SSL: Since the 2012 election. As you know, this is our first parliament since the military regime in over 40 years. Before, I was an educator.
The PIE: You learnt English inside Burma?
SSL: Mainly inside Burma, but as a child my father was posted in the US for four years as a part of the military and that’s where I first learnt to speak, read and write in English from the ages of seven to 11. I’ve benefitted from the British Council, for instance, because when I was attending university, it was under the Socialist Programme Party. Under the dictatorship, teaching English was punished in university.
“I belong to a very small group of university students who had the opportunity to learn English with British professors”
The military government came into existence in 1962. I completed high school in 1970. That year the English course major was reintroduced. There was some collaboration with the British Council, and we had two professors from England teaching at the university. So, I belong to a very small group of university students who had the opportunity to learn English with British professors.
The PIE: And that continued?
SSL: It continued and actually expanded to several other teacher training colleges. But in 1988, after the democratic movement and the military cracked down, all the systems stopped. It’s only recently that foreign aid has come back into Burma and that we are able to be on the road to a democratic process. I can’t really say that our country is completely democratic yet.
The PIE: How important do you think it’s been to have links with the British Council?
SSL: We’ve had links with the British Council for a long time, but under the military government there was a period where the British Council and the USA were no longer visibly involved in our country. But, the British Council has been in Burma all along, I would say under the British embassy. We had very few libraries in our country which had a stock of good books. It was the British Council and the USA that had provided us with some of these facilities.
“Now that we are opening up, people are understanding English as a language that will enable them to other studies”
The PIE: In Burma, what proportion of the population do you think would have some English language competency?
SSL: It’s very difficult to say, but I think there’s an increasing number of people who are, especially the younger generation, trying to learn the English language, through college courses as well as other ways. It’s an important language and now that we are opening up, people are understanding English as a language that will enable them to undertake other studies. So it’s an initiative that is also being taken by the individuals themselves, and it’s on the rise.
The PIE: What is internet access like in Burma?
SSL: It’s still limited, but it’s becoming more available. Even in the biggest university in the country it was only about a year ago that there’s now internet access for students. I’m Member of Parliament, and we don’t have internet access in the accommodation facilities that we have. So, you can imagine to what extent we really have it in the country. But then there are these small outlets where you do have it and then you can subscribe to it buy it’s still too expensive to get to the majority of the people.
The PIE: Did you travel fairly freely before you became an MP in Burma?
SSL: Not quite. Before I became an MP, I was working in the NGO sector, and the activities were very limited and we didn’t really have official NGO registration. It was like an expression “we were in a black market business” and doing social work was like that. It was not free of dangers but I had been in units of educational offices from 1990 to 2005. And, only after that I started working in education NGOs, providing assistance to schools.
During that period there were certain times I was prohibited from travelling outside the country. Although I had a UN passport, I did not have my national passport approved because my father was the secretary of the National League for Democracy, and my family was very much in support of the democratic movement.
“The kind of suppression that we have faced cannot even be compared to some of the hostilities that other people encountered”
My movements were very much under surveillance and my family members were all detained in various ways. My father was put under house arrest for about three years, three separate times. My husband was placed in prison for about three months without any charges. My brother was also sentenced for hitting a curbstone, with three years of imprisonment with hard labour.
We belong to a group of people who have undergone suppression from the military regime. But the kind of suppression that we have faced cannot even be compared to some of the hostilities that other people encountered.
The PIE: When the regime changed in 2012, was that a big surprise or did you all foresee a softening of stance?
SSL: It wasn’t a surprise in some ways because we always felt that one day or another it’s going to happen. We kept on working at it and the kind of suppressive rule that they exercise was not something that could be continued. We felt that because the people no longer accepted it and all the people were not actually able to overthrow the military, there was always this situation that it would come to an end because it had to.
The majority of the people just no longer accepted it. It had become a country where nobody was secure. We felt it would come to an end and that would be the change we needed. But, although there’s been this situation where the world community is quite happy with the way we changed, there are still many elements of the past that still exist.
“There are still some quarters who feel that we are not that ready for complete democratic change”
There are still some quarters who feel that we are not that ready for complete democratic change. So we’ll have to wait and see because it could be October or November to have those elections. We already see elements where we see the elections may not be all that fair, although it would be free. We do believe that it would be free on the day the elections happen.
The PIE: So tell me about the international education, are you hopeful that you can encourage better international exchange?
SSL: I think in terms of the education sector, it’s a situation where even the people have taken this into their own hands and they’re making demands that there should be more quality education. There’s a greater level of commonality, and understanding that education is the way forward and that the education system in the country has declined to such a degree that we are very much falling behind others in the world. At one time, we had world class universities in Southeast Asia, where the ranking university was quite reputable and we had a very good research society. Now, it’s almost extinct.
Now education is being revived and there’s a lot of exciting things happening. We are overwhelmed at the moment by a lot of international universities taking an interest in assistance in the area of education we are in. I think there is even now a need to have some sort of coordination to consult them of assistance coming in because we need to also think about the domestic capacity to handle this.
“Now education is being revived and there’s a lot of exciting things happening”
The PIE: What about students, are there scholarships available now for Burmese students to study abroad?
SSL: Yes, there’s quite a number from different universities, institutes, and aid agencies. Quite a number of our young students are now studying outside of the country.
Even before this, because of all the military suppression, there were quite a lot of young people, university students, leaving the country, through various ways. Quite a few of them have studied abroad and received scholarships. Some of them are coming back, and not on a permanent basis. Many Burmese people who have left the country, a lot of the intellectuals, are coming back to rebuild the country.
The PIE: What do you think the priority is for Burma at the moment to establish better provision?
SSL: I think there needs to be a proper environment for it. There are still many challenges, politically, and people must be much more informed to really be able to participate in an effective way.
The PIE: Should the country be called Burma or should it be Myanmar?
“Burma is what we call ourselves. It’s the way in which the name has been changed that I don’t approve of”
SSL: Well, I like to call it Burma. Not so much because I prefer the word Burma, but because it’s the way in which the name of the country has been changed and processed that I don’t approve of.
The military government came into existence after the massacre in 1988, where students, many people were killed. After that, what they called themselves then was the State Law and Order Registration Council. They decided to change the names of many Burmese cities and streets. They thought that the names were given during the colonial days and they wanted to change that.
People did not participate and were not consulted. Although, in our country, Burma is what we call ourselves, are interchangeable. It’s not so much in the meaning of the word that I disapprove, it’s more the process. I still feel that if there was some sort of a referendum in the country in the way they change the name, I’d accept it.