Carleton College professor draws from his own past to teach students about Burma conflict

Reflections of 1988
Visiting assistant professor Tun Myint brings the conflict in Myanmar to Carleton College students.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

The peaceful demonstrations and subsequent violent reaction by Myanmar's military government in recent weeks mirror a similar tragedy that took place in August of 1988.

Then-high school student Tun Myint joined his friends and thousands of others on the streets of Rangoon demanding democratic and economic reforms. For a few precious weeks, the marches held the promise of a new era for Burma.

Myint recalls the day the military brutally squashed the demonstrations, turning the idealistic teenager into a guerrilla soldier.

"I saw the shooting in front of me. Some of my colleagues in the strike were shot and some of them died. That visionary evidence that I saw was a call to me that I must fight this government by armed struggle," he says.

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Myint managed to evade the military's house-to-house searches to purge the country of suspected activists. He fled to the Thai border and ended up with other students in a loosely organized armed resistance. Myint soon concluded the armed struggle would not be able to adequately counter the government's military might.

After more than two years in the jungle along the Burmese-Thai border, Myint traveled to Bangkok where he was among a limited number of his countrymen accepted into a U.S. scholarship program for Burmese refugees.

Myint eventually earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University. He landed at Carleton College this semester as a visiting scholar where he teaches classes in political regimes and Southeast Asian politics.

Myanmar activists shout slogans at a demonstration in front of the Government House in Bangkok, Oct. 15, 2007.
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

The 38-year-old Myint's teaching crossed paths with his former life when thousands of Buddhist monks and other citizens replayed the demonstrations of 20 years ago, with similar results. The pictures of crimson-robed monks packing city streets and the bloody aftermath became a powerful teaching moment.

"I sense that from my students and I think they sense that from me as well. We had a great discussion and connection. I don't know what's going on in their minds, but the way in which they engage with me in questions the discussion was quite phenomenal. Not such a discussion in a long while." Sophomore Brian Lambert also appreciates the unique window into an international issue in the world's spotlight.

"His knowledge about Burma is very interesting. Not a lot of people have such insight that he does."

The personal, on-the-ground, perspective brings the classroom connection alive for freshman Nathan Yaffe.

"It gives the view that you (don't) get from the air-conditioned UN headquarters where it's obvious there's a certain lack of understanding of the more visceral social forces at work. He's lived in Burma so he told us about going to tea shops in Burma and what that aspect of culture is like. And getting that more populist understanding is something I feel like I miss when I read news reports from major outlets."

The discussions with his students are gratifying for Tun Myint, who grew up in an education atmosphere of unquestioning recitation of the government's curriculum.

"You may be able to control--violently or what not--the people's behavior but you can never eradicate the human capacity to learn. This is what I appreciate most from my students--engaging with them."

Myint's family remains in his home country. He's seen them only once since he left. His stint at Carleton lasts through the academic year. He's in the process of looking for a permanent university teaching position.