November 23, 2015, BY Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

Bucknell has enjoyed longstanding connections with Burma, now known as Myanmar, ever since the University's first international student, Maung Shaw Loo, arrived on campus in 1858. Students from Burma have enrolled at Bucknell ever since, including during five decades of a military rule in their country. Burma began to open up after the dictatorship ended in 2011, and it appears to be moving toward democracy, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 77 percent of seats in parliament in the November 2015 general election.

To learn more about the historic changes taking place in Burma, we asked several members of our community with close ties to Burma for their perspectives and hopes for the future.

Is there now real hope for democracy in Burma?

William is an undeclared major in the College of Engineering.

"I think it depends entirely on the definition and the type of democracy that the people want to see. If we are talking about future elections and representation of different parties, ethnic groups and perspectives, there is hope. But, in my opinion, a democracy is a political system in which the power lies in the hand of the general public. As long as the military still controls the 25 percent of the parliament seats as allowed in the 2008 constitution, the political system will not be truly democratic. Nevertheless, I believe the landslide NLD victory and the fact that the military did not respond to it as a threat like it did in the 1990 election are huge steps towards obtaining the hope for a real democracy."

An advocate for justice and peace, Prof. Willeford has for decades supported the Bucknell-Burma relationship and worked to raise awareness on campus. 

"The fact that there was an election at all would seem to indicate that perhaps the military itself was ready to consider a change. They must have at least considered the possibility that they might lose and have had some discussions about what their response might be if that were to happen. So I do hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will at least be given a chance to govern. Whether or not the military might again step in if things don't go well is another question."

Carmen is a civil engineering major.

"In order to achieve a certain goal in maintaining a political system in a country, not only government plays a very important role, but also citizens should be well informed in order to be in harmony. It is going to be a little bit difficult for a country like Myanmar with a sudden change, but there is definitely hope. Now, people are more educated and knowledgeable about expressing our rights, which makes it harder for government to lie and cheat from citizens. People will not stand corruptness like before and we will be able to educate each other the role of citizens in reaching a peaceful democratic country. It is very hard to keep a country under military oppression when the world is getting smaller due to advancement in technology. People know what is going on in other countries and how it is like to have human rights equally."

Grace majored in international relations and now works as a case manager for The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Albany, N.Y.

"My opinion is that there is a hope only if the military completely give up their power as politicians. Even if a miracle happens and Aung San Suu Kyi takes power, the steps to democracy will be slow partly due to the complex nature of diversity within the country; government must include ethnic groups and drop fighting, and partly due to the culture. I think when we talk about democracy, we need to consider the cultural and social side of it. I could be pessimistic over this because there are civil wars still going on in the country during elections — which means ethnic minorities were not counted in some places. But at least winning majority of seats in parliament is a good start."

What are your hopes for the future of a relationship between Bucknell and Burma?

Prof. Rickard, an alumnus, and his family have longstanding connections to Burma. In 2013, as the country was opening up after the end of the dictatorship, Rickard traveled to Burma to meet with educators there.

"I think the stars have aligned to make a democracy possible. I'm hopeful that, if the NLD in fact takes power, eventually Bucknell will reestablish its traditional relationship with Burma. The country used to have one of the best university systems in Southeast Asia, and Aung San Suu Kyi has declared her intention to make the Burmese university system strong again. If that, along with an NLD diplomatic presence in Washington, D.C., happens, I'd love to see an educational exchange put in place."

April majored in global management at Bucknell; she now works at Bain & Company as an MBA recruiting assistant.

"A wonderful trait that many Bucknell students and Burmese students both share is a determination to bring about positive changes in their environment. Without a doubt, Bucknell is not the same Bucknell it was when I first enrolled in 2011, just as Burma is not the same Burma it was when the Burma-Bucknell relationship was first established. Both have evolved, both have progressed, and both have the opportunity now to join hand in hand to truly make a beneficial impact on each other. I would love to see a day when a study abroad program could exist. I would love to see a day when service trips to Burma would be impactful and well known. I would love to see a day when an education at Bucknell is more accessible to the bright, aspiring young leaders of Burma."

More: Read Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's 1999 Bucknell Commencement speech, delivered in absentia while she was under house arrest in Burma.