U.S. Government and Burma Scholarship Program

Published on April 12, 2007

U.S. Government and Burma Scholarship Program

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – April 12, 2007

 

Continuance of Burma Scholarship Program is necessary

 

In the U.S. Department of State Public Notice 3974 dated April 4, 2002, Rick A. Ruth, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, regarding Burma Refugee Scholarship Program, wrote: “……The Bureau reserves the right to reduce, revise, or increase proposal budgets in accordance with the needs of the program and the availability of funds……”

 

 BRSP Alumni Meeting at Indiana University, USA, July 29 - 31, 2005 (4th from right standing is NCGUB Prime Minister Dr. Sein Win)

BRSP Alumni Meeting at Indiana University, USA, July 29 – 31, 2005 (4th from right standing is NCGUB Prime Minister Dr. Sein Win)

The political imbroglio in Burma continues to be grim: the ruling military regime, State Peace and Development Council, sticks to its seven-step roadmap toward a “disciplined democracy.” At the same time, the opposition movement, supported largely by the western nations, also continues to progress. In a society, such as Burma, which is tightly controlled by armed personnel, voices of support from the international community are invariably necessary and tremendously important.

 

The consequence of socio-political problems in Burma has been seen in the streets of cities around the world to the floor of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The unabated exodus of refugees across international boundaries and the rise of internally displaced persons is an evidence of Burma being a state of concern. This does not only justifies, but necessitates the international community’s intervention.

 

There have been attempts and efforts to bring justice and democracy to this infested nation. Although the first ever drafted resolution on Burma, as permanent agenda, at the UNSC was doubly vetoed by China and Russia on January 12 this year, commitment and endeavors toward establishing a democratic Burma remains resolute. Despite periodical leadership changes in Washington, DC, United States of America remains one staunchest ally and supporter in the democratic movement.

 

Mandated by the U.S. Congress in 1990, the office of academic exchange programs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs established the Burma Refugee Scholarship Program (BRSP). It was created to provide grants annually to approximately five Burmese students and professionals who fled the country in the aftermath of 1988 democracy uprising. The overall goal of the scholarship program is to assist potential leaders in achieving a democratic society in the Union of Burma.

 

According to Carol Myint, Program Officer of BRSP, 53 students have been brought to the United States in the past 11 years, and another 4 are expected this summer. From 1991 to 1994, the program was administered by the Institute of International Education. Since 1995, Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana has been administering it. Selection process usually starts with a few hundred applicants and takes a few months involving different levels of tests – from Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam to personal interviews and interviews via live video conference.

 

The success of BRSP may be measured in a number of areas: some in academic accomplishments and others may look at how much of earned education – most students have managed to finish their undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate studies – is practically used toward Burma’s democratic movement. Whatever the interpretation it may be, the success of the program needs to be meticulously evaluated.

 

In addition to giving grants, the State Department annually organizes a meeting for alumni to exchange ideas and opinions. Although not stated explicitly, the intention of this annual meet, at the expense of the taxpayers’ money, is believed to be beyond coming together. To make the meet even more interesting, distinguished guest speakers – including former U.S. ambassador to Burma and exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) Prime Minister – are invited every year.

 

Every scholarship recipient came with the hope to contribute gained experiences and earned knowledge back to the Burmese people in one way or another. However, in the passing years, these hopes are seemingly in a diminishing trend. Not only grantees have to adjust to live in this new world, but they have also been swamped with societal duties – from responsibilities to obligations. With no one to further support them when the 2 to 3 year grants expire, survival has become the priority concern. Moreover, each individual has more or less commitment to family and community he belongs.

 

Interestingly, BRSP has produced scholars, potential leaders and professionals in various fields. These accomplishments are the program’s immediate success. Had not this program been introduced, many of these ladies and gentlemen might have not been at this acquirement. There are no enough words to thank the U.S. government, the State Department in particular, for this generous and philanthropic initiative.

 

In the meantime, some are readily convinced that there is a need for a follow-up program. Similar to the role of National Endowment for Democracy in strengthening democratic institutions around the world through non-governmental efforts, a BRSP follow-up activity can focus on advocating and supporting democratic movement in ethnically diverse Burma. Another example is the United States Agency for International Development which has been extending assistance to countries recovering from disaster, poverty and engaging in democratic reforms with state and non-state actors across the globe.

 

If the officials concerned at the U.S. State Department introduce an appropriate channel – keeping grantees’ survival and other essential obligations into account – where graduating BRSP students can embark to accentuate the U.S. interest and its foreign policy with respect to Burma, it will serve the purpose of BRSP during democratic movement and after a democratic institution is established in Burma.

 

Among others, the State Department may devise a program to help fund grantees who may be volunteering to help refugees and other Burmese in exile – in areas such as human rights awareness campaigns and educational trainings, etc.; assist researchers who need funding for their projects. The State Department may also help find and connect BRSP graduates to other governmental or non-governmental advocacy and rights’ groups both here in the United States and along the Burma borders. If the available resources can be pooled together, these educated students can make a difference.

 

Apparently, in the absence of a follow-up program, there are students with great zeal and interest but unable to pursue their passions as much as they would love to.

Above all, the continuance of BRSP is necessary until a democratic Burma is ready to introduce a high quality education system in the country.

 

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).