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Education is the cornerstone of a democratic society.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt observed that, “[d]emocracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.  The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  So it is no mistake that authoritarian regimes often seek to dismantle the educational infrastructures of a country when they come into power.


After the small Southeast Asian nation of Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, it boasted one of the highest literacy rates in Asia.  Its schools were admired by many in the region.  However, subsequent years of authoritarian rule have wreaked havoc on the country’s education system.  Student led protests against the regime in 1988 led the regime to violently suppress the movement, killing an estimated 3,000 people.  Universities were subsequently closed for two years.   After protests once again swept the country in 1998, the military junta again closed universities for three years.


In 2010, the Burmese government embarked on the path to liberalization introducing both political and economic reforms.  Reforming Burma’s education system must be a top priority for the country’s leaders in order to bring lasting peace and prosperity.

The Human Freedom initiative’s Liberty and Leadership Forum helps to bridge this education gap, kicking off with an intensive 3-week educational experience in the United States.  Participants engage in an interactive learning experience with leading academics and experts from institutions such as Stanford University, Southern Methodist University, and leading non-government organizations like Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute.


The Forum equips individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to lead in societies that are experiencing a transition from authoritarian rule.  Over the past two weeks, 18 Young Leaders from Burma have studied the principles of democracy and free market economics, democratization, and leadership.  They also visited Washington, D.C. for four days to get a first-hand glimpse of the institutions of democracy at work.  The Young Leaders had the unique opportunity to speak via videoconference with Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who reiterated that “no democracy can succeed unless its people are educated.”


Many of these young men and women had their formal education interrupted.  Some were imprisoned for their political activities, others were forced to flee to refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border due to violence in their villages, and some simply could not afford the high cost of education.  However, their hunger to learn is undeniable.  In a short time, the Young Leaders have demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the works of great philosophers and thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and Martin Luther King, Jr.


From the beginning of the Forum, the Young Leaders have expressed great excitement about returning to their country to share what they learn with others.  As Burma continues on the path of reform, these young men and women will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the future of their country and its education system.  Given this, the future of Burma is bright.


 Elizabeth Hoffman is the Program Manager for Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute.