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Undergraduates, professor embark on “groundbreaking” Myanmar trip

Students design course module to examine country in critical moment of transition
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In a recent survey, Reporters Without Borders listed Myanmar, previously known as Burma, in the bottom 20 per cent of all countries in terms of press freedom.

For Cara Lew, a fourth-year student, the lack of information about the country, combined with its turbulent past, makes the prospect of going there academically enticing.

Along with nine classmates and two University of Toronto faculty members, Lew will be travelling to Myanmar for 10 days over reading week.

“Is it even safe for us to go to Burma? Would the faculty allow us to go? We said let’s stick this out because nobody’s gone there. It’s so exciting,” says Lew.

The trip is an International Course Module (ICM), a Faculty of Arts & Science program that awards a limited amount of money to short-term international projects that compliment existing course material.

Eight of the students travelling to Myanmar study in the university’s Contemporary Asian Studies (CAS) program, while two study anthropology.

According to Joshua Barker, professor of anthropology and director of the Asian Institute, which oversees the CAS program, the most unique aspect of the research venture is that the project was conceived by students.

“[V]ery often ICMs are faculty proposals which then provide students with the opportunity to participate in one of these modules. In this case the design of the program and the themes that they want to investigate really came out of the students,” Barker says.

Barker is the faculty leader of the ICM, and will be joining the students in Myanmar.

Some students were involved in the planning of the Myanmar ICM as early as October of last year, looking forward to probing a local perspective on the upcoming Myanmar election in the fall of 2015.

According to Barker, the country is in the process of opening up to more democratic processes and globalizing influences after many years of military dictatorship.

Now that the date of the trip is so near, the students involved say that some of their research goals have changed. “We’re still concerning ourselves with the question of democratization but pretty open with how that’s going to go depending on the things that we encounter while we’re there,” says Anthea Snowsill, a third-year student who is going on the trip.

“It’s a groundbreaking entry into Myanmar. Even [most of] our professors have never gone there,” says Snowsill.
Barker says that the students will have to be adaptable in their research interviews. “This is a culture where things have to be done indirectly, obliquely, and where you have to really be responsive to what your interviewees feel comfortable talking about,” Barker says.

“People were there before and after democracy. It’s interesting to know how they feel about it and what they think is going to happen in the next few years: if they actually feel a change or if it’s still the same,” says Eros Grinzato, a third-year student.

While there, the students will interview political officials from the National League for Democracy, the party chaired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, local government officials, the head of Yoma bank, and youth from the University of Yangon.