US-Burma Scholarship Program enters new chapter

Published on August 7, 2007

US-Burma Scholarship Program enters new chapter

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Sixteen years (1991-2007) of the Burma Refugee Scholarship Program (BRSP), established by the US Congress, comes to an end paving the way for a new direction. This policy change happens at a time when the United States government is considering alternative option toward Myanmar.

 Participants of the final alumni meet of U.S. State Department funded Burma Scholarship Program from July 27 – 29, 2007 at Indiana University, USA

  Participants of the final alumni meet of U.S. State Department funded Burma Scholarship Program from July 27 – 29, 2007 at Indiana University, USA

The Fulbright Program, established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the then US Sen J William Fulbright of Arkansas, will take over the US-Burma Scholarship Program. Both the BRSP and Fulbright programs are sponsored by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State.

The most recent BRSP alumni meeting was held at IndianaUniversity campus, Bloomington, from July 27 through 29. The 12th and last group is expected to arrive at Indianapolis International Airport from Thailand this August.

This program has brought a little less than 100 students from India and Thailand. It was created to provide grants annually to five Burmese students and professionals whose educations were interrupted by the closure of educational institutions in the aftermath of 1988 democracy uprising.

However, due to inflation and a flat budget, o­nly four grantees were recruited during the final years of the program. The overall goal of the scholarship program is to assist potential leaders in achieving a democratic society in the Union of Burma.

With almost two decades elapsed, the State Department believes the program is no longer relevant and similar programs sponsored by the Open Society Institute and Prospect Burma can support the educational needs of Burmese students in exile.

Meanwhile, o­ne may ask if this shift in policy might also reflect the shift in policies now underway in Washington and Naypyidaw.

In June, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Eric John met with a team of Burmese ministers – Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Culture Minister Khin Aung Myint.

In another development, o­n July 24 the US Senate voted 93-1, after the House of Representatives voted a day before, to renew US sanctions o­n Burma for another year. Apparently, the US is taking a dual approach – supporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s led democratic movement and simultaneously talking to the military generals.

At this point in Burma’s political life, shifting the BRSP scholarship program to the Fulbright Program seems to reflect the US’s intention to focus o­n change inside Burma. One significant feature of BRSP was its consideration of Burma’s multi-ethnic nature. Grantees represented diverse ethnic groups from all strata of society.

With the Fulbright Program replacing BRSP, there are concerns that the new program may not reach deserving, poor students in rural areas.

Some even argue that the change could o­nly benefit children of wealthy military generals and their close associates who would have easy access to the US embassy in Rangoon. This topic was discussed at the last BRSP alumni meet.

Whatsoever the motive, it appears the US government is attempting to have a more direct impact o­n people inside Burma.

At the 2007 alumni meeting, recipients in a voice vote agreed that a BRSP follow-up program is needed. Some people said the BRSP and Fulbright programs should work together, and some expressed concern about how effectively the Fulbright Program could work inside Burma at this juncture.

Time will tell if Fulbright scholarships are more effective than BRSP scholarships with respect to Burma’s reconstruction.

Regardless of the fate of BRSP, its recipients are immensely grateful to the US for its generous and unflinching support to the Burmese democratic movement.

It’s clear the US is searching for new ways to effect change inside Burma, including its efforts to provide international scholarships.

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).