By Professor Marsha Garrison
As I headed off for my first day of teaching, PowerPoint slides in hand, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what to expect; I had already sat in on classes and talked with teachers at the Yangon University Law Department. But Myanmar offers daily surprises. As I entered the law building, Yangon’s erratic power supply crashed. My students and I groped our way to a gloom-shrouded classroom, where we pulled out flashlights and cell phones to see the day’s assignment. We proceeded in this manner for the next hour, when the power suddenly came back on. At that point, I was able to show my PowerPoint slides and try to relate them to the discussion in the dark that had preceded them.
Law teachers at Yangon University cope, day in and day out, with power outages plus a long list of other difficulties. They work in dilapidated classrooms where students sit on benches that may well have been abandoned by the British in 1948 when Myanmar became independent. Their Internet access is just as unreliable as the power supply. The instructional materials they use are photocopied compilations of excerpts from whatever was available. The library is typically under lock and key; there is no money for a librarian. There is only one complete set of equipment to show PowerPoint slides. There is virtually no support staff. And, because teachers are government employees, they are expected to take on responsibilities that have nothing to do with teaching. The Yangon University Law Department, for example, has been tasked with grading thousands of examinations taken by judicial and prosecutorial candidates.
The difficulties that law teachers at Yangon University—and at all of Myanmar’s 18 law faculties—confront every day result from decades of government hostility to academic freedom and excellence. During Myanmar’s half century of military rule, educational spending was a low priority; in 2011, Myanmar’s educational expenditures were equivalent to only 0.79 percent of GDP, one of the lowest percentages in the world. As a result of repeated student demonstrations against the government, “distance learning” was also introduced in the 1970s and soon became dominant. Even in 1975, its first year, the distance-learning program admitted 6,500 first-year law students, roughly 20 times the number admitted to Yangon University. Entrance qualifications for distance learning in law “were consistently the lowest among all professional schools,” and the small number of overworked teachers assigned to the enormous program could not provide Teaching Law in Myanmar By Professor Marsha Garrison adequate textbooks or instruction. The result was a system in which law teachers could not teach and law students could not learn.
Despite this history, the current mood at the Law Department, among both teachers and students, is buoyant. After decades of military rule, a new, civilian government took power this year. Nobel Prize–winner Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the victorious National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged that rebuilding Myanmar’s universities will be a government priority. Professor Dr. Khin Mar Yee, chair of the Yangon University Law Department, thus feels “optimistic.” We “need resources and staff,” she noted. But “our lady is interested in legal education and has very good ideas.”
The task of rebuilding Myanmar’s law departments will not take place overnight. But change is in the offing. As an example of the new mood, the Board of Studies, which prescribes the law curriculum nationwide, recently made human rights law a required course. After decades of military rule, teachers and students alike are eager to bring human rights into the classroom as well as national life.
Legal education will play a vital role in Myanmar’s transition to the rule of law. After spending the better part of a semester at the Yangon University Law Department, I feel immense admiration for the enthusiasm and talent that both teachers and students are bringing to the work ahead. I have learned something every day of my stay in Yangon. I’m sure I will continue to learn from Myanmar’s dedicated legal educators and aspiring young lawyers.
Marsha Garrison is the Suzanne J. and Norman Miles Professor at Brooklyn Law School, where she teaches courses on law and policy pertaining to families and children. During the spring semester, she served as a senior Fulbright Scholar at Yangon University in Myanmar