Thirty Years of History: Memories on Prospect Burma’s Foundation, by Martin Smith, PB Trustee
In March 1989, I reported on the Burmese students and the events of 1988 for a documentary on British television. The next morning I received a phone call from Alan Hall, a retired businessman and Burma veteran of the Second World War. He wondered whether there was anything that could be done to help the students. Thousands were now living in very difficult circumstances in the borderlands after fleeing a military crackdown. Alan set up a meeting with Michael Aris, the Oxford Academic and Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband, who suggested an educational foundation.
When we asked how to do this, Michael said that he knew just the person: his step mother-in-law Evelyn Aris who had recently retired from the British Council. Evelyn lived in the same residential block as another Burma friend, Lady Patricia Gore-Booth, who had been Aung San Suu Kyi’s UK guardian. It was from these tentative connections that Prospect Burma was born. Somewhat remarkably, PB was to remain based in the same London building for the next two decades.
In the following years, three main factors sustained PB’s development. First, with the universities closed, there remained enormous need, but the desire for education was undiminished. “Our heads are bloody but unbowed” was a popular student slogan. Second, galvanised by Evelyn and Patricia, there developed a dedicated core of supporters, many of whom had Burma experience and recognised the special sufferings of the country. And third, Alan had the inspired vision to come up with the name of Prospect Burma as a forward-looking organisation to promote the highest standards of education. It was agreed that PB should not be an emergency charity for short-term aid.
Much water has since passed under the bridge. But PB’s founding mission of “education for a democratic future” is still as important as it was back in 1989. Having said this, in the early years PB programmes were often run under crisis conditions. One of our first actions was to purchase two boats for students to escape by if their refugee camp should come under attack. Added to this, many of the students were sheltering in the lands of such peoples as the Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Mon, and their young people were also suffering from the consequences of decades of civil war and socio-economic failure. The educational situation across the country was dire.
It thus soon became clear that PB had to take on a broad outlook. Amongst our early initiatives, my wife Susanne ran English teacher-training courses, while PB funded education programmes in such areas as languages, health, agriculture and textbook provision. From these experiences, a two-fold pattern developed by which PB has continued to evolve. With political impasse continuing, it was recognised that many students would never have the chance to finish their studies. Thus the international scholarship programme was launched in 1994, prioritising higher education in such subjects as law, health, education, human rights, environment and modern sciences. Meanwhile vocational training courses were sponsored around the country’s borders in such areas as journalism, English language-learning, crafts and computer skills.
Looking back today, much has changed in recent years. But many of the underlying challenges remain. The goal of education for all – as a basic human right – remains essential. It is thus deeply encouraging that a new generation of students and supporters are continuing to take educational progress forward in the country. Many alumni have important roles in national life. Valuable steps have been taken, but there remains a long way to go in the difficult transition from decades of conflict and military rule.