The Road (from Singapore) to Mandalay

Text and photo by Vinita Ramani

In June 2014, I found myself on a short visit to Myanmar. We were there during the summer when term break was around the corner. The spacious grounds of Mandalay University’s ageing law faculty are sparsely populated. But on our visit, along the corridors in one wing of the law faculty, a classroom is abuzz with student chatter.

Opened in 1925, the liberal arts and sciences university is the second oldest in the country and the largest university in Upper Myanmar. But the law schools in both Yangon and Mandalay universities were closed down in 1996, only reopening in 2013. News reports state that Yangon University – long the site of student protests against military rule – accepted fifty undergraduates for the first time in December 2013.

Since then, the law schools have been signing numerous MOUs with universities overseas committed to variously refurbishing the dilapidated buildings in Yangon and Mandalay, as well as improving pedagogy and curriculum through faculty exchanges.

Unsurprisingly, in this instance obstacles cropped up. The education ministry required official signed permission from President Thein Sein for every MOU the law schools decided to sign with a faculty overseas. It’s a move designed to encumber the process in bureaucratic red tape and has to be handled deftly, using language that emphasizes the benefits of educational capacity building.

That language, as ploddingly dull as it is, is the only way to ensure that social and economic reforms, which began in early 2011 under Thein Sein’s government, continue apace. The faculties have a lot of catching up to do.

Mandalay Law School

In Mandalay, the classroom facilities are rudimentary, but operational. A long carpeted podium with a wooden table and a chair occupies the front of the classroom. There is a laptop on the table, a projector and a screen and a large whiteboard. There are about forty students in the class and about ten faculty members looking over readings and waiting, pens eagerly poised over paper. David Smith, a practice professor and Mahdev Mohan, an assistant professor at the law faculty of Singapore Management University, are readying slides for the day ahead.

Once the hum in the classroom quietens, we’re introduced to Professor Thwin. Petite with smiling eyes and short hair tied loosely at the nape of her neck, she’s dressed in a lime-green htamein and top decorated with vermillion flowers. A professor of constitutional law, she since gone on to become the Head of the Law Faculty. She sits in for the sessions and takes notes, though I can just as easily imagine her segueing into fascinating stories about being a female law professor and academic in Myanmar.

The Dean, an environmental law expert, is a study in contrast. There’s something sturdy and fearless in her gait. When she enters the room before class, she has a commanding presence. We all stand to shake hands with her. Bespectacled, with her hair parted slightly off-centre and tied in a tight ponytail, she has the face of a seasoned politician – polite and formal, revealing very little.

Before class starts in earnest, Mahdev starts off with a call-and-response session.

“What is the difference between a MOU and a contract or a joint venture agreement?” Mahdev asks.

“The MOU is not binding!” There are smiles and laughs all around the room as the students draw back, unused to the spontaneous collective response.

Mahdev asks them rhetorically, “So are MOUs of national significance? Does the President have the time to look at a faculty-level MOU to approve or refuse it?”

A wave of laughter ripples across the classroom. Again the students shake their heads and say “No!” in unison.

In any other law class, the exchange would seem like an innocuous precursor to a session outlining dry legal concepts to first year law students. But in Myanmar, it’s tricky territory and the distinctions are worth remembering.

China & Myanmar

About 127 miles north of Mandalay in the town of Tagaung, the China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group’s (CNMC) subsidiary CNMC Nickel Co. Ltd. signed a joint venture agreement with the state-owned No. 3 Mining Enterprise in 2004 with a 20-year service period to develop a $800 million nickel mine. CNMC owns a 75 per cent stake in the project.

In June last year, the country also opened a deep-sea port off its western coast. The 480-mile pipeline, a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corp (CNOC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), runs from Kyaukphyu district in Arakan state to Yunnan province. Independent news organisation The Irrawaddy reported that the project is already mired in controversy with activists citing both environmental risk and inadequate compensation for villagers who have been moved off the land.

While both projects are too far to affect Mandalay in any significant way, the city has been transmuting gradually in tandem with the changes. China’s presence pre-dates the “opening up” of Myanmar and for the past two decades, infrastructural development has been booming – there are roads and railway networks; thoroughfares that function. There has also been a steadily increasing Chinese population from Yunnan, many of whom have chosen to settle in Mandalay. Current population statistics indicate that close to 40 per cent of Mandalay’s population at present is Yunnanese. Reports say that national registration cards for foreigners are available on the black market, so arriving and integrating is easy. In more ways than one, the country is primed for business.

MOUs & ‘Technical Assistance’

Governments have also been ready in the wings to offer technical assistance. In 2012, Singapore and Myanmar signed an MOU through which Singapore agreed to provide assistance in the areas of trade, law, banking and education.

In February 2014, Singapore Management University and the National University of Singapore signed two Memoranda of Understanding on Cooperation in Legal Education with the law faculties at Yangon and Mandalay universities. The agreement includes faculty exchanges and this trip marks the first three-day intensive teaching stint at Mandalay University’s law school. It is a small but initial step with faculty from Mandalay and Yangon due to visit Singapore in 2015.

