Obama Visit Brings Hope of Renewal for University in Myanmar

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YANGON, Myanmar -- The scars of military rule run deep at Yangon University -- decrepit buildings, broken sidewalks and mold everywhere. But with plans for President Obama to visit on Monday, hundreds of workers have converged in an urgent effort to spruce up the campus. Mr. Obama's trip to Myanmar will be the first by an American president, and the authorities are creating something of a Potemkin campus to greet him.

Contractors have brought small armies of men from rural areas to repaint and refurbish the British-built university, which before military rule was one of the most pre-eminent educational institutions in Asia. Mr. Obama's visit to the university, which over the years has been a site of both student activism and brutal repression, will carry significant symbolism in Myanmar.

"They said we have a cleaning job for you, and it has to be done in three days," said Tun Tun, one of the contractors who watched over his men as they scraped rust from a fence.

Mr. Tun Tun said he was happy that Mr. Obama was coming, not because of the political significance, but because contract work was still relatively scarce.

"It's a job opportunity," he said.

To say that Yangon University has fallen into disrepair would be a vast understatement. The outer walls of the auditorium where Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech are black with mold. Plants are growing out of cracks in the facade.

As encouragement for daunted workers, contractors are paying the technicians who are fixing air-conditioners in the auditorium a premium: 6,000 kyat, or about $7, for a day's work, about 50 cents more than usual.

Both the Myanmar government and the American Embassy have tried to keep the site of Mr. Obama's speech secret. The police guarded the perimeter on Wednesday, and security personnel mingled with workers repairing sidewalks and planting flowers.

And there were flashes of the old Myanmar when a reporter took out his notebook.

"Do you have permission to gather news here?" asked a plainclothes police officer, who then asked the reporter to leave the campus.

Rangoon University, as it was previously known, was the center of the country's struggle for independence against British rule.

Decades later, well after independence, an uprising against military rule in 1988 also began with university students. When the military suppressed the uprising, killing thousands of protesters, it rounded up an entire generation of student leaders and sentenced them to long jail terms. Many were only recently released from prison.

Today, as the country moves toward democracy and opens up to the world, its barely functioning universities are one of the largest roadblocks to development. Universities were starved of resources and gutted of independent thinking during five decades of military rule. Mr. Obama's visit may highlight these deficiencies and provide extra incentives for the authorities to overhaul the system.

"The Education Ministry has been quite slow to learn the reform process," said Tin Maung Than, the director of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, a research organization with close ties to the office of President Thein Sein.

Mr. Obama's visit to Yangon University is likely to bolster the cause of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, whose father, Aung San, studied at the university, where he helped begin the independence movement.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been campaigning to upgrade the university. On Friday in Parliament, she clashed with U Ba Shwe, the deputy minister of education, over the speed of reforms. Calling for an emphasis on quality over quantity in education, she said that Yangon University should be restored to its previous glory. In a sign of the country's progress toward democracy, she sought to override the minister's objections, calling, successfully, for a vote to establish a supervisory committee for education.

In recent years, the university has felt empty. Only graduate students are allowed to study at the campus, which is filled with old-growth trees and the colonial mansions that were built to house administrators and teachers.

During military rule, the generals ordered all undergraduate students to satellite campuses in rural areas, where they would be less of a political threat if they tried to organize.

The university is now in session, but on Wednesday there were many more cleaners than students.

"Losing campus life is one of the reasons that students are disappointed with the education system," said Kyaw Min, a former university professor. "We have a great and beautiful university in the city. But students have to travel out of town to attend class."

Even before the cleanup effort this week, there were some signs of revival. Last month, the university signed an agreement to host a branch campus of Johns Hopkins University. The main road through campus was recently paved.

Teachers say they are hopeful that the government will allow undergraduates to return.

Le Le Aung, a history professor who was walking across campus on Wednesday, said she hoped that Mr. Obama's visit would revive the university.

"Obama -- you are No. 1!" she said.

Wai Moe contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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