AAAS-Led Delegation Discusses Forestry, Health, and Research with Myanmar S&T Leaders

A six-member delegation led by Nobel laureate Peter Agre, chairman of the AAAS Board, held high-level discussions on forestry, health, and other science-related issues with Myanmar science and academic leaders during three days of meetings in Naypyitaw and Yangon.

On returning to the United States, AAAS officials described the talks as cordial and constructive. They were impressed by Burmese interest in cooperatively addressing malaria and other infectious diseases and protecting forests and animal habitats—and by their interest in engaging with scientists and others from the United States.

“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.”

Myanmar's Ministry of Forestry hosted a meeting with members of the AAAS-led delegation that visited Myanmar in April. From left to right: Tom Wang, deputy director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; Thet Win, a member of the U.S. delegation and founder of the US Collection Humanitarian and Research Corps; Vaughan Turekian, director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and AAAS chief international officer; Peter Agre, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors; Brigadier General Thein Aung, Myanmar's minister of forestry; U San Lwin, director general of the Ministry of Forestry; (behind U San Lwin) Robert J. Swap, a research associate professor in environmental sciences at the University of Virginia; U San Myint Maung, director general of the Ministry of Forestry; U Khin Win, deputy director general of the Ministry of Forestry; and San Win, director of the Ministry of Forestry.
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Thet Win, a member of the U.S. delegation and founder of the US 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 6-10 April. Among those who welcomed the Americans were Brigadier-General Thein Aung, the forestry minister; 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. At least two stories in Myanmar’s English-language press covered the visit.

In addition to Agre and Thet Win, the AAAS delegation 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.

The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy was founded in 2008, and has been guided by the premise that science engagement can be a basis for building international communication and understanding even where governmental ties are strained or broken. In recent months, Agre also has led delegations to Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Since the delegation’s return, it has held or planned briefings with a number of parties interested in Myanmar, including members of Congress such as U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia), who has chaired hearings on U.S.-Myanmar relations, and the U.S. State Department. Delegation members also were featured in a public forum at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Peter Agre, chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors, with young Buddhist nuns at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
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[Photo by Vaughan Turekian]

Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist nation; it shares borders with India, China, and other Southeast Asian nations. While it is rich in resources, including timber, natural gas, and precious stones, the economy remains largely agricultural. Most people live at the subsistence level, and conditions declined further after Cyclone Nargis came ashore in the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008. It was the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, killing more than 130,000 people and causing an estimated $10 billion in damage.

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. U.S. sanctions designed to isolate Myanmar have blocked virtually all economic activity between the two nations.

Myanmar does have increasing engagement with countries in Europe and Southeast Asia, and in the months before the AAAS delegation embarked, signals suggested that the United States government might move toward engagement with Myanmar’s government. Last August, Webb became the first senior United States official in a decade to visit the nation. Kurt M. Campbell, assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, made an exploratory visit last November.

A number of news reports have announced Myanmar’s upcoming election, though a date and other details have not been set.

Because so few Americans have visited the nation in recent years, members of the delegation were not sure what to expect on their arrival. But, they said, the welcome was warm and sincere. And during the three days of travel and meetings, they gleaned some significant—and sometimes surprising—insights.

Swap, the University of Virginia professor, said members of the delegation met two women who were serving as high-level advisers to the Ministry of Science and Technology. They had worked in 134 off-the-grid villages to install “bio-digesters” that capture methane from organic waste and convert it into electricity.

Swap and others were surprised and impressed as well by Myanmar’s work on health issues, including ambitious efforts to monitor malaria, diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other infectious illness.

Forestry and conservation are areas where Myanmar has focused its research and conservation efforts. In a visit to the Forestry Ministry and an affiliated forestry lab, Myanmar officials said that tiger and elephant protection programs and mangrove restoration projects are part of their work in 40 conservation areas.

“It’s clear forests are an area where they have an active and evolving management policy which is informed by science and scientific research,” said Turekian, AAAS’s chief international officer. “There was a great awareness at the Ministry of Forests about the vulnerability of their forests to climate change and extreme events, and also to poachers.

“What was clear in all of our meetings with ministry researchers and academic experts was their interest in working with their U.S. counterparts.”

Added Swap: “I found people [in Myanmar] to be generally upbeat. They were really excited about us being there, they were excited about having an opportunity to be exposed to what people elsewhere in the world are doing, especially on problems they face—in forestry, health, and with solutions that don’t have to cost much.”

Having done extensive work in southern Africa, Swap envisions possible opportunities to build networks linking Myanmar with people and groups there and in other places that have addressed similar challenges. “We are jointly looking at opportunities for Myanmar experts to have increased interaction with colleagues in other regions,” Swap said.

Thet Win, a Myanmar native whose humanitarian agency is based in Washington, D.C., sees a great benefit just in bringing the two sides together for a few days.

“This mission was important to undertake because there is an oversimplified representation of Myanmar in the U.S.,” he said. “US Collection encourages people to visit Myanmar and see the reality for themselves. Then they will learn the truth and see that there is room to maneuver for mutually beneficial engagement activities with Myanmar.”

Agre, the AAAS Board chairman, found the youth of Myanmar to be a particular hope for the future. “Like other developing countries, I feel Myanmar’s youth may be their most precious commodity,” he said. “I sense that we can really help them if we can find an opportunity to engage after the elections.”