Reconnecting Myanmar: Thoughts on Day 1 of IIE’s Myanmar Delegation

The International Academic Partnerships delegation to Myanmar had an unusual start. A faculty member from Northern Illinois University, Dr. Catherine Raymond, who curates the Burmese art collection there, was bringing back a Buddha sculpture (pictured below) created more than a thousand years ago. At a ceremony marking the return with the Minister of Culture she noted that the event was a “testimony to the efforts many are making to end trafficking in art.” Ironically, the sculpture is rare because it depicts the Buddha in the pose emoting rule of law, something that has gone missing in so many places today.

As we learned, the return of the Buddha was not an easy thing. The University had wanted to give it back the moment some ten years ago it realized that it had been stolen from the pagoda at Pagan. But there were practically no relations between the U.S. and Myanmar until recently, UPS would not initially take charge of such a rare artifact, and there were no public funds available to defray the cost of transport. But professors who love their field have a way of prevailing. Dr. Raymond also has special inter-bureaucratic skills: she is French, a graduate of La Sorbonne, and anchored in a career at one of America’s leading Southeast Asian studies programs that just happens to be located in DeKalb Illinois, a place that most Americans and Burmese probably could not find on a map. Sometimes, it seems, a career in international education involves as much diplomacy as it does research. She is one of a handful of scholars that studied Burma during all the bad years and is now part of opening its educational space.

While I cannot be sure, it seems to me that U.S. universities may have the world’s largest supply of scholars who are willing and able to work in higher education spaces during difficult times and in difficult places. They make a huge difference over many years and they define the way that some countries coming out of isolation come to know and think about America.

What made the ceremony particularly poignant was the surprise the Myanmar officials had in store for Professor Raymond. That morning officials had flown in the bottom part of the sculpture and so for the first time since it had cracked apart in an earthquake in the 1970s, the Buddha was on the way to becoming whole. It was a very good omen for a visit aimed at re-connecting institutions and people whose diplomatic relations date back to 1857 when the Burmese King Mindon reached out to President James Buchanan in order to promote commercial relations for the benefit of his nation’s many poor.

IIE’s President and CEO Dr. Allan Goodman is currently in Myanmar leading a partnership focused delegation through IAPP. While in Myanmar, the IIE-led delegation will hold public workshops at a number of universities in Yangon and Mandalay open to anyone interested in learning from the U.S. representatives as they lecture on topics such as accreditation, quality assurance, faculty development, student learning, partnerships and other critical subjects.