Outside Yangon in an ethnic minority area: the case in Mitkyina

The situation in Yangon is atypical of Myanmar in general. While there are similar trends to be observed in Mandalay, other state capitals have fewer alternatives to offer to the failing state system. On the Shan–China border, the author observed a number of Chinese schools. It was, however, not clear from interviews if the parents sent their children only to these schools instead of government schools, or if these were supplementary schools. What was clear was that parents had to pay for the schooling and for the books.

In Kachin State, various Christian churches supplement a large part of education. They see this as essential as the Myanmar system is based largely on Buddhist principles, while a large number of Kachin are Christian or animist. ‘Private schools are not allowed, but when they [are] we will make it cheaper than going to state school,’ one reverend said.

Some theology students and high-school teachers run a series of programs on a voluntary basis. They offer education and exam training to those who cannot afford the books and uniforms for the state-run schools. The program covers a maximum of four years and is offered in three centres across Kachin State. The students can then pass the matriculation exam that is offered in the tenth standard, which allows them to enrol at the higher-education level, mostly through the distance-learning programs.

Other supplementary schools operate on a more informal basis and are there primarily to help children understand and know their Kachin heritage. Kachin leaders who were interviewed differed in their views of how much of a threat the increasing Chinese influence was to their Kachin and Christian cultures. One interviewee in particular saw Chinese help as something that would counteract the Bamar influence, which was still perceived as the product of an occupying power. The fact that the Chinese language was becoming the choice par excellence for most parents was seen as a small price to pay. Another interviewee, however, viewed the Chinese influence with suspicion and said that unless a Kachin Christian school was allowed to operate instead of the state school, parents would start to choose Chinese alternatives. The people interviewed were interested particularly in raising funds to expand their Kachin cultural education. One of the members of the group wanted to cover a full and comprehensive curriculum so as to develop an alternative to the state system once such a thing was allowed.

Interestingly enough the one ‘private’ option that exists in Mitkyina is a Chinese school and college funded by the Taiwanese Government. So close to the Chinese border and with a number of trade routes linking Kachin State with Yunnan Province, one would have expected Chinese schools to have been set up, just as in Shan State. This was, however, not the case. As the Chinese language is becoming increasingly important for trade purposes and consequently more popular with parents, parents are sending their children to the Taiwan-funded school for their language training.

The connection between the Kachin and the Chinese is stronger than with their other neighbour, India. One church leader who was interviewed said that India’s influence economically and in the education sector was negligible, but that higher education in India was still seen as higher quality than the Chinese alternative and that those who could do so would cross the border to study in India at a higher-education level.