7: Myanmar education: challenges, prospects and options

Han Tin

Table of Contents

The setting: the land and its people
Myanmar education: the roles of the stakeholders
The role of teachers
The role of parents/families
The role of students
The education process
Issues in Myanmar education
Prospects and options
Challenges for tertiary education: options

The setting: the land and its people

Traditionally, five pillars make up Myanmar society: farmers, workers, students, monks and the military. All Myanmar children who have attended school are aware of these five pillars because of the pantheon of national heroes revered throughout the nation. Farmers are represented by Saya San, who led the Peasant Revolt;[1] workers by Thakin Po Hla Gyi, who led the oil-workers’ strike;[2] students by Bo Aung Gyaw, an early student leader;[3] the monks by U Wisara, who was martyred in a British jail;[4] and the military (Tatmadaw) by Bogyoke Aung San, the founding father of the Tatmadaw and the architect of Myanmar’s independence.[5] All of them struggled against the colonial power with the common goal of gaining freedom and independence. These five pillars are potent symbolic forces and together they achieved the creation of an independent nation. It is important now more than ever that these five pillars of Myanmar society again create an atmosphere of empathy and trust and work towards the common goal of developing the nation. Such a symbiotic relationship among these five groups is sorely needed in Myanmar at present.

Myanmar has, since independence, prided itself on its values of self-help and self-reliance. For many decades, it has been going its own way. For the country to evolve and take its place in the world as a modern developed nation, self-reliance alone is not enough. Greater efforts on Myanmar’s part, together with empathy, cooperation and assistance from the world community, are most necessary. Myanmar has some means, but they are limited. It needs understanding and support from the international community. It needs encouragement to begin developing a system of good governance that will see the nation again take its place in the family of nations. The onus is, however, also on Myanmar to initiate changes to move away from a ‘dominator’-type of society towards a more tolerant, liberal one.

During the previous century, many countries in Asia—such as South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan—emerged from authoritarian and militaristic moulds of government and embraced a more liberal form of governance. Myanmar, which has had an extreme authoritarian government since the early 1960s, as well as suffering the indignity of colonial rule and the long legacy of rule by extreme authoritarian kings and feudal lords, is finding it extremely difficult to break out of the mould. As has been the case throughout Myanmar’s history, its people, in spite of their hardship, distress and anguish, hope for a better life. To break the mould of authoritarianism, the very psyche of the population will have to evolve—but not at the expense of its culture, traditions, customs and values.

In this respect, education has much to offer, for it plays an important role in the personal and social development of the young, who represent the future. The International Commission on Education stresses this fact in its report to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It states: ‘Getting the reform strategies right, by a broad-based dialogue, and by increasing responsibility and involvement of stakeholders at every level, will be a crucial element of educational renewal’ (UNESCO 1996:26).

[1] Saya San was the leader of the Burmese Peasant Revolt of 1930–31, which was the first concerted effort to resist British domination forcefully.

[2] Po Hla Gyi is renowned as the leader of an oil-workers’ strike against the British in 1938, and is also the patron saint of traditional Myanmar boxing.

[3] Bo Aung Kyaw was a student leader in the All Burma Students Union, who was fatally wounded during a violent protest against the British authorities in December 1938.

[4] U Wisara was a prominent monk who led a resurgence of nationalist sentiment in 1929, was imprisoned by the British colonial authorities and died on a hunger strike in prison.

[5] General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, was assassinated in 1947 before he could become independent Burma’s first head of state.