For some odd reason, here in Mandalay, other than three male students, the faculty and the rest of the class are dominated by women. “Law isn’t seen as a viable career in Myanmar. So the guys do business, accounting or computer science,” Zin Oo explains. A promising young lecturer who also assists all the professors in the faculty, she clearly thinks differently. “We need to do a lot more research on environmental and investment law in Myanmar,” she adds.

Labour Standards

News on both areas dominates the front pages of local newspapers. In the June 8th edition of The New Light of Myanmar there is a story on “Japan ghetto”, the area in Thilawa Special Economic Zone set up by Japan, where Burmese residents complain of poor housing conditions, unsanitary drinking water no real prospects for fair employment.

The next morning, David picks up The Myanmar Times and is greeted with the headlines: “Gap Inc brings ‘Made in Myanmar’ to US stores.” The news is literally fresh off the press for the 9-15th June 2014 edition of the newspaper. It is the first major US retailer to resume business with the country. While the clothing will be made at two factories in Yangon, what stands out is that Gap won’t be investing directly in Myanmar. Instead, 4,000 workers will be sourced from two South Korean-owned factories.

With a class syllabus largely devoted to business, supply chain issues, corruption and problematic labour standards, the news couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. David begins the afternoon session by outlining the ethical breaches that characterise various forms of investment and trade, in particular problems related to outsourcing and contracting.

He asks them to brainstorm on two questions. “Should Gap should worry about working conditions for Burmese factory workers? What about consumers? Should they care about supply chain issues when they’re about to buy an item of clothing?”

A student sitting in the second row puts her hand up. Dressed in an htamein like most of her classmates, she has a determined air about her. She sits upright and writes everything down, explaining concepts in whispers to her friend who sits beside her. Taking the microphone and standing up, she speaks unfalteringly. “Jobs are good for Myanmar but Gap should have proper labour standards.” It’s too early to say, but I find myself thinking that she has the makings of a good litigator.

Law Library

On one of the days, we eat lunch with the Dean and Professor Thwin at the law school library, which is nothing more than a large rectangular room with rows of teak bookshelves occupying the length of the far wall. The shelves are lined with old case law books. A few of the shelves are labelled “Tort Law”, “Civil Law” and “Military Law”. The military law shelf is conspicuously empty but the space for it has nonetheless been retained.

The meal is a sumptuous spread of mostly Burmese Indian food – white rice, rasam soup, saambar gravy, potato and cauliflower fry, fish and chicken. We recognise most of the dishes because they are typically South Indian Tamil. There are small cups by each plate, filled intermittently with Chinese tea.

“We need books and access to electronic resources,” the Dean tells us. It’s self-evident, but she gets down to specifics. “Students do their research here, but they don’t have access to a wide range of academic journals or other academic resources,” she adds.

Since July 2013, the Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) has been providing electronic resources such as international journals, databases and e-books free of charge. But books for the library are still in demand and it will take time to build anything resembling a university law library.Nonetheless, these steady improvements in teaching and research could not have come at a better time.

On the final day of class, the class splits into “Company A”, “Company B” and “Host Country’s Government” to understand how to negotiate and sign a joint venture agreement.

The group that plays the role of the host country’s government outlines a set of concerns that sound aspirational: they want a joint venture agreement that will respect fair wage standards for Myanmar citizens; adherence to labour rights; protection of natural resources and the environment as well as good public health standards for Burmese workers living in special economic zones.

They are, they tell us during the break, responding to the news they read about investment developments in the country.

If the demands they make during role play sessions seems like naïve idealism, it is tempered by the knowledge that practising law in Myanmar and holding businesses responsible to environmental or human rights standards is still a long way off. This is why the question, “why does Myanmar need foreign investment?” dominates class discussions through the course of the three days.

On our final afternoon in Mandalay, Zin Oo takes us on a tour of the city’s pagodas and tree-lined streets, ending at the moat by the Singapore-owned Sedona hotel where we’re staying.

In the distance, we can see a large red billboard with bold white capital letters on the fort wall that says, “THE TATMADAW WILL NEVER GIVE UP THE NATIONAL CAUSE.” We stand there talking about changes in the country.

Just a few weeks before our trip to Mandalay, The Myanmar Times reported that Aung San Suu Kyi challenged the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Armed Forces) to “prove that they don’t like power” during a campaign rally. But one wonders whether that demand could just as well be directed at the companies signing multi-billion dollar contracts with the state.

As we’re leaving for the airport, Zin Oo stands in the lobby, a broad smile on her face when Mahdev and David tell her they’ll put together a zipped file of electronic journal readings on investment law for her. “Please send me whatever reading materials you think are relevant for my PhD,” she repeats.

That PhD will be on investment law and the rule of law in Myanmar. At least for Zin Oo and her peers, it pays to be equipped to ask the right questions as they witness the inexorable march of economic development in the country. And it is heartening to see that at least in Mandalay, women are at the forefront in law, eager and ready to catch up and rebuild rule of law in their country.


Vinita Ramani is a writer and co-founder of Access to Justice Asia, an NGO that has engaged in human rights and transitional justice work in Cambodia. She is currently working on a novel that touches on conflict, cultural identity and conservation.

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