Education in Myanmar — past and present

The debate about the purpose of education goes beyond the economic/development argument as all education systems have a political objective: aside from human-capital creation, one of the primary aims of education systems in modern states is, and has always been, the political socialisation of the young. Education systems, especially in Asia, have their origins in processes of state formation aimed either at fostering resistance to the encroachments of Western and/or Asian imperialism, or at furthering post-colonial nation building. Definitions of national identity and visions of nationhood are often popularised by governing elites. One can argue that education has been used as a political tool throughout the ages and across the whole world to define national identity and underlie the political rationale of regimes (Lall and Vickers forthcoming). This has also been the case in Myanmar, where, throughout the socialist period, but also beyond that, education has been used for political purposes, largely to underpin the regime in power (Zarni 1998).

Since the end of the socialist era, however, and the opening up of the economy (and to a more limited extent the country) in the late 1980s, an interesting interplay of issues can be observed: governmental control, under-investment in the social sphere and a society searching for alternatives. As in most dictatorships, one of the reasons the military government has been keen to retain control of education is largely because of the belief that an ‘independent’ way of thinking poses a direct challenge to them. One could question whether the under-investment in the education system was motivated by the politics of control—the military elite perhaps hoping that a less-educated population would pose less of a challenge. Due to its deterioration, however, Myanmar’s education system has also become highly ineffective as a political tool. The interesting nexus here is between a policy of under-investment and a society that is looking for alternatives that could in effect threaten the State even more.

This section will briefly describe the background of education in Myanmar before moving on to the private supplements and alternatives that have started to emerge in urban areas.


The British colonial period established three types of schools of which the two upper-tier types were used to train people to fill the lower and middle ranks of the colonial administration, as they taught in English. The schools that taught entirely in Burmese were, however, by far the majority of schools. In 1945, the Department of Education was formed under the British Government to implement the Simla Scheme of Educational Rehabilitation. The scheme was financed out of the military budget. At that time, 42 post-primary schools and 2060 primary schools were opened. The Education Reconstruction Committee of 1947 decided that Myanmar needed a homogeneous system of schools and that the education system had to be state provided and state controlled (Lwin 2000:5).

At independence, Myanmar had the highest literacy rate in its own language across the former British Empire. This was due not only to the Burmese schools, but largely to the monastic schools that had always played, and continue to play, a major role in educating the poorer sections of society (Lorch 2007). Today, Myanmar retains a very high literacy rate, with 89.9 per cent of adults and 94.5 per cent of youth considered literate (UNESCO 2007). These statistics, although from a UN agency, are difficult to verify, but anecdotal evidence in urban areas shows most people reading on public transport and kerb-sides. The issue of literacy levels is therefore to be questioned largely in the rural areas.

For many years, other Asian countries saw Myanmar as an example in education. Decades of under-investment and civil strife have today resulted in the slow and steady decay of the state education system across the country. Despite the fact that during the socialist era school buildings continued to be built in the cities and in the villages,[3] teacher education and pay deteriorated markedly. It was also at this time that Burmese was made the medium for teaching at all schools, abolishing the colonial legacy of English schools for the elite. In higher education, however, this had repercussions as textbooks and other literature were not available in Burmese.

The state of education today: some different perspectives

During the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) period, all higher-education institutions were closed for years at a time. After the student protest of 1988, all universities were closed for two years. Another series of student strikes in 1996 and 1998 resulted in a further three years of closure. In Yangon, between 1988 and 2000, universities were closed for 10 out of 12 years. After the reopening of universities and colleges in 2000, the government relocated many universities to different sites and undergraduate programs were moved to campuses far away from any urban centre. Consequently, higher education by correspondence is taken up by those who cannot afford to live away from home. Keeping students away from cities is one of the ways the regime hopes to control any civil strife. Today, more than 700 000 students attend the 156 higher-education institutions and there are 10 000 teachers. A further 13 000 students are enrolled in one or two-year business-related courses (Zaw 2008a). Appendix 8.1 describes the structure of educational institutions in Myanmar.

Education, and especially higher education, is often criticised in the press in Myanmar and there is no doubt that it encounters problems. In a response to a critical Burma Digest article, however, Aung Kyaw Soe (2006) claimed:

It may more correct to assess that [the] Education system is polarised, some students achieve more than others, either because of affordability of family, luck or hard work but I think we are seeing more Burmese graduates with undergraduate education from Burma are doing well in good graduate schools and work place[s]. I know more than 500 Burmese engineers with their first degree in Burma and second or third degrees from good overseas graduate schools.

According to a 2007 Myanmar Times special issue on education, the government established a 30-year education development plan in 2001–02 in order to develop a ‘learned society’ for the knowledge age, with the expansion of schools as a priority. The number of schools is said to have increased to more than 40 000, catering to eight million students (Zaw 2008b). Problems remain, however, especially with regard to access, quality and retention.

According to Khin Maung Kyi et al. (2000:145), the primary enrolment ratio is high. Nevertheless, primary education faces two main problems: there are not enough schools (the numbers range from one school for five villages to one school for 25 villages in the border regions); and there is a high drop-out rate, estimated to be about 34 per cent. The authors also point out the high repetition rate in rural and urban areas. UNESCO statistics are more positive: net enrolment rates at the primary level are 100 per cent for girls and 98 per cent for boys; at secondary level, the figures dropped to 43 per cent for both genders in 2005, with 91 per cent of all children completing primary education (UNESCO statistics web site 2005). This is in stark contrast with the report from the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in 1995 that states that about only 27 per cent of all children completed five years of primary schooling and only 1.8 per cent of those who entered primary school completed secondary school (UNICEF 1995).

Another set of figures on Burmese education (Achilles 2005) cited net attendance in primary schools at 82 per cent for both genders (from 1998 to 2002) and the number of students who reached class five at 60 per cent officially and unofficially, based on surveys, at 78 per cent (for 1997–2003). Only 41 per cent of boys and 38 per cent of girls (from 1998–2002), however, made it into secondary school. Anonymous interviews in Yangon with an education charity confirmed the high drop-out rates, explaining that children showed up for the first school day and that statistics were based on this, but that as soon as a few days into the school year children, especially in rural areas, stopped attending. In part, such drop-out rates are the result of the high direct costs of sending children to school (such as buying books and uniforms). In rural areas, this is compounded by the high opportunity cost for parents who need their children’s help working. Although schooling is free in principle, parents are expected to contribute to the financing of education, as state expenditure on education as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is decreasing (Kyi et al. 2000:147). Those who cannot afford to attend state schools go to monastic schools or forgo their education altogether. Monastic schools were outlawed in 1962 during the socialist period and were allowed to return only in 1993. Today, however, 1500 monastic schools have been recognised by the government, catering for 93 000 children (Achilles 2005). In some cases, the building is provided by the State but parents have to pool their funds to pay for a teacher; this is especially the case in remote areas (Lorch 2007).

Jasmin Lorch has written about how community-based groups and especially monasteries have come to fill the void for poorer sections of society. She also focuses on the role played by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in putting together informal education programs (Lorch 2007). Her paper, however, does not discuss the recent growing urban trend of private education, which caters to the middle and upper classes.

[3] This was the time of education expansion in physical terms as many new schools were opened and the number of university students increased rapidly.