International Relations

Renewing ties to Myanmar

Burma was an up-and-coming democracy in 1954 when Johns Hopkins established its Rangoon-Hopkins Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Rangoon University. Burma had been independent from Britain for only six years, but it had already emerged as a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement, and Rangoon University's medical school was perhaps the best in Southeast Asia.

Founded by the newly established Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the Rangoon-Hopkins Center was staffed by a professor and a handful of Johns Hopkins graduate students who taught English, ran a library, and did research. But the center only survived eight years. It closed in March 1962 when Gen. Ne Win seized power. That July, after Rangoon University students protested against the coup, the military dynamited the student union, killing as many as 100 students inside. Those explosions became the overture to five decades of violent military repression and isolation.

And so the arrival of Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels in Rangoon (now Yangon) in January constituted a reconciliation of sorts between Johns Hopkins and Myanmar (Burma's official name since 1989). Daniels and colleagues from the provost's office, SAIS, the School of Medicine, and the Bloomberg School of Public Health had come to explore how the university might help Myanmar emerge from isolation and modernize. "The most striking thing," Daniels says, "is just the magnitude of the cost that the country has faced as a consequence of the decisions that it has made over the last several decades, just the unimaginable cost, the poverty, the sense of isolation, the low health outcomes."

Despite the country's isolation, ties between Johns Hopkins and Burma were never fully ruptured. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Burmese government sent students destined for the diplomatic corps to study at SAIS. Johns Hopkins scholars traveled to Burma when they could get visas. And in the 1990s, faculty from the Bloomberg School gave advice to various groups inside Myanmar, a country the World Health Organization in 2000 ranked as 190th of 191 nations for the quality of its health system.

In 2003, however, Myanmar stopped granting visas to some Bloomberg School faculty. Researchers moved to countries bordering Myanmar and began to provide cross-border medical care to ethnic minority groups that, embroiled in 50 years of conflict with the junta, had been cut off from even minimal health services. The researchers trained backpack medics not only to provide medical care but also to collect data inside the conflict zones; a 2006 survey by the medics found that one in five children died before age 5.

As the years passed, military oppression in Myanmar persisted. But then, beginning in the summer of 2011, something remarkable began to take place: top-down reform. The nominally civilian government that had taken power in March loosened press censorship, released some political prisoners, and sent peace envoys to meet with armed resistance groups. The United States acknowledged these reforms by sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Myanmar in late November 2011.

Weeks after Clinton met with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Daniels and his group met with them, too. They also met government ministers, military officials, academics, and activists. "Probably the most poignant moment came when we walked on the campus at Rangoon University, now Yangon University," Daniels recalls. "It's a campus that is overgrown. Several of the buildings are crumbling. There's a fraction of the students that were once there. You can see what was once the glory of Southeast Asia in terms of higher education."

According to Daniels, the decision to re-engage with Myanmar grew out of disparate discussions among faculty. When the Johns Hopkins contingent visited Myanmar, Burmese government officials named two priorities: health reform and institutional capacity building in government. "It turns out," Daniels says, "these are areas where we have lots of expertise."

On April 8, an 11-member delegation from Myanmar arrived at Johns Hopkins. Myanmar's minister of health, Pe Thet Khin, headed the group, which met with professors and students, aid groups, and officials from the State Department, USAID, and other agencies. In a talk delivered at the Bloomberg School, Pe Thet Khin, a British-trained pediatrician, described the quality of health care professionals in his country as "compromised" and said that his ministry's crucial task is improving maternal and child health. "To tackle all these problems, we have to have a strong, well-trained, and well-motivated health workforce," he said. But that requires money. "The economy, as you know, is not very good over the past 20 or 30 years, partly because of sanctions but partly because of some mismanagement, shall I say."

He also said that reform required that people think for themselves, particularly government officials, who are "so much used to asking for permission or orders from the ministers," he said. "The most difficult thing is to change our mindsets, but it's most important."

Daniels says that he sensed optimism in Myanmar. "You felt that despite what the country has suffered in terms of decades of authoritarian government, at the same time, there was this sense of hopefulness that they were turning the corner." To support Johns Hopkins' role in that renewal, SAIS and the Bloomberg School have landed nearly $1.3 million in pledges from foundations and other donors, all for projects in Myanmar.

Still, the future remains uncertain. Human rights abuses and sporadic fighting persist in some ethnic areas. Pe Thet Khin obliquely addressed this in an interview when he said, "I'd like to improve the health of the entire nation, all the ethnic tribes, all our brothers and sisters in the whole country. Delivering good health care is not just a humanitarian [project]. Equitable health care to all people helps our national unity and reconciliation, and it will contribute to the stability of our country. Without stability, we can never prosper."

One member of the delegation to Johns Hopkins, Burmese President Thein Sein's chief political adviser, has called Myanmar's political reform "irreversible." Aung San Suu Kyi was more guarded on May 2 as she took the oath to join Parliament. When a reporter asked her about the day's significance, she replied, "Only time will tell." Johns Hopkins has a stake in whatever happens next.