resources, and engage in partnerships with foreign scholars and institutions may help to make the country's universities world-class institutions once more.
I noticed drastic changes in Myanmar from 2012, with posters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and exile news magazines like the Irrawaddy being sold in the stalls of downtown Yangon. New bookshops and art galleries sprung up around the city, with writers starting new literary journals and magazines. Today, half of Myanmar's population now owns a mobile phone and can freely access the Internet. Information, ideas, and languages from around the globe are all at their fingertips, as young and old openly discuss and debate the trajectories of the future. After a long, tumultuous journey, circuits of knowledge in modern Myanmar now flow not in secret, but through open channels to the wider world.
Su Lin Lewis is a historian based at the University of Bristol. Her book, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia is out in summer 2016.
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps (Faber, 2007)
Thant Myint-U, The Making of Modern Myanmar (Cambridge, 2001)
U Kaung, “A Survey of the History of Education in Myanmar Before the British Conquest and After.” Journal of the Myanmar Research Society 46:2 (1963).
See Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Myanmar (Hawaii, 2014)
See Su Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, 2016).
Philip M. Taylor (1978). ‘Cultural Diplomacy and the British Council: 1934-1939’, British Journal of International Studies 3:3, pp. 244-265.
Oral history interview. U Thaw Kaung with the author. April 7, 2016.
Michael Charney, A History of Modern Myanmar (Cambridge, 2009), p. 178.
Charney, p. 184.