28/09/2017 12:36 PM AEST | Updated 29/09/2017 10:46 AM AEST

Myanmar 101: What It's Like To Study In A Nation In The Midst Of Radical Change

It's the students who hold the keys to massive political reform.

Former US President Barack Obama speaks at a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) town hall meeting at Yangon University's Diamond Jubilee Hall in Yangon on November 14, 2014.

Brick buildings are like political structures: though their facade may crack and chip away, their foundations are long-lasting. Whilst the swift swing of a wrecking ball may knock them down with ease, building something lasting in its place takes painstaking work.

After a semester living and studying at Yangon University, the weathered facade of the city's most famous colonial-era institution has become an apt symbol for the unprecedented change and challenges of Myanmar's democratic transition.

As a scholar under the Australian government's New Colombo Plan, I've been able to witness this political transition first hand, learning in the heart of a campus that has sat at the centre of political debate and revolution for almost a century.

The epicentre of major strikes against British rule in 1920, '36 and '38, the university famously housed independence leader Aung San, and was the site of major protests bookending the military regime of General Ne Win.

Following the death of at least 300 student protestors in 1988, the military regime banned undergraduate students altogether, leaving the campus isolated from the city in a manner that mirrored the country's broader isolation from the international community.

Sparked by a series of liberalising reforms in 2011 by then-President Thein Sein, Myanmar has since undergone a rapid political transformation into a multi-party democracy, with an emphasis on increasing international engagement and capacity building. Throughout this time, the university has maintained its outsized symbolic presence.

In 2012 President Obama made a landmark speech in the university's Convocation Hall, calling for greater openness to the outside world. The following year a group of teenagers were invited back to the same hall, as the first undergraduate class in 25 years.

Yangon University is reemerging as a place of political and cultural change.

Enrolled as a fourth-year student, my exchange has seen me join one of the first graduating classes in their final semester of study. As we have tackled coursework spanning Myanmar foreign policy, conflict resolution, and human rights practice, the weight of the country's complex political challenges appear to manifest in the words written and spoken in class.

As the sole foreign student living in the dormitory, this dichotomy -- of rigid histories cut against seemingly radical transformations -- has a jarring quality. Like the western pop that plays late into the night on my dorm mates' new smartphone, it echoes across the campus, bouncing off its fading bricks in a glancing blow to the face of history.

James Barklamb
James Barklamb outside of Yangon University.

Whilst the university itself may appear an artefact of a distant past, to a time when men in crisp shirts and silk longyi parried with intrepid writers and learned diplomats, the issues that drive today's students speak to markedly modern motivations. From student-led political reform societies, to initiatives supporting LGBTQ students, and efforts to empower female leadership in civil society, Yangon University is reemerging as a place of political and cultural change.

In a country where the iron-grip of military rule held long into their adolescence, the students' vocal advocacy for further reform cuts against the lived experience of their parents, where rebellion, to most, was a deliberately foreign concept; concealed in prisons filled with political prisoners rendered silent, and on the pages of independent newspapers that never made it to print. Still subject to curfews and controls that chasten rebellion, raising their voices against the status quo is becoming as much a symbol of Myanmar's own transformation, as it is their own coming of age.

Undoubtedly, like Myanmar more broadly, students grapple with sensitive issues that produce opinions that clash discordantly with a larger narrative of increasing tolerance. For me, this has been most obvious in discussions concerning marginalised minority groups, where, despite an emphasis in coursework on developing and improving critical thinking capacities, there persists a tendency to willingly accept the received wisdom of the state.

In this sense, YU students face the same challenge that confronts State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, where only through challenging military orthodoxy can the one thing such actions purport to jeopardise -- continued political liberalisation -- be truly secured.

Perverse notions of distrust and enmity were foundational to Myanmar under military rule. Conversely, principles of enlightenment and human dignity have long formed an important, if fragile base, of Burmese civil society. As political structures have undergone radical transformation in recent years, building a new system of government upon these unstable foundations has proved exceedingly hard.

Whilst the history of Yangon University makes clear the risks of pushing change, my experiences on campus have encouraged a belief that this generation of students have the capacity to disrupt the status quo in a manner that drives constructive reform.

They have a unique opportunity to build for themselves, brick by brick, the foundations of an inclusive, active democracy that, like the university itself, promises to stand the test of time.