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A Public Forum on Myanmar’s Reform Challenges: Implications for Development Research

A Public Forum on

Myanmar’s Reform Challenges:

Implications for Development Research


Thursday, 30 May 2013 at 08.30 – 11.30 a.m.  

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th FloorPrajadhipok-RambhaibarniBuilding

Faculty of Political Science, ChulalongkornUniversity


08.30 – 09.00 a.m.       Registration and Coffee


09.00 – 09.10 a.m.       Welcome Remarks

                                      H.E. Ambassador Philip Calvert

                                      Canadian Ambassador to Thailand


09.10 – 11.25 a.m.        Speakers:

                                      Mr. Aung Zaw

                                      Founder and Editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine

                                      Ms. Gwen Robinson

                                      Financial Times, Bangkok Bureau Chief

                                      Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand (from 1 June 2013)

                                      Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti

                                      Director, RegionalCenter for Social Science and Sustainable Development

                                      Faculty of Social Sciences, ChiangMaiUniversity

                                     Mr. Zaw Oo

                                      Director of Research Program

                                      Centre for Economic and Social Development

                                      Myanmar Development Resource Institute, Yangon



                                      Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

                                      Director of ISIS Thailand, ChulalongkornUniversity


11.25 a.m.                    Closing Remarks

                                      Ms. Annette Nicholson

                                      Vice President

                                      Corporate Strategy and Regional Management of IDRC


Video: Myanmar’s Reform Challenges:  Implications for Development Research

Myanmar’s Reform Challenges:  Implications for Development Research

Part 1/2:

Myanmar’s Reform Challenges:  Implications for Development Research

Part 2/2:


In his introductory remarks, Dr. Thitinan noted that since Myanmar had started to develop its domestic politics and economy, it draws a great deal of interest from every sector. The emergence of Myanmar has become a major issue globally. However, the limitation of information about Myanmar hinders some scholars in their ability to monitor the dynamic of the country closely. Therefore, the development of research in Myanmar was brought to this panel to encourage more awareness from the public.

Welcome remarks       

H.E. Ambassador Phillip Calvert

In his welcome remarks, Ambassador Calvert highlighted that Myanmar has been one of the most dynamic nations of the past decade. All nations are eyeing Myanmar’s political and economic development, especially since the country decided to gradually start the liberalization process. At this point, issues discussed about Myanmar are pervasive among academics, politicians and the business sector. The Canadian the Burmese governments have always had an active relationship in the past decades. The bilateral agreement allows Canadians to visit Myanmar and assist some problematic issue such as refugees’ insurgency in the north of the country and the severe humanitarian problems in the communities around the country. However, Ambassador Calvert identified the absence of reliable data and information on Myanmar as one of the major obstacles impeding the development of the country and reducing the effectiveness of international assistance. As a result, this public forum was organized to state the status of current research development in Myanmar, and to anticipate how a more active, diverse and accurate research system could be created in the future.



Aung Zaw was very cautious about the progress being made for journalists working in Myanmar. Although, in general, Myanmar is becoming increasingly open to foreigners, prisoners are being released, and economic and social reforms are moving at a fast pace, journalists still face risks when reporting on sensitive issues such as sectarian violence and government corruption. He noted that while officially many media restrictions have been lifted, true freedom does not exist for journalists for two reasons; 1) the Ministry of Information still has control over the media. Journalists and news organisations still have to apply for licences to publish, and these licences have to be renewed every 6 months. Thus, if the Ministry does not like what a journalist has written, they can simply refuse to renew the licence. This results in a great deal of self-censorship among journalists and news organisations. 2) Most of the Myanmar based media outlets are owned by military elites who have their own agendas and political views. So journalists report on an important issue which does not conform to the interests of the media outlets, they will be side-lined.

