Myanmar Higher Education Gets Help

UMass Lowell Partners IIE Initiative

Ardeth Thawnghmung, who knows Myanmar well, expects Americans and Burmese to learn from each other in a new partnership.

Ardeth Thawnghmung, who knows Myanmar well, expects Americans and Burmese to learn from each other in a new partnership.

12/10/2012
By Sandra Seitz

“Asian Spring” could be its name. After decades of repressive military rule, two years ago the Myanmar government began loosening restrictions on public speech and political dissent.

“The changes came so fast, it was hard to keep up with what was happening,” says Ardeth Thawnghmung, associate professor of political science who is herself Burmese. 

Thawnghmung is representing UMass Lowell, along with colleagues from the Political Science Department and the Dean’s Office of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS). The campus is one of nine universities in partnership with the Institute of International Education (IIE) in an initiative to help develop university partnerships and rebuild higher education in Myanmar. Thawnghmung will be part of the 10-day IIE delegation to the country in February.

“UMass Lowell is well-positioned to help build capacity in political institutions and civil society,” says FAHSS Dean Luis M. Falcón. “Our participation in IIE’s Myanmar initiative is another example of how UMass Lowell is increasing its international presence in ways that benefit faculty and students.” Currently, several Burmese students study at UMass Lowell.

Thawnghmung conducted a year of field research in Myanmar in 2011, funded by a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad grant. She understands the challenges and rewards of working there.

“Given the opening of political space in the country, there is a great need for political education,” she says. “All the legislators have just one year of experience in elected office” after the first free national elections in 2011. 

“This is a challenging time. As people speak up, long-held grievances come to the fore, so tensions increase. People speak freely, but don’t know how the system works to build collaborations.”

UMass Lowell’s commitment, coupled with the prestige and renown of the IIE, will expedite partnership development.

“It’s very exciting. We are already getting requests for help and now groups in Myanmar can bring ideas to fruition and reach their goals,” says Thawnghmung. “The learning will be mutual. The Burmese are smart, resourceful, optimistic and appreciative. They are a welcoming people, with an ancient culture and a beautiful country.”