Five Days in Myanmar - Science Diplomacy at 46.8 Degrees C.

bridges vol. 25, April 2010 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter

The newest frontier in AAAS science diplomacy initiatives is Myanmar - or Burma, to use the old British colonial name, which is also favored by the US Government to reflect disagreement with many policies of the Myanmar Government and support for Burmese émigrés and refugees in the US. Nonetheless, despite these sources of friction as well as harsh US economic sanctions against Myanmar, diplomatic relations still do exist between the two countries. There is even a functioning US Embassy in Yangon, albeit with no ambassador.  
Planning and organizing our trip began some months ago through a young, Myanmar-born, US citizen with ties to relatives still in Myanmar. Our objective, as always in initial exploratory science diplomacy visits, was to meet with scientists and officials in substantive areas in which we felt the best chances existed for finding common interests and opportunities for real cooperation. The leader of our five-member delegation was the current AAAS chairman and Nobel Prize-winner (chemistry, 2003) Professor Peter Agre of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. Agre is a strong believer in using the common language of science to bridge rivers of misunderstanding between individuals and countries. His Nobel Prize, plus a wonderfully sincere desire to find ways of working together, always engenders great respect and cordiality from our hosts.  Professor Agre has also led AAAS science diplomacy visits to Cuba and North Korea.  

This Myanmar odyssey was sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, which was represented on the trip by its director and AAAS chief international officer, Dr. Vaughan Turekian; his deputy, Dr. Tom Wang, AAAS director for international cooperation; and by me as senior advisor. Adding immensely to the delegation with his experience in developing countries in Africa and South America was Dr. Robert Swap, research associate professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia. All of us are deeply indebted to the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and its Executive Director Max Angerholzer, who could not be with us on this trip but provided the financial support that made it possible. Lounsbery has truly distinguished itself by its pioneering support over several years of a number of science diplomacy initiatives.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} A few years ago, the leaders of Myanmar did what had been done in Brazil - they moved the capital from Yangon (formerly Rangoon, with a current population of 5.4 million people), as well as all the foreign embassies, to a greenfield site some 200 miles to the North called Naypyitaw, in the Central Dry Zone of Myanmar. On a five-year-old map of the country that I bought at the airport, Naypyitaw doesn't even appear, indicating how new it really is. However, you can see it on Google Earth. A four-lane concrete highway connects the two cities and there is one daily flight each way. Some 33 ministries are there, each identified by large, wall-like signs as one drives along the lovely, winding, four-lane road with brilliant pink and yellow flowering bushes extending for miles along the median. We never did see much of a downtown, but Wikipedia says that by 2009 some 900,000 people lived in Naypyitaw.

The first day was a major test of endurance. We left the US east coast at 11 p.m. and arrived in Singapore 18 hours later, waited two hours for the Silkair flight to Yangon, and arrived there at about 9 a.m. their time. After "freshening up" in the hotel, we had one meeting that lasted for two hours and then at 2 p.m. we set out by car for Naypyitaw.  We arrived at about 7 p.m., in time for a dinner with our local host from the Ministry of Forestry - and then tumbled into bed to rest after what was rapidly becoming an almost 40-hour day, eased only by a bit of sleep on the plane.  

Ah, yes, the heat. The second day in Naypyitaw, we were told the temperature reached 46.8 degrees C. - that's 116o F. Then the next day, although not verified, I was told it went to 48o C. Let me just say it was a real challenge to go out into the sun. Even George Orwell wrote about the stifling heat in his fascinating 1934 novel, "Burmese Days," that I bought from an insistent 7-year-old girl vendor at a pagoda and, once I had started reading, could not put down.

Despite the broad, tree-lined, busy streets and the magnificent Schwedigon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar is a poor, developing country, with GDP per capita in the $400-$500 range. With an area only slightly smaller than Texas, there are some 57 million people, 75 percent of them living in villages, while 50 percent of the land is covered by forests.  There are multiple ethnic minority groups with their own languages and traditions, some of whom have been in conflict with the central government for many centuries. Unique among other countries in South Asia, Myanmar controls the headwaters of its main rivers - particularly the massive Ayerawaddy (Irrawaddy). There are already a number of dams in the northern part of the country, and one of the largest is now being built with the Chinese as part of a plan to greatly expand hydroelectric power capacity. One ministry official admitted it was not so good for the environment but said that they need the power.

We knew from the beginning that US institutions are limited in the interactions they can have with Myanmar because of the sanctions that presently exist. However, several events in recent months suggest that some improvement may be expected in US-Myanmar relations. Virginia‘s Senator James Webb's brief visit there, in which he met with the senior leadership of the country, followed later by a visit of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Dr. Kurt Campbell , clearly represent a new flexibility on the part of the US and, in my view, also a willingness by Myanmar leaders to respond in a cautiously reciprocal fashion.  

WHO, UNICEF, and WFP (World Food Program) activities can be fully carried out despite the sanctions because of their humanitarian nature, but we were told that UNDP, which has an office in Yangon, is limited in what it can do. There also are good relations with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which was mentioned several times in connection with efforts to protect the population of tigers, which are being illegally killed and their body parts sold in China.  

