Burma Focus – Outside the Classroom
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's September 2012 visit to Kentucky capped a co-curricular examination of Burma (also known as Myanmar) by Patterson School students and faculty that began during the 2012 spring semester. This is a classic example of the richness experiential learning can add to classroom study. Students learn in regular seminars about sanctions and democracy promotion, but outside engagement with political activists and key leaders adds a texture and depth of understanding that can be obtained nowhere else. It also exposes students to inspirational role models.
In March 2012, Patterson School students visited the "BLOOD/STONES: Burmese Rubies" exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum. This photography installation noted that despite U.S. and British sanctions against Burma trade in the precious gemstones generates almost $500 million dollars a year for the junta. Art WORKS Projects executive director Leslie Thomas explained how this trade was carefully controlled by Burma's leadership, ensuring profits benefited only a small elite group in this impoverished country. The NGO's exhibit conveyed not just the economic situation, but also visually told the story of human rights abuses in Burma.
These human rights abuses were on vivid display in August 2012 with the Lexington visit of former Burmese soldier, activist, and political prisoner turned refugee Myo Myint. The principal subject of the 2011 HBO documentary Burma Soldier, Myint had an epiphany after being wounded in interethnic fighting while serving in the Burmese Army. Joining his country's nonviolent democratic movement, Myint encouraged soldiers to stop killing their countrymen, even though this guaranteed he would be imprisoned. Released after more than a decade in jail, he fled Burma to Thailand, settling eventually in the US. Myint's passion and broken body (he lost a leg, a hand and several fingers in battle) brought students to the edge of tears as he detailed his personal story, the positive impact of sanctions, and his dream of democratic reform.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell echoed these same themes two weeks later in an intimate, hour-long, back and forth conversation with Patterson School students. McConnell, instrumental in pushing for U.S. trade restrictions, had met Daw Suu in Rangoon, in January 2012. He reviewed the political impact of the sanctions regime, how she believed they had made a difference, and his firsthand impressions of the new regime.
Daw Suu's arrival in Louisville on September 24th completed this Fall "Burma trifecta." Thirty students and faculty attended her presentation at the McConnell Center, where her gentle grace belied a truly commanding presence. The impact on the participants was palpable. Diplomacy 2nd-year student Tori Baker said "The chance to hear such an influential leader personally was an extraordinary opportunity; her optimism, eloquence, and vigor were inspiring to me not only as a foreign policy student, but as an aspiring female leader." This sentiment was echoed by diplomacy 1st-year Nicholas Spanoudis. "It is evident that nothing — be it decades of house arrest or the tribulations of her present-day political life — can dampen her spirits or her resolve to bring democracy, peace, and stability to her homeland," Spanoudis said. "She is an inspiration to all who seek to make the world a better place." Security 1st-year Cori Curtis added: "It was truly uplifting to witness such a great arbiter of democracy. These last two months have increased my spirit for public service." Speaking with Ambassador Cavanaugh before the Louisville event, Daw Suu was surprised to learn that UK had a graduate school of diplomacy that focused closely on conflict resolution and human rights. "We need more of that," she said. "More peace mediation, too."
Perhaps diplomacy 2nd-year Anne Marie Vaughn summed up the value of the event best: "On a practical level, it was fascinating to hear her discuss the connections between political, economic, and social issues in Burma. Making those connections is one of the primary skills we are developing at the Patterson School."
(Adapted from Keith Hautala, Patterson School Students Immersed in Burmese Co-curricular Learning, Sept. 27, 2012.)