Reflection on the new street law workshop
The Origin of Street Law
It was in February 2014 when I first heard about ‘the street law clinic’ from the Georgetown professors. It’s not exactly about teaching law in the technical sense, but drawing examples from various areas of law like human rights and criminal law to give participants an experience of what law is, how and why it works (or not) in the society and gain the skills required such as in a moot or court trial. In other words, it’s sort of an empowerment workshop to gain a deeper understanding of Law (as opposed to getting down to the nitty gritty of each of the complex legal concepts that law school provides), through interactive teaching methods so that participants have a chance to develop their critical thinking, discussion and even debating skills.
Bringing it to Myanmar
Right after that workshop weekend, what a great idea for the migrant students from Burma I thought. From what they’ve told me, traditionally their education involves 100% rote learning with no room for individual thinking or discussions in teams. This workshop would then fill this gap perfectly as we can design it around topics of the Rule of Law and human rights (which their country is notorious for their absence), whilst its teaching is mainly interactive and requires intellectual input from students. As I recalled how great their curiosity and thirst for knowledge was when I met some of them last summer, my heart pounded in excitement at the thought of being able to have insightful exchanges with them again.
For one reason or another, I had not initially joined the teaching team this year. ButI was able to join the Mae Sot team in the end and I am very grateful for it. Although some exercises were demanding and perhaps had put them outside of their comfort zone, the students displayed a high level of innovation and critical thinking, and I was really happy to see how engaged they were. Even though they may not have understood a significant amount of law, seeing their active discussions and the fun they had throughout the learning process made my heart smile. I could feel that the aim of street law – to find school, education and law interesting and approachable – was fulfilled and even extended.
I’ve always thought to myself, what makes a teacher great is not how well s/he is at bringing out the content of the teaching materials (although for examination purposes it would help heaps if s/he does), but more so at nurturing a healthy learning attitude and stimulating the students to pursue knowledge and call it their own. And from my co-teachers I was privileged to see lessons not merely on street law, but on life which exceeds the initial aim of street law. Personally I am not an experienced teacher, and so I really appreciated the efforts and the heart they had put into the workshop which also inspired me:) It’s true that 10 years from now, the students may have forgotten when it is legal to implement euthanasia, or what equality of life can mean when making decisions over life-and-death issues, yet what matters more is that they would remember to stay true to their young, pure and peaceful selves now, choose what is right and continue to strive for their communities, and I really hope they would.
Teaching street law has not only made law seem less boring for me as a law student, it was also great to see students who do not take education for granted truly enjoy the process of learning and express their views on legal/morality issues with an open mind. I’ve enjoyed it a lot, and I hope the students here did so too:)
Fiona joined the journalism training in summer 2013, and returned for Street Law workshop in 2014.
Burmese University Education
“This is our university. Here. I’m supposed to be studying here. But the government don’t let us.”
– 2 local Burmese students told us in anguish while we were walking along the Chancellor Road in Yangon University (YU).
We went to visit the Yangon Institute of Economics (YIE) in Ywathagyi, 2 hours away from the city. YIE students took the circular train back into the city with us, and brought us to YU in the city centre. There, they told us their story in anguish and despair, the story about how their country’s university education system completely broke down, how they are supposed to be studying at YU, but could not do so because of repressive government policy.
Since the 8888 Uprising in 1988, where there were nationwide student protests against the repressive military regime, the government, wary of further student movements, dispersed the existing institutions of YU and scattered them throughout Yangon. Moving the majority student population away from the city centre and scattering them around different places prevents them from assembling easily. Only 300+ students were studying at the YU campus in city centre now, while tens of thousands of students were studying at the satellite campuses in the rural outskirts.
YIE is actually part of YU, but the government broke it up into 3 parts, 1 of which is located at Ywathagyi, a rural outskirt 2 hours away from Yangon city. All the undergraduate economics students have to take a long bus or train journey to go to the secluded institution in the middle of nowhere everyday. Only postgraduates economics students can study at YIE at YU in the city centre now.
“In the dark, you can see everything clearer under the light.”
Walking down the Chancellor Road lit with yellow street lights, they told us enthusiastically about the history of YU, how General Aung San used to discuss revolution plans with his schoolmates on the dark grassfield at late night, how students hid the dead body of UN Secretary General U Thant 40 years ago, and most importantly, how the use of convocation hall was prohibited except for government events, and most importantly- how much they want to study here, because this is where they belong, and this is their only real Yangon University.
Victoria was a volunteer teacher for the Street Law workshop in Yangon in 2014.