Books at a premium in Myanmar

Published February 1, 2002

Prof. Zau Lat Lahpai leads a class in the library of Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yango, Burma (Myanmar).

In a reversal reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451, in which fire departments exist not to put out fires but to burn books, the duty of the postal service in Burma (Myanmar) is as much to block mail as to deliver it.

“We are used to being suspicious of the post office,” said one Baptist man. “You never receive your letters and if you do, some are censored.”

Not only do packages shipped through the postal system often disappear, but postal officials review the contents of book shipments with recipients before releasing them. “It can take all day,” said one seminary faculty member. Anything referring to the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988, or about the government’s chief political opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, is forbidden. “Anything mentioning peace and justice they throw away,” he said.

As a result, theological books are at a premium for Burma’s seminaries and Bible colleges, with libraries pieced together from the flotsam and jetsam of what happens to be available, mostly books left over from the pre-1966 days of the missionaries, or carried in by visitors and returning travelers, he said.

While in recent years the Anglican seminary in Rangoon, Holy Cross Theological College, has been able to gather a sufficient number of books for its library to win accreditation from the Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA), donations from overseas are often seized as contraband.

Observing copyright restrictions quickly becomes an impractical luxury. Key books that seminaries do own are often disassembled, photocopied and bound for distribution to students and other school libraries.

Censorship is not limited to secondary literature. A request to reprint the famous Judson Bible inside Myanmar was refused unless 10 offensive words such as “justice” were deleted throughout. A subsequent effort by the Myanmar Bible Society to import more than 10,000 copies by truck also failed when the Bibles were stopped at the border.

Such difficulties have not curbed seminary enrollment. At Holy Cross, the student body of 56 has doubled since 1996, and tripled since the 1980s when it was fewer than 20. The Baptist-affiliated Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT), where classes are taught in English, serves more than 500 students, when counting a recently instituted undergraduate program.

Two other Baptist seminaries on Seminary Hill in Insein, on the northern outskirts of Rangoon – the Myanmar Institute of Christian Theology (MICT), where classes are taught in Burmese, and the Karen Baptist Theological Institute, which serves Karen students – each have approximately 300 students.

The number of seminaries is increasing, noted Rev. Smith Nguhl Za Thawng, general secretary of the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), as the plethora of evangelical groups that have taken advantage of the government’s “open market policy” to enter the country open their own Bible colleges. These new schools, however, tend to be “small, small, small,” he said. “We do not know how they manage to run.”

With government restrictions severely limiting the construction of non-Buddhist religious buildings, life at Holy Cross “is a little crowded,” admitted Rev. Saw Maung Doe, the principal. MIT’s 500 students are squeezed into facilities designed for 100, though the seminary is in the process of constructing an additional building.

The popularity of theological education stems in part from the dearth of other opportunities for higher education in Burma, Saw Maung Doe acknowledged, noting that there is actually a shortage of current students at Holy Cross preparing for the Anglican priesthood from the dioceses of Hpa-an and Mandalay.

After being closed for a number of years following the bloody suppression of pro-democracy student demonstrations in 1988, Burma’s universities have re-opened slowly and function erratically.

To avoid large concentrations of students in downtown Rangoon – the demonstrations first erupted at Rangoon Technical University not far from Seminary Hill and quickly spread to the then-prestigious Rangoon University – undergraduate programs have been divided by field and scattered to distant suburban locations.

Rangoon University is “like a ghost town,” said one faculty member. The once bustling campus is currently limited to graduate students and international students studying Burmese language and culture.

Although touted as free, college programs actually are quite expensive because of transportation costs and the need to pay private tuition fees to individual professors. With the backlog of college-aged and older students, those who can afford to attend and who have passed matriculation exams must usually wait a year or more to enter.

Young people “know they need to get at least one degree, so they are attending useless, distant universities,” said one Baptist man.

Whereas “before World War II, most of the leaders came from universities,” the government’s military leaders are widely suspected of placing a low value on higher education because many of them are uneducated, said another man.

That pattern of disregard may be changing in at least one arena: the only university program that can claim an elite status currently is the military academy. “Although they ignore other universities, they [the government] upgrade the military university,” said one Anglican, but identifying oneself as a Christian is an almost certain block to admission, or to advancement in the military should one get in.

With the severe limitations placed on access to college for the general public, “the places of our most happiness and enjoyment are no more,” said one college graduate. “But we remember.”

Once an extensive and independent network of campus-based units under the auspices of the World Student Christian Fellowship, the Student Christian Movement in Burma was shut down following the 1962 coup. It has since been resurrected as a department of the Myanmar Council of Churches and serves about 10,000 students.

With government concerns about almost any organized student activity, however, its emphasis must be carefully focused on religious rather than political concerns, said Saw Shwe Lin, national secretary.

Any large gatherings, he noted, have to be carefully orchestrated, if they are permitted by the government at all. “Formerly we held a national ecumenical camp each year,” he said. “Now medical and technology students can’t meet in the same place.”

One of the biggest challenges, said Saw Shwe Lin, is the apathy of the students themselves. “They are lost morally and ethically,” he said. With limited prospects for employment following graduation and low regard for their degree programs, “they don’t want to be studious.”

Christian organizations and seminaries also do their best to help fill in the gaps left by the spotty educational offerings. Both the ecumenical Myanmar Council of Churches and the Anglican province (the Church of the Province of Myanmar) assist students with scholarship aid.

“There are some students who are brilliant, but their parents cannot afford to have them attend college,” said Anglican archbishop Samuel San Si Htay. The MCC, in particular, is supporting students pursuing “post-graduate education in the hope that they will become lecturers in university, because we don’t have many Christian lecturers,” he said.

At Holy Cross, tuition and board for the students is free, said Saw Maung Doe, with the annual cost per student of 150,000 kyats (about $300) provided through a combination of donations from the students’ home churches and dioceses, the provincial office, foreign grants and foundations.

At MIT, a recently introduced four-year undergraduate program in religious studies offers a comprehensive curriculum that attempts to provide some of the components of a liberal arts education. “We saw that it was a need and we have tried to fill it,” said Marcheta Thein, MIT’s academic dean.

James H. Thrall is a doctoral student in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University and former deputy director of ENS.

The names of some individuals interviewed for this article have been omitted for their protection.


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