In this episode my guest is Min Paing, co-founder of Spring University Myanmar whose mission is to support students and teachers who are currently taking part in the country's Civil Disobedience Movement. SUM aims to provide an alternative platform for learning skills in a variety of disciplines such as languages, law, economics, science, technology, engineering, math and many more.
Min Paing talks about why SUM was founded and we discuss the attitudes of the general Burmese population towards business, finance and technology.
The first part of the conversation is in English.
ဒုတိယအပိုင်းမှာ မြန်မာလို ပြောပါတယ်။
➤ Where are you exactly right now?
I'm right now in New York City, one of the five boroughs - in Brooklyn to be precise.
➤ Nice. What do you do there for work? Are you studying or are you working now?
Actually I graduated last year from Stony Brook University which is also in New York State. So it's been like one year that I have graduated and I went back to Myanmar and came back here like a month ago.
My commencement was supposed to be last year and it got cancelled because of covid so my school is trying to substitute another commencement ceremony in September, so I'm back here for my graduation.
➤ Okay congratulations!
➤ So let me get to the main topic which is Spring University Myanmar. Can you tell me, what is SUM?
So the background of the Spring University Myanmar is that, as you know, the military coup on February 1st 2021 has disrupted the country in all dimensions and as of May, more than 800 people including dozens of children have lost their lives due to the atrocities of the military forces. And thousands of youth, activists and politicians were detained and no one has helped them from abuse of human rights - abuse by the junta.
So the civil disobedience movement - we call it CDM - has emerged as one of the most exciting forefronts against the dictator. That non-violent initiative is led by government staff from all different sectors like education, healthcare, or banking and infrastructures, into telecoms, who don't want to work under the military and they have risked their jobs and livelihoods under the threat of the military council.
The CDM movement has been ongoing and getting stronger but after a longer time the lack of the support from the people, like, they don't get the support as much as they did from the beginning of the period, so we started to [ask ourselves], in terms of the education perspective, ‘How do we support to keep the movement sustainable for the long term?’ and we got the idea of starting this kind of platform where people can learn continuous education, at the same time they can support the CDM staff and then boycott the military junta by not going to school at all. So that's basically the idea of how the Spring University Myanmar became established.
➤ And what are the requirements to attend? Do you have fees? How does it work?
Okay basically, as I was saying, the initial goal was to support the CDM so we charge low budget fees like 10 to 20 dollars for the costs and each course lasts four to six weeks as they are certificate courses. The students have to pay to attend to do courses and then all those fees get transferred back to the CDM employees, the CDM movement staff and the internally displaced persons - IDPs, the war victims from the border areas, so that's how we are managing to defend and get some insurance and then transferring back to the people who are really in need.
➤ And I understand that what you're teaching is different to the regular curriculum, right? You're teaching really useful skills, like... can you tell me a little bit about the eight schools?
Yeah, sure. So the eight schools we have right now; the first one is the Language School and the second one is the School of Federalism and Peace Studies. And then Law School, STEM School - the science, technology, engineering, mathematics school, and School of Economics and School of Arts and Social Sciences, Center for College Preparation for lifelong learning and then last one is The Movement Institute.
So we basically prepare the undergraduate students or graduate students to be able to get admissions from universities for Bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees or whatever they want to prepare for, for further studies. So yeah that's what we have been offering.
➤ And who's teaching the courses?
In terms of the teachers, we got a bunch of excellent teachers including professors from international universities to come and teach us and as guest speakers. And also we have other colleagues who are currently studying or who have graduated abroad - the international scholars - because basically most of them are Myanmar youth who have studied abroad or currently studying at university so they got a bunch of teams working together with them to design the courses.
➤ So Spring University was set up in order to support the people participating in the CDM and also the kids who don't get to go to school right now.
But I'm wondering, isn't it important for kids to be in school no matter who they're being educated by? Or are you saying there's a level of education that you don't think they would get right now in the current system?
Okay, actually that is true to keep getting the education whoever the government is but you know but we are in the middle of the regulations and also we have to be concerned about the qualities of the teachers who are providing the education service right now, as most of the qualifying teachers that have earned the PhD’s, Master's degrees with the qualified levels, they are all doing the CDM. So all of those teachers are willing to support the education outside of the education system which is ruled by the military government right now.
So I think instead of getting recognized by just the military junta, which is very low quality education - I don't think they will really matter in your life, you will get a piece of paper, you know, from the university, I don't think that’s what people want. That's why students are doing this CDM movement, participating in the counter education system of the revolutions.
Also because we have the civilian government which is called the National Unity Government, the NUG, and they also have the the counter Ministry of Education and they are working so hard to provide the proper education courses set up under the Ministry of Education,
➤ So you're saying right now the kids cannot get high quality education because the really top qualified teachers are refusing to teach. Is that correct?
That is true.
➤ I'm really excited that there are really practical skills like technology and business and finance [being taught at SUM]. Why do you think that's especially useful right now? And why hasn't that been taught previously? What is the general Burmese attitudes towards that kind of education?
You mean about the technologies?
➤ Yes, business and finance and tech. Because that's not highly regarded typically.
That's right because I think personally that might also depend on the system, the cultures.
In Myanmar we have been under the military government from 1964 to 2010, that's been very long. Under that military regime’s education systems we were brainwashed how the business ventures are not good and doing business is not a real ideal thing to do in your life. And people, especially parents and elders, think highly of the doctors and engineers as the very highest, noble professions. And you know like, how the lawyers are not really important for the societies and you know how the businessmen are not really needed for the society and other occupations as well, except doctors and doctors engineers. So I think that might be one of the reasons.
And then the other thing is that we have to decide our life career at the age of 15, which is pretty young - we cannot really decide our future pathway by that age. And then also that career pathway, because it's decided by our high school matriculated marks, not by our own passions or our goals, we cannot really choose whatever we are interested in. If you're getting very low high school matriculated mark, there's no second chance. So I think that might be one of the reasons as well.
And about the business thing - because only a group of people at the elite level with connections in the military are controlling everything, with everything in their hands, they don't really want to share with other normal class people. So that's why they brainwash people into thinking that business is not really important or you just have to care about your own job like getting salary regularly and then you know live a peaceful life.
Yeah, I think those might be the reasons why the business and finance and also like, advanced technologies are not really considered as the essential matters of the country and in the society.
➤ Very interesting. So you're saying business and even things like sales and that kind of thing, it's not highly regarded because in the past people associated it with the military.
➤ So, do you think that is an easy thing to change? Because that's the mindset of a whole generation. How can we start changing that? How can we start showing the young people that business is not something to be afraid of, it's something that you should want to succeed in?
That's right that's a totally different point of view because we have been brainwashed with propaganda for decades, like over a lot of years. We cannot change that kind of perspective within a short amount of time. We have to take a lot of preparations to change that.
Also we have to educate a lot to the people, to the public, how business is really important not just for yourself in terms of private business but also to transform economy of the country.
I think people are getting to see this within the last five years of the civilian government and you know how the foreign investments are coming in, how a lot of companies are, how they're working.
And then a lot of white collar workers, they got to see how actual transparent businesses operate. So with that kind of mindset, people are really eager to know how a real business works.
And then I think people are also pursuing many business management degrees here and there. Those subjects are getting popular in parallel with the doctors and engineers.
So I think those are good changes but you know, right now because of military coup, we’re heading backwards. So we have to take time to change the mindset of the people again.
Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.