AAAS Group Visits Myanmar for Talks on Health, Forestry, and Science

A six-member delegation led by Nobel laureate Peter Agre, chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors, made a rare visit to Myanmar for high-level discussions on forestry, health, and other science-related issues with science and academic leaders in Naypyitaw and Yangon.


A hopeful visit. AAAS Board Chairman Peter Agre with young Buddhist nuns at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
[Credit: Vaughan Turekian]

Though few Americans have visited the country in recent years, AAAS officials described the talks as cordial and constructive. They were impressed by Myanmar’s interest in protecting forests and animal habitats and cooperatively addressing malaria and other infectious diseases.

“Myanmar is making an effort to educate its young scientists, which is complicated by limited resources and equipment along with a lack of networks of peers, especially in the West, ” said Agre, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “This trip may be an important initial step towards connecting their scientific community with their American counterparts in a way that advances science. ”

Thet Win, a member of the U.S. delegation and founder of the U.S. Collection Humanitarian and Research Corps, said the visit sent an important message to the people of Myanmar.

“We are compelled by compassion to help those suffering from poverty, disease, and environmental and ecological destruction, ” he said. “Ultimately, only science and education can contribute to the solutions and remedies for these ills...My impression is that Myanmar scientists and educators are interested in engagement with AAAS and welcome the fact that a well-known U.S. organization is looking for mutually beneficial ways to interact. ”

The delegation was in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from 6 to 10 April. Among those who welcomed the Americans were the forestry minister, Brigadier-General Thein Aung; Dr. Mya Oo, the deputy health minister; Ko Ko Oo, director-general of the Ministry of Science and Technology; Mya Mya Oo, rector of Yangon Technological University and of Mandalay Technological University; and the pro-rectors of Yangon University.

The AAAS delegation also included Norman P. Neureiter, a former science adviser to the U.S. secretary of state and currently senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; Robert J. Swap, a research associate professor in environmental sciences at the University of Virginia; Tom Wang, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; and center Director Vaughan Turekian, who also serves as AAAS chief international officer.

Most people in Myanmar live at the subsistence level, and conditions declined further after Cyclone Nargis killed more than 130,000 people and caused an estimated $10 billion in damage in May 2008.

Ties between Myanmar and the United States and much of the West have been profoundly strained since a popular uprising in 1988 and subsequent suppression of democracy movements. Recent visits by U.S. officials have signaled possible interest in renewed engagement.

Since their return, delegation members have briefed members of Congress and the U.S. State Department. They also were featured in a public forum at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.