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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2524

US-Burma Scholarship Program enters a new chapter

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Sixteen years (1991-2007) of the 1990 congressionally mandated Burma Refugee Scholarship Program (BRSP) comes to an end paving the way for a new direction. This happens at a time when the U.S. government is mulling over possible means to Burma’s problems.

Fulbright Program, established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the then U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, is to take over the US-Burma Scholarship Program. Interestingly, both BRSP and Fulbright programs are sponsored by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State.

The last BRSP alumni meet was held at Indiana University campus, Bloomington from July 27 through 29. The 12th and last group is expected to arrive at Indianapolis International Airport from Thailand this August.

This program has brought a little less than one hundred students from India and Thailand. It was created to provide grants annually to five Burmese students and professionals whose educations were interrupted by the closure of educational institutions in the aftermath of 1988 democracy uprising.

However, due to the rise in inflation and the non-increase in budget, only 4 grantees could have been recruited at the few final years of the program. The overall goal of the scholarship program is to assist potential leaders in achieving a democratic society in the Union of Burma.

With almost two decades have elapsed, the State Department believes that this program is no longer relevant. It is also their calculation that programs such as Open Society Institute and Prospect Burma are available to support the educational needs of the Burmese students in exile.

According to Charles Reafsnyder, Director of Center for International Education and Development Assistance (CIEDA) at Indiana University, this idea has been discussed at the U.S. State Department since 2002. Reafsnyder also added that the U.S. State Department is pleased with BRSP result and grantees’ performance.

Meanwhile, one may ask if this shift in policy is a ramification of the mushrooming politics in Washington or Nay Pyi Taw. Indeed, what has developed in recent political maneuvering is intriguing.

On June 25 & 26, the Bush administration, in its highest level of meeting in 4 years, met leaders of Burma’s military regime. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Eric John met a team of Burmese ministers - Information Minister Kyaw San, Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Culture Minister Khin Aung Myint.

The last such high level meeting was in April 2003 when Eric John’s predecessor Mathew Daley visited Burma and met officials of both the military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi.

This may be decoded as a new phase in the broader U.S. foreign policy toward the secluded Burma’s State Peace and Development Council. The meeting itself was an overt gesture of pushing forward the initiative taken by U.N. special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari.

In another development on July 24, the U.S. Senate voted 93-1, after the House of Representatives voted a day before, to renew U.S. sanctions on Burma for another year. The bill was signed into law on August 2 by President Bush.

To some distant observers, the U.S. foreign policy may seem contradicting between isolationism and engagement. Apparently, the U.S. takes a multi-pronged approach – supporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s led democratic movement and simultaneously talking to the military generals.

At this point of Burma’s political movement, putting emphasis on Fulbright Program is an obvious indication of U.S. intention to see greater impact on the movement inside Burma.

Reliable source says that there were 20 Fulbright qualified finalists this year, but only 5 of them were selected due to limitation of funds. The program is expected to expand in the coming years.

One significant feature of BRSP was its consideration of Burma’s multi-ethnic nature. As a result, grantees comprise of people from diverse ethnic groups, regardless of elite or non-elite status in the society.

With Fulbright Program replacing BRSP, there are some who have concerns that this new program may not reach deserving students in rural areas who are largely impecunious.

Some go on to argue that this initiative could only benefit children of opulent military generals and their close associates who would have easy access to the U.S. embassy in Rangoon. This subject was one lively discussion at the last BRSP alumni meet.

Whatsoever the motive is, there is one clear objective that the U.S. government is attempting to have a direct impact on the people inside Burma. Fulbright scholars are presumably believed to return home once the scholarship expires; which means the immediate application is expected.

At its 2007 alumni meet, grantees in a voice vote agreed that a BRSP follow up program is necessary. Some have the opinion that BRSP and Fulbright program should go hand in hand, while a few are skeptical about the Fulbright Program inside Burma at this juncture.

Time will tell if Fulbright scholars are more pragmatic or effective than BRSP scholars with respect to Burma’s reconstruction and vice-versa. One thing, however, clear is that the U.S. government will definitely be in need of more people and greater resources once a democratic Burma is instituted.

Regardless of what befalls out of US-Burma Scholarship Program, grantees of BRSP are immensely grateful to the government of the United States of America for its generous and unflinching support to the Burmese democratic movement.

U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Burma’s political struggle will have to explore varying strategies in line with diplomatic relations neighboring countries have established with this Southeast Asian nation.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the general secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

- Asian Tribune -

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