Why Burma is going back to the classroom

Decades of military misrule have left the country's education in a mess. But change is in the air

Up to 90 per cent of children attend primary school in Burma, but the majority drop out. Photo /Getty Images
Up to 90 per cent of children attend primary school in Burma, but the majority drop out. Photo /Getty Images

In Burma, isolated for decades under the rule of military dictators who invested almost nothing in education, generations have grown up with just the most basic learning. Even now, with a nominally civilian Government introducing a series of democratic changes, some feel things are so bad people have to relearn how to learn.

U Kawinda is starting at the grass roots. Several years ago he set up his school in the impoverished Irrawaddy Delta to help the children of the local fishermen or farmers. During the monsoon rains, the only way for pupils to reach U Kawinda's school is by boat. During the dry period, they have to walk. There is another school, but it's several miles away.

"The Government should certainly build a school," said the Buddhist monk, who set up his charitable establishment three years ago. "But there has never been a government school here."

The work of Mr Kawinda and his small team of teachers underscores one of the most important challenges facing Burma: the need to overhaul its education system, even the very culture of learning, from top to bottom.

For decades the military junta, fearful of educating its people, spent little more than 1 per cent of the country's budget on education while directing a full 25 per cent towards the armed forces. Higher education establishments such as Rangoon University, seen as hotbeds of dissent, were regularly closed down.

Under President Thein Sein, who has headed the nominally civilian Government since 2011, the education budget was increased from US$340 million ($408 million) to US$740m last year, still a fraction of what experts say is needed, but a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is among the politicians who have called for new legislation for dealing with universities.

The battle to overhaul the education system will be long and tough. The military juntas not only failed to invest but under leaders such as Ne Win, who seized power in 1962, there was a move against "foreign influences", and the teaching of English was halted in middle schools.

Anecdotal evidence suggests there are far fewer English speakers in Burma compared to India or Pakistan, despite their shared colonial history. And experts say there is a shortage of trained workers, which could hold the country back as foreign companies begin to invest and open operations previously prohibited by sanctions.

During the long years of military rule, some of the brightest students went into exile overseas.

Unicef statistics suggest up to 90 per cent of children attend primary school in Burma, although only a little over half complete the whole five years. Around 60 per cent attend secondary school, although there is a lot of variation among the different socio-economic groups and states.

One area that has seen considerable expansion in recent years is that of monastic schools, most of which receive some funding from central government. The figures show numbers registered at such institutions have grown from 93,000 in 1997 to 190,000 in 2009, the last year for which figures are available. There are about 4000 formal primary schools and 1500 monastic schools, like the one operated by U Kawinda.

"The quality of primary education service delivery is low and learning outcomes are poor, largely due to inadequately trained teachers and lack of resources," said a recent Unicef briefing document.

"More emphasis is needed on problem-solving, critical thinking, and developing the skills needed to participate in a modern, interconnected society, including peace-building."

A two-year review of the education sector announced by the president will look at everything from primary to higher education. Many believe the colleges and universities are the most telling symbol of the junta's ruinous handling of education.

Nowhere suffered more than Rangoon University, now renamed the University of Yangon, where US President Barack Obama delivered a televised address when he visited Burma in November. He noted the university was the centre of many democratic movements, both against British colonial rule and against the military government.

When Suu Kyi spoke at Oxford University last year, she said she was saddened by what had happened within Burma: "University life has been shattered because of a perceived need to keep students in order. Everybody knows students can't be kept in order. So we shouldn't spend our time on such a futile mission," she said. "I would like to see university life restored to Burma in all its glory."

Recently, three young students gathered at the Critiker English School, a private establishment in Rangoon that focuses on English-language teaching. All three criticised their teaching at government institutions, saying there was too much focus on rote learning and answering exam questions rather than encouraging students to think.

"Ne Win created this entire system to brainwash people. It is 'in the box' not 'out of the box'," said Nan Oo Hlaing, a 22-year-old woman who studied chemistry. "There is an attempt to change, but it's a challenge. The Government needs to change too. No one is thinking about adult education, a whole generation did not have [a chance]."

At his school in Khalagmel, U Kawinda's aims are less ambitious. He wants to ensure the 60-odd children get a grounding in Burmese, English, science and mathematics. Around 20 of his pupils have already graduated to secondary school.

He had come to the Irrawaddy Delta in the aftermath of the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, finding that the village of Khalagmel had no school. "It's very difficult to run the school," he said, "because it relies on donations in the absence of government funding."

The farmers who send their children there are grateful for what he has done. Daw Mya Than sends her 5-year-old, Nhin Mon Kyaw, every day. She said: "The other school would require a very long walk."

Education spending receives an F
Burma ranks 164th, out of 168 countries, for public expenditure on education, according to the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. It spends just 1.3 per cent of its GDP on education.

The decline in the education system can be traced to the military coup in 1962. Ever since, education has disintegrated and students now spend very little time in school, with few making it to university.

Education in Burma is compulsory for only five years, and the majority of students drop out after this; according to Unesco, only 50 per cent of Burma's children are enrolled in secondary education. Even though the country has laws stipulating that primary school education is free, primary pupils face fees of about $120, half of a mid-ranking civil servant's monthly salary, and even more in secondary schools.

The problem primarily affects families in poor, rural areas.

- Independent

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