History and Current Events
Education in Burma
_ In the past, Burma was admired for the widespread literacy of its people and high-quality education standards. As a British colony, Burma further developed its educational standards, and upon gaining independence in 1948, and boasting one of the highest literacy rates in Asia in the late 1940s and 1950s, it was expected to become one of the fastest developing Asian Tigers of the region. However, despite its good track record, Burma’s education system is now in an abysmal state. According to data compiled by the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, Burma ranks 164th, out of 168 countries, for public expenditure on education, spending just 1.3% of its GDP on education (UNESCO, 2001). Consequently, the education system has disintegrated and students now spend very little time in school, with few making it to university. Those who do make it to university will not only have to pay high fees, but will not be allowed to choose their area of study. The government assigns their courses based on the scores of their matriculation exam, regardless of whether or not they have any interest in the subject, and despite the fact that there are almost no jobs in certain fields students continue to be assigned to subjects like physics and zoology (Fink, Living Silence in Burma,197).
Education in Burma is only compulsory for five years, and the majority of students drop out after this short period; according to UNESCO, only 50% of Burma’s children are enrolled in secondary education. This is in stark contrast with international standards. To compare, in the United Kingdom around 96% of children attend secondary school. Moreover, due to lack of financing, schools are poorly equipped and academic resources and materials are often outdated. Parents are asked to pay an annual fee, said to contribute to “building maintenance, school furniture and school books,” says Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), even though Burma has laws stipulating that primary school education is free. The fee in primary schools amounts to about US$100 – half of a mid-ranking civil servant’s monthly salary in Burma – and is even higher in secondary schools. The problem primarily affects families in poor, rural areas. For those living outside of the cities (a vast majority of the population in Burma), educating children often means not only paying the fee, but also paying for transport to school. While both genders are negatively affected by these costs, girls often pay a heavier price. As Lway Aye Nang, secretary-general of Women’s League of Burma (WLB), told IPS News, "In both the cities and in rural areas, there is a greater likelihood that parents may keep theirs boys in school and take the girls out. Family members do not support daughters going to school if there is limited funding." Consequently, the faulty educational system leads to the deepening of differences between genders, consolidating inequality within the society.
The education system in Burma is discriminatory not only with respect to gender and income level, but also when it comes to ethnicity. Curricula in Burma are controlled by the government and written in the spirit of the “unifying of the nation” programme, endorsed by the SPDC and stemming from the long-standing conflict between the Burmese military and ethnic rebels. As a result, the ethnic diversity of Burmese society is overlooked, aggravating ethnic conflicts. Community-based schools (which are not only adjusted to local traditions, but also cheaper) are often shut down, which leaves the state-controlled schools as the only alternative. Consequently, some of the ethnic minorities find it difficult to preserve their cultures and retain their languages.
One of the main reasons for the poor state of education in Burma is political. Historically, students were one of the groups that actively and adamantly opposed the regime. After the military coup in 1962, students started organising peaceful demonstrations and protests to express their dissatisfaction with the military government. The protests were violently suppressed and in 1988, in response to the students’ persistent demands for justice and human rights, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – the name for the government at the time – closed down all the universities. In 1990 they reopened, now with a new, government-controlled curriculum. However, in 1996 they were closed yet again – this time for three years. Currently, there are 156 universities in Burma, scattered across different regions so as to make access difficult, and the curriculum is still strictly controlled by the government.
Internationally, education is regarded as an indispensible human right. In Burma, however, it is marginalised and inaccessible to most citizens. The ruling elite understands that education is dangerous to their maintenance of power and control: when people are educated they question the government and demand their rights. Young people from Burma often move to Thailand or other neighbouring countries to attend school and university so that they can challenge the oppression and injustice of the government and help bring democracy, human rights and development to Burma. Many international NGOs and charities specialising in education are based along the Thai-Burmese border, teaching English and human rights to these young Burmese students. However, living on the border is risky – refugees risk being arrested and deported back to Burma, where many are in danger of becoming political prisoners and being subjected to torture.
Representatives of the government insist that the education standards in Burma conform with those set out by the UN as part of the Millennium Development Goals. However, considering the meagre part of the budget that is spent on education, as well as the history of violence against students and restricted freedom of speech, international observers have some serious doubts about whether this is really the case. The fact that so many young Burmese see leaving the country as the only way to educate themselves speaks for itself.