Why Burma is going back to school

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

The Irrawaddy Delta

Isolated for decades under the rule of military dictators who invested almost nothing in education and choose to keep the people ill-informed, 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 the situation is so bad that people have to relearn how to learn.

U Kawinda is starting at the grass-roots. Several years he set up this school in the impoverished Irrawaddy Delta and set about trying to help the children or fishermen or farmers, who have no easy alternative. During the monsoon rains, the only way for the pupils to reach U Kawinda’s school is by boat. During the dry period they have to walk. The nearest alternative school is several miles away, across the often-flooded paddy fields.

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

The essential work of Mr Kawinda and his small team of teachers underscores one of the most important but little reported challenges facing Burma – the need to utterly overhaul its education system and even the very culture of learning.

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

Under the government of President Thein Sein, who has been heading a nominally-civilian government since