We visited four ministries and were received in every case by a very senior official, usually accompanied by 6-10 associates: Ministry of Forestry (by the minister); Ministry of Health (by the deputy minister); Ministry of Science and Technology (by the director general); Ministry of Foreign Affairs (by the director general). We also had time at the end of the day to visit the University of Forestry and the Forest Research Institute, where we learned that there are more than 3,000 species of trees in Myanmar and were shown samples of wood collected from 450 of them. The institute was doing research on uses of underused wood types as well as on reforestation, the structures of wood, and beginning work in plant genetics. The labs were modest and the equipment limited, but the receptivity of the workers and their enthusiasm for working with us was tremendous. All of them deeply appreciated our visit.   

Forests are extremely important for Myanmar. Teak is one of their great resources and was a major commodity export of the British after their takeover of Burma in the 19th century. A primary issue for the ministry is forest conservation. Problems include illegal logging, particularly in border areas as well as destruction of mangroves in coastal regions for charcoal (used in turn for cooking, as electricity is often unreliable). In the Nargis cyclone, Myanmar lost 40 percent of their mangroves and Japan (JAICA ) is helping to restore some of them. Slash-and-burn agriculture is also a problem.  

The top priorities of the Ministry of Health are malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS - all of which are important. Higher education in medicine is also under the jurisdiction of the ministry, which manages two major medical universities. An extensive web site lists the ministry's many departments and activities.   

The visit to the Ministry of Science and Technology was of great interest, as a series of young administrators presented their activities. The Ministry of Science and Technology implements the plans of the national Committee on Science and Technology, which is chaired by the prime minister. The ministry has six different departments and supervises a total of some 99 different institutions - responsible for both S&T higher education and scientific and technical R&D. Research priorities include IT and biotechnology. One area of research is renewal energy from animal waste, and biogas facilities have been installed in 143 villages. Another research area is plant extracts used in traditional medicine, in which they are beginning work on molecular genetics of such products and want to do more in environmental health. More details can be found on the ministry's web site .  It is also clear that human resource development and building capacity for S&T are primary goals:  At present, 87,000 students are enrolled at various levels in the ministry's educational institutions, out of a total of 300,000 students in higher education in all fields throughout the country. We were told that the best students tend to opt for medicine and go to institutions under the Ministry of Health, but the next best go to engineering under the S&T Ministry; up to 100 students can go abroad each year for advanced training.  

This distributed ministry supervision of education is consistent with the broad reorganization that has taken place in higher education. In a later visit to Yangon University, where we met with the prorector and his associate plus 15-20 faculty department heads, we learned to our surprise that there are no longer any undergraduates there. Undergraduate education has been decentralized to various institutions around the country, apparently under the supervision and direction of relevant government ministries.  Yangon University has only graduate students - about 1900, most of them working for Ph.D.s. Faculty members have research programs, and a number of them have advanced degrees from abroad. Faculty also mentioned ties with institutions in other South Asian countries through the ASEAN University Network , as well as modest exchange programs and opportunities to do research in Germany, China, Korea, Japan, and Malaysia. Both the university and the ministry specifically mentioned their interest in scholarships or fellowships for advanced students to work in the US or other developed countries. None had heard of the US Fulbright program, which has reportedly begun again with Myanmar.     

I stayed two days longer than the rest of our delegation in order to visit some other areas and gain a broader feeling for the country. One special experience was stopping at a small roadside establishment consisting of a few palm trees (fruit palms, not coconut palms) and a "building," open on the sides with a palm-leaf roof. The proprietors served tea, peanuts, and sugar candy made from palm sap (much like maple sugar). The stools and tables were made from palm tree sections and covered with caning of palm fronds.  Wooden ladders were tied to each tree and the "man of the house" climbed to the top of the tree, lopped off a frond, and hung a new pot to catch the sap while retrieving the pot that had hung there for two days. The sugar syrup was delicious. In the hut, a 61-year-old woman was feeding dried palm leaves and straw into a long covered fireplace, on top of which sat a series of large flat bowls containing batches of the syrup at various stages of being boiled down into the candy. One of her sons tended another fire that heated a sugary, fermented, palm mix in an ingenious but very primitive still. As the distillate boiled out of the container, it condensed against the bottom of a metal pan of cold water sitting at the top of the still, and was taken off through a bamboo tube, drop by drop, into a clear glass bottle at the rate of a pint every 30 minutes. It was alcohol and the taste was not bad at all. In fact I invested 3000 jatt ($3) in a bottle of it into which pieces of palm wood had been placed - a local traditional medicine for aches and pains - for external use only. Almost everything these people live on seemed to come from the palm trees: building material, baskets, food, alcohol, roofs from the leaves, and feed for the water buffalo. One can do a great deal with simple but appropriate technology.  

All in all, it was a splendid visit. The hospitality was warm and genuine, the interest in follow-up was sincere. In learning about the country and assessing the potential for beginning cooperation, the mission was a great success. The challenge will be to forge some enduring cooperative linkages from these initial contacts. It would also be very desirable if some EU institutions were interested in receiving students from Myanmar and beginning some of their own cooperative relationships in science and technology with this fascinating country.  

The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the  AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD)  since July 2009.