The picture of civil-society initiatives in the Burmese/Myanmar education sector is diverse and multifaceted. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some general trends: first, there are quite a lot of community-based initiatives in the education sector in the broadest sense. Most of these community-based groups, however, cannot engage in education directly. Instead, they are confined to education support activities such as the construction of school buildings or the collection of donations to pay for village teachers’ salaries. Second, there is a number—but definitely a small number—of civil-society groups that can engage in education more directly. Most of these apply informal, community-based approaches to teaching, whereas so far only a few groups have managed to become involved in formal education and been allowed to teach the government curriculum. Among the groups that are able to engage in formal education, monastic schools are undoubtedly the most prominent. Third, most educational initiatives that are aimed at children take place at the primary or even at the pre-primary level. While there are some at the middle-school level, only a handful exists at the high-school level. There are, however, also several educational initiatives for (young) adults in the sectors of vocational skills training and capacity building. Fourth, civil-society organisations active in the education sector often serve multiple social functions and, apart from education, many of them provide other welfare services as well. Education is often broadly understood to include (preventive) health education and general capacity building. Fifth, even though the number of civil-society initiatives in the education sector has been increasing during the past few years, the government is still extremely suspicious of all educational activities conducted by non-state actors. As a consequence, private education has not so far been legally provided for, and the majority of the civil-society groups that are active in the education sector cannot register with the MOE. As a makeshift solution, some of them have chosen to register with the MSW or the MRA.

This leads us to the last but perhaps the most important point: most civil society-based educational initiatives take place under religious or ethnic umbrellas, such as Buddhist monasteries, Christian churches and ethnic CLCs. This last point has broader implications: in present-day Burma/Myanmar, various secular, religious and ethnic (cultural) education systems—all of which promote different life models—coexist. In some cases, the boundaries between these various education and life models seem to be quite clear-cut. Some Buddhist monastic schools teach only the Dhamma,[30] some Christian missionaries preach only the Gospels and some CLCs focus solely on the preservation of their ethnic cultural heritage; and, above all, there is a highly authoritarian state, which is still largely reluctant to accept the existence of an independent civil society and the alternative education systems it provides. There are, however, also cases where the boundaries between religious and ethnic (cultural) education on the one hand, and secular/non-cultural education on the other, are rather blurred. Traditional religious and ethnic cultural groups that predate the modern national education system have re-emerged and increasingly engage in secular, non-cultural and, in some rare cases, even formal education as well. New actors such as NGOs have also entered the scene. The rigidity of the regime’s educational policies certainly does not reflect the reality on the ground. Instead of providing an enabling legal framework for private education, however, the regime still seeks mostly to either suppress or coopt alternative civil society-based education systems. Cooption of formerly independent groups thus constitutes another, negative form of the blurring of the lines between civil society-based and state-run education.

What does all this suggest in terms of the overall contribution that civil society is able to make to the education sector? While civil-society actors do provide valuable makeshift solutions to specific local problems, they lack the scope of action and the capabilities necessary to act as a substitute for a functioning state-run education system. The task of the latter would normally be to provide equal opportunities for quality education for the whole population regardless of status, religion or ethnicity. As civil-society actors in Burma/Myanmar usually provide localised, and sometimes even selective, services that are confined to specific religious and ethnic groups, they too are unable to live up to this task. Moreover, while civil-society actors manage to bridge some accessibility gaps in the state-run education system, they cannot bridge the quality gap. Instead, civil society-based education models tend to mirror the deficits of the state-run education system. The quality of education provided by civil-society groups varies widely and is sometimes highly inadequate. Just like professional teachers at government schools, voluntary teachers who teach at CBS or run free extra-tuition programs are often poorly trained and frequently rely on outdated teaching methods. As a consequence , tuition is often conducted in a highly hierarchical and repetitive way and learning remains mostly by rote. This is far from surprising, because the inadequate qualification of private and voluntary teachers results directly from the weakness of the state-run education system under which they received their own education and training.

The dynamics of civil-society development in Burma/Myanmar—in the education sector and in general—have not been well understood by the international community. The fact that hardly any expert or aid worker foresaw the 2007 uprising of the monks provides clear evidence for this. Extremely few international actors have contacts with the monastic schools, although they are the most important non-state providers of educational services. In fact, donor engagement with civil-society actors in the education sector has generally been limited up to now. An important reason for this is that Burma/Myanmar’s embryonic civil society is only rarely able to live up to donor guidelines. Religious and ethnic education systems often promote philosophies and life models that donors are unfamiliar with. Cooption often gives civil society a double identity that makes donors feel uneasy. In order to develop better strategies, however, experts, politicians and aid workers will have to broaden their perspective to encompass the social dynamics of competing, parallel, coexisting and overlapping social systems in Burma/Myanmar. The case of civil-society development in the education sector is but one specific example that provides evidence for this blind spot.

[30] Teachings of the Buddha.