|Dr. Maung Zarni|
Dear Vice Chancellor Zul and Assistant Vice Chancellor Anita,
It is with deep regret that I am writing to you to submit my resignation from the post of Associate Professor with the Institute of Asian Studies at the Universiti Darussalam Brunei (UBD).
You were both the key members of the interview team which recruited me to come and work for the University a little over a year ago. I was very much impressed by your narrative of UBD being a place for open intellectual inquiry, supportive bureaucracy, and the new drive for innovation and research. This description of UBD was central to my decision to accept the post.
Months before I arrived in Brunei and officially joined the UBD on 3 Jan 2012, the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, where I would be based, assured me in writing that there was academic freedom for faculty, and I should only steer clear only of two taboo subjects, namely the Sultan and Islam.
But my first-hand one-year professional experience at the UBD has been anything but positive, intellectually and professionally, save the experience of teaching and providing academic support to my Bruneian students.
In June 2012, I travelled to London and joined a highly distinguished LSE panel of experts and practitioners in the fields of human rights and the rule of law including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Sir Geoffrey Nice, deputy head of the ICC Tribunal for Slobodan Milosevic, and LSE Professor Mary Kaldor. UBD authorities punished me by withdrawing UBD’s financial and institutional support 24 hours before my flight to London left , forcing me to take a personal annual leave for this important occasion, and pay for an expensive $3,000 last minute flight and instructing me, in writing, NOT to use the UBD’s name even for affiliation purposes for the LSE roundtable program and to ensure that my contribution to the panel discussion be “purely academic” – something which given the political role of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma is entirely impossible.
Upon return I was called in by Professor Chee-Kiong Tong, my immediate line manager and Strategic Advisor to the Vice Chancellor, and emphatically told “everyone is watching you”, insinuating that I was being spied on by neighbouring countries, merely for my role in this high-profile event – , something any credible university would both support and take pride in. In addition, I was told by Professor Chee-Kiong Tong that I should restrict my work to non-Burma related issues or write only “purely academic” papers, effectively attempting to gag me on my area of academic and professional expertise.
As a socially engaged academic with a known activist background – I was 100% transparent during the recruitment process in my CV and during the job interview in London about my years of human rights activism on the military-ruled country of mine, Burma – I simply could not conscience allowing my employer to intimidate me into professional silence on unfolding human rights atrocities and war crimes against Myanmar’s Muslims and ethnic minorities in Burma on account of a monthly pay check.
In fact, I am the only Burmese academic who is researching, publishing and speaking out against what the Organization of Islamic Conference/Cooperation (OIC) officially refers to as “genocide against the Muslim Rohingya” in Western Burma committed by the collaborating political and social forces, namely the Rakhine “Buddhists” and the Government of Burma itself.
There were other events and articles that I have been prevented from contributing to, or have been made acutely aware of UBD’s displeasure with my contribution in no uncertain terms by UBD authorities. These include writing an invited guest editorial on Burma’s transition for National University of Singapore LKY School’s peer-reviewed Asian Journal of Public Affairs for its February 2013 Special Issue on Burma and being invited to Singapore-based Channel News Asia’s live premier debate on the question of democratization in Burma.
Besides the UBD’s preemptive attempts to stop me from performing my professional public service to the wider Asian public, I have been derided, in writing, for participating in them, being told that they are trivial, luxurious and culturally inappropriate acts which only liberal universities in the West allow their faculty members to engage in.
I have also been prevented from carrying out my own UBD-assigned central professional assignment, namely to develop a key research and publication program on the South China Sea. Just weeks before the scheduled international seminar on the S. China Sea which I was tasked to organize, I was instructed to ‘postpone it until next year’ – causing me considerable professional embarrassment in front of some of the world’s most esteemed scholars on the S. China Sea. For the topic of the S. China Sea was finally deemed too sensitive a subject even to discuss among a small group of about 15 invited – and confirmed – academics and policy practitioners from ASEAN, China, Australia, Europe and N. America.
Recently, at the UBD-NUS co-sponsored Inter-ASEAN Universities Conference on human insecurities in Asia, I read a research paper on the plight of the Rohingya people, based on my own field work with fleeing Rohingya refugees, members of the Presidential Inquiry Commission, local Rakhines and the UN staff based in Western Burma where large-scale ‘sectarian’ violence broke out.
Under pressure from none other than Myanmar Embassy/Government, the UBD initially prevented its own Southeast Asian Studies students with a concern for and an interest in the Rohingya persecution from attending my session- a decision that was later reversed because the chair of my panel Professor Gary Jones insisted that UBD research students ought to hear my academic presentation.
Finally, the Senior Management of the University instructed me NOT to accept any direct invitation to give lectures or briefings on any issue from outside institutions – not even Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I was told that any institution that wishes to invite me must send their official written requests to the Vice Chancellor who will then decide whether I should be allowed to accept the invitation. To my deep dismay, I have found a greater degree of intellectual and professional openness in such non-academic institutions here, namely Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Defence vis-a-vis the Universiti Brunei Darussalam.
I was genuinely committed not only to my role in research and publication, but also in institution building and public service in the form of ‘public intellectual activities’ such as informing the public at large about important issues including human rights, democratization and social justice in Burma and internationally. It is will deep regret that I have come to the conclusion that, given the restrictions imposed on me professionally by the extreme institutional and professional censorship within UBD, it is no longer possible for me to maintain my productivity or make valuable contributions to UBD’s stated objective of being ranked in Top 50 in Asia by 2015. Neither is it possible for me to maintain my professional or personal integrity.
Starting 1 January 2013, Brunei will be chairing the ASEAN, and as the first professor in the Institute of Asian Studies and a noted expert on Burmese affairs, I have already been asked to give my expert comments or write commentaries on policy-relevant issues such as the Rohingya, the South China Sea, human insecurities and civil society. However, I feel that in sharing my expertise on these issues with the public or small groups of diplomats, my position at UBD will be compromised due to the institutional censorship, placing me in an impossible professional position.
In light of the intensification of the restrictions placed on my professional activities in the recent months, I feel that with Brunei taking over the chair of ASEAN, my ability to function in the immediate future with professional integrity will be compromised beyond the levels to which I am prepared to accept. Thus my resignation is effective immediately – from Jan 1st- the beginning of Brunei’s ASEAN chair and before the start of the 2013 academic year on Jan 7th.
I believe I was mislead regarding the professional environment at UBD during the recruitment process, and due to the on-going attempts to gag me on the persecution and slaughter of minorities, including Muslim minorities, in the country of my birth, I no longer wish to be subject to this level of extreme and unprofessional academic censorship. I need to work at a professional institution where the word ‘politics’ is mentionable, social conscience livable, and compassion honourable.
On a personal level, I wish you both all the very best in 2013. Anita, I greatly appreciated your personal intervention to overturn the initial decision to prevent me from attending the public seminar with Professor Amartya Sen at Columbia University on the conflicts in Burma in September. Unfortunately, good individuals are not an antidote to illiberal institutions.
Dr. Maung Zarni is member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. he was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website www.maungzarni.com.