RANGOON — Burma's universities were once considered by many to be among the best in East Asia. But years of mismanagement and a disastrous nationalization process left the education system in such shambles that many students seek educational opportunities abroad.
Since entering parliament, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has made restoration of Burmese schools a priority, and a new attitude towards learning has emerged among policymakers.
These Burmese students are visiting a United States college fair in Rangoon, in the hopes to attend college there. Recent political reforms that have resulted in the lifting of sanctions against Burma have made this type of event possible for the very first time.
U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell says he hopes Burmese students can go to the United States to get a good education, but at the same time there is a need to improve local education systems.
"Most important is for it to be indigenous, and in fact we talk about universities but there's a lot that happens before you get to university," Mitchell says. "Primary school education, secondary school education, that has to happen here."
When Burma's universities were nationalized in 1964, the government controlled curricula; subjects such as history and political science were taboo. Since reform, however, there has been an attempt to introduce classes that discuss sensitive issues such as the history of ethnic conflict in Burma.
May Nyein Chan is taking this history class that is being taught through the embassy-run American Center.
"Before I don't think I can have that, it would be something illegal," she says. "I have never gone to a field trip like this before."
Universities were at the center of student uprisings that occurred periodically over the past five decades. The government closed them down to keep students away from where they could cause harm.
Thein Lwin, a graduate of Rangoon University, has now formed a committee that will make recommendations to parliament on new education policy. He says the government needs a fundamental change in its attitude towards schools and education. But, he adds, it will take time to undo the damage of past governments.
"Students should be allowed to form freely student union, the student representative should participate in the university governing body," he says. "University should be a place for criticizing the country."
In the meantime, students who hope to be able to continue their education, still want to leave the country.