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Why are universities still collaborating with Myanmar?

600,000 Rohingya Muslims have lost their home subject to 'ethnic cleansing'. Why are global universities still investing? Source: Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been forced out of Myanmar in what is being called a “clearance operation”. So why are universities still collaborating with the Myanmar government?

The United Nations (UN) has called the situation in Myanmar a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, with reports of violence and rape following rising tensions between religious groups.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have lost their homes and been forced into neighbouring country Bangladesh.

Among the universities in close collaboration with Myanmar include the University of Oxford and the University of Manchester, according to The Times Higher Education (THE).

The Open University is currently negotiating a GB£4.6 million (US$6 million) grant from the Myanmar government to join Manchester and Oxford. The universities encourage distance learning in the country through online courses.

However, questions have been raised regarding the ethics of collaborating with the Myanmar government.

Penny Green, professor of law and globalization and director of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, told THE that investing in education in Myanmar is irresponsible. The country should be boycotted for their “genocide” rather than supported.

This opinion is also echoed by an anonymous group of academics at the Open University, who accused the Open University of being “willing to give up its principles… for £4.6 million,” according to THE.

Rohingya refugees make their way to a refugee camp after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Source: Reuters/Hannah McKay

In response to these allegations, universities involved in educational projects have explained that education is the best way to tackle unjust oppression.

“We believe that there is no more effective antidote to oppression, wherever it may occur, than an educated population,” a spokesperson for the Open University told THE.

“[The university is] actively investigating the possibility of extending this opportunity to people who have been forced to flee Myanmar.”

Khin Mar Mar Kyi, the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi gender research fellow at Oxford and the first senior Burmese female academic at the institution, said: “At Oxford University, like many other universities, our duty is to them more than ever. We need to focus on strengthening education in Burma. This is the only way we can transform society and build peace and democracy in the country.”

Kelly Smith, pro vice-chancellor (international) at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who is a board member of the Australia Myanmar Institute, added that the suggestion that universities should “disengage” from Myanmar was “patently absurd”.

“It suggests a form of collective punishment of the very institutions in a country that may be able to influence the direction of public policy through the principles of academic freedom that we cherish and so vigorously defend,” he said.

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