Five students traveled to Myanmar in January 2018. All photos: Rebekka Opsal
An intensive course at Myanmar Institute of Theology
– I have already recommended this to other students! says Marte Jonassen, master student of RSGI.
Want to know more about MIT cooperation in Myanmar?
Written by student Ingrid Johannessen
In 2017, a new collaborative project between MF Norwegian School of Theology (MF) in Oslo and Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) in Yangon started up in the shape of a two week intensive course financed by NORPART. The fall of 2017, five students and two professors from MIT took an intensive course in Oslo, and the spring of 2018, it was time for students and teachers from MF to exchange to Yangon. I was one of the lucky five students who got my application approved. The students who travelled together came from different study programs and did not know each other from before. But January 13th, we all went to Myanmar together with Dr. Iselin Frydenlund, associate professor in religious studies with Buddhism as her specialty. Also, Kjetil Fretheim joined later on in the trip, and a representative from NORPART came to visit us.
Solveig Vatn Weisser who studies theology told us that she “applied to the course because it offered a perfect combination of learning and travelling. In addition to this, an opportunity to get to know people form different cultures and to find things in common, and to discover differences that can be enrichening”. Marte meant that “a trip like this is a great opportunity to combine theory and praxis in a way different than in a regular classroom setting. I was also in China with the one year program Intercultural Communication at MF, and I still remember a lot of what I learned there, so I was hoping for the same experience in Myanmar”.
We traveled from snow and ice in Oslo and landed in Yangon, who despite of winter season offered 30 degrees Celsius and sun. We lived at a hotel near by the school, so the fact that the travel distance was short was something we appreciated, since the biggest threat in Myanmar is the traffic. MIT had, together with MF, made arrangements for the two weeks, with a lecture each morning and an excursion or a meeting each afternoon. The first week had the headline “Issues and Problems” and was about Burmese nationalism, problems with the constitution and the challenges of the ethnical and religious minorities in Myanmar. Week two focused on “Responses”, and presented peace processes, theological and ecclesiological responses to the challenges, in addition to MIT’s growing work with equal rights between genders. Each lecture was held by professors at MIT, or external experts. In each lecture, Burmese students from MIT participated. A lot of time was set aside for discussions and questions, something very useful for further conversations and broader understanding. The lectures were followed by a lunch, who turned out to be a great social arena for the students at MF and MIT, where we could discuss lectures or just talk about other things. “I thought the lectures were very good, there were a lot of interesting topics, and we got to hear their perspectives on things. I also liked that we had the lectures with students from MIT, because they would ask different questions than us, since they have a different background and other perspectives”, Marte says.
The meetings in the afternoon gave concrete examples of the topics that was presented in the lectures. Among other things, the participants got to meet the leadership of Myanmar Council and Churches that could tell about their ecumenical work and their crossover work with religious groups in Myanmar. Another interesting meeting was held with the leader of Islamic Centre in Yangon, Al Haj U Aye Lwin. He was a part of the Kofi Annans Rakhine Commission, and could tell about the challenging situation in Rakhine State of the Rohingya Muslims, and about the situation of Muslims in Myanmar in general. Because of Iselin Frydenlunds network in Myanmark, the group also got the opportunity to visit a Buddhist convent and the school attached to it, only an hour drive from Yangon. Solveig said that “the excursions gave a good first knowledge and a wholly image of the topics” it was very nice to go to a Buddhist convent and university to explore that part of the culture as well”.
Prior to the trip, we received curriculum for the course, containing articles and books from both western and Burmese scholars. During the trip, we all wrote a book report to one of the articles or the books. The trip was not only about lectures and reading, and we also got to experience Yangon as tourists. As it should be, we got to see Swedagon Pagoda, a huge pagoda of gold in the middle of the city. We enjoyed the company of Frydenlund, who could provide explanations and insight from the Buddhist tradition. Even though we didn’t get inside of it, we got to drive by the house where Aung San Su Kyi was put in house arrest, and we got to eat in “House of Memories”, which was the office of her father, general Aung San.
A lot of the social life in the group was built around the dinner table in different restaurants during the nights, where we got to experience a lot of exciting food and discuss the happenings from the day. Solveig said that “it was very nice with applicants from different programs, and with different backgrounds, because it provided different perspectives and one could challenge another in the different topics that were brought up”.
During the time at MIT, we met some of the Burmese students that had visited Oslo in the fall of 2017, and they told us about their experiences. Pa Ling viewed the course in Norway as a great opportunity to learn a lot, both from the curriculum and the lectures, but also from the interaction with the culture and the people. He is in a Bible studies program at MIT, but was under the impression that the course at MF with focus towards religion, conflict and conflict solving was particularly relevant for him in a future job. Joseph who studies theology also found the course relevant, and appreciated the things he learned from the Norwegian professors and students.
For the group in total, it was a new experience to be in a Western country. Joseph laughed when he said: “I had never seen a brown bread before. What a strange color!” and he was also certain that the next time he traveled, he wpuld bring a warmer jacket. They were both in agreement that this was a very useful and good experience, and that they would recommend fellow students to apply for an opportunity like that if its offered again.
Solveig said the same thing: “I would definitely recommend MF to continue this intensive course, and I would recommend fellow students to go!” all together, both students from MIT and MF are happy with the exchange opportunity. Marte said that “it was a good alternative to exchanging a semester. You get to experience another culture, and an opportunity to learn a lot, without having to be away for a whole semester”. We hope that a cooperation like this can continue so that more students get the opportunity to get this great experience we had.