As for research and development, Aung Zaw argued that Myanmar still has a long way to go. Both the government and opposition have done a great deal of research on poverty, AIDS and ethnic violence, but this research is often biased or politically motivated. Government research is often conducted to achieve a self-serving political spin. He emphasised Myanmar’s desperate need for impartial and better research to foster further openness and development.

Gwen Robinson highlighted the situation of researchers, journalists, IOs and NGOs in Myanmar, which for a long time have had to cope with a severe lack of data on Myanmar. Often any research which was conducted was done in secret or was highly unreliable. Today, they are now facing an extraordinary switch where there is now an explosion of data and information. However, this new openness in Myanmar also brings its own new challenges.

With the flurry of NGOs, IOs and aid money streaming into Myanmar, there is an increased sense of urgency for organisations to set up programmes and to try to establish relationships with the Myanmar government, and aid consultants are wary of not taking on programmes for fear of missing opportunities. Thus, in Myanmar, there is an increasing sense of urgency and competition between development organisations which has resulted in the introduction of poorly planned development programmes and a great deal of overlap among aid organizations and their operations. In many ways, today there is too much data and information flooding out of governments and organisations, which is creating a great deal of confusion as it is often unreliable or conflicting.

Gwen Robinson argued that the key for IOs and NGOs to successfully make an impact is to have a greater deal of donor coordination and shared research in order to facilitate dynamic and progressive programmes in Myanmar.

When it comes to Higher Education, the biggest issues facing Myanmar stem from its long term isolation and legacy issues stemming from a long history of poor bureaucratic control. While the outlook for higher education is relatively bleak, areas which need to be improved have been identified and some early progress is being made. At present, higher education challenges that Myanmar is facing include poor curricula, academic fragmentation, underdeveloped disciplines and a lack of capacity to build international ties. Dr. Chayan argued that Myanmar’s entire education system requires nothing short of a complete overhaul, from the physical structure to the curriculum.

Myanmar’s education system is at an interesting point in time where there are currently unique opportunities for improvement. There is a great deal of interest and enthusiasm from international universities and researchers to work with and study in institutions in Myanmar. New opportunities for academics in the forms of scholarships, international exchanges and training programmes are becoming available for the first time. Furthermore, priority areas such as land and resource management, conflict resolution, health care research, community movement, media studies and food security are being promoted as urgent areas for study.

Dr.Chayan asserted that promoting and improving Myanmar’s higher education systems is not just about giving away more money to researchers but should rather focus on creating an academic environment which supports discussion, critical thinking and rigorous research methodology. To do this will require international cooperation, sound academic journals and a reform of the higher education system.

Zaw Oo described the post-2010 reform of Myanmar as a miracle. The transformation has been driven by good leaders, changes in the mind-sets of military leaders and the emergence of a true democratic icon. Myanmar is facing an unprecedented triple-pronged transformation; Myanmar is moving towards a more pluralistic market dominated economy, there are changes in the in the treatment of minorities and there are emerging structural changes in the government and bureaucratic sectors. This dramatic transformation further highlights the importance of reliable data and good research to understand these changes and to press further economic and political reform. Reflecting this importance, the Myanmar government has made the improvement of the government research and data collection systems as one its 4 priority economic objectives. 

Other areas driving the demand for data are the emergence of the Parliament and a competitive media sector. The Parliament is no longer simply a rubber stamp, rather, it now plays a vital role to check and balance the views of the government, and to do this it drives a great deal of demand for data and information to press the government for answers and push for evidence based discussions. Furthermore, while the media sector is still facing challenges, it is increasing its research capacity and searching for more reliable data. Therefore, there is an increasingly diverse supply of information coming from the media which is being used by the government and civil society. 

Zaw Oo used the example of the emerging resource sector to highlight the need for reliable data and information required for Myanmar's developing industries to be competitive on a global scale. This highlights the fact that Myanmar is still very much in a fragile transition phase, so an increase in reliable information and research will ensure the continuation of economic and political reforms, coordination with civil society and the construction contribute to creating tangible benefits to individuals and communities in Myanmar.