Of Science Diplomacy and White Elephants

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / Neureiter on S&T in Diplomacy
By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter jMyanmar is a long plane ride from Washington, DC. But when the second AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) science diplomacy mission headed for Burma two months ago, my wife Georgine said she just had to see Myanmar (it was the last item on her bucket list). So she and I took the long way there – through Tokyo and Bangkok. After we met up with the rest of the AAAS delegation at the Yangon Airport (they had flown overnight from Newark via Singapore), Georgine set out with a lovely young Burmese woman charmingly named Yuyu, to look at several thousand pagodas and images of Buddha in the area around the ancient city of Bagan. The rest of us clambered aboard two vehicles and drove 200 miles due north on a sparsely traveled four-lane concrete highway to the six-year-old capital of Myanmar, called Naypyitaw. Late in 2005 the capital was officially moved from Yangon to its present location in the country where a completely new city was built. Naypyitaw now has about one million people, a quite large, partially golden pagoda, some very nice hotels, 34 government ministries, and the parliament. The generals also live there – the same ones who, in their opulent isolation from their people and from much of the world, have mismanaged the country into its present run-down state.

But also residing there are the minions of a new president and a new government that has begun a dramatic process of social and (cautious) political change. Some may say the changes are only modest, but the presence of change is palpable. One hears it in the voices of the new ministerial officials with whom we met. One senses it in the openness of conversations, the enthusiasm with which scientists talk about more study abroad and the possibility of science cooperation with the US and other Western countries. In slightly over two days, we visited seven different ministries – Science and Technology; Education; Health; Forestry; Industry; Mining; and Foreign Affairs – almost all at the minister or vice-minister level. On our first visit, two years ago, we visited only four ministries. And although we had sensed a genuine interest in cooperating, we came away then with the feeling that it would be difficult – on their side because of the policy of isolation and avoidance of interaction with the West, and on our side because of the sanctions and restrictions, as well as a very politically active anti-Myanmar Burmese refugee population in the US. During our recent visit, we were amazed at the openness of discussions, and the willingness to discuss problems and challenges as well as capabilities and accomplishments. But Myanmar clearly has huge challenges ahead in its transition to a new economy and social structure. When asked, officials asserted that the present changes are irreversible; but one sage individual noted that success will come only if there is real improvement in the economic condition of the country and its people.


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