Postcard from Myanmar: Professor Michele Ford

3 October 2013

The Shwedagon Pagoda (Photo: Sandra Meiras)
The Shwedagon Pagoda (Photo: Sandra Meiras)

Sydney Southeast Asia Centre director Michele Ford writes about her first of many visits to Myanmar.

I have travelled widely in Southeast Asia, to the extent that I have become almost blasé about the region's incredible architectural heritage and natural beauty. But Yangon stopped me in my tracks. The city is truly a feast for the eye. Nothing had prepared me for the glorious opulence of the Shwedagon Pagoda (pictured right) or the city's dilapidated grandeur.

A whirlwind week-long visit with International Portfolio director, Sandra Meiras, in September 2013 was my first encounter with this fascinating country with such a troubled history. As director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC), I have to make decisions about program focus, and in a region as diverse and as complex as Southeast Asia, this is by no means an easy task. All eleven countries in the region fall within the centre's ambit, and we work hard to promote the University's engagement with each and every one of them.

Each year, however, we identify one or two countries for special attention. In 2012, we focused most closely on Lao PDR. In 2013, it was Timor-Leste. In 2014, our priorities are Thailand and Myanmar.

Many centre members are already deeply engaged in research or outreach work in Myanmar. From Bob Hudson's work on its ancient civilisations, to the Sydney Law School's high-impact engagement on Constitutional Democracy, to the efforts of Richard Seymour and Russell Toth to empower female micro-entrepreneurs, Sydney scholars are already making a difference. Many more, from disciplines as diverse as Medicine and Agriculture, are planning to join these pioneers in helping Myanmar reach its potential upon rejoining the world community.

SSEAC has also hosted delegations from each house of parliament and I met with its president and several ministers at a luncheon hosted by HE Professor Marie Bashir earlier in the year at Government House.

On our recent visit, the people were remarkably open in a country that has long been closed to the world. At a time when government offices and universities are being bombarded by overseas visitors, we were pleased and humbled by the interest shown by government ministers and academics in the work of the university. They are clearly aware that there is a great deal to be done, and not at all precious about drawing on expertise from outside.

At times of great change, opportunities to really make a difference are heightened. We returned from Myanmar filled with enthusiasm for supporting our academics' efforts to do just that.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3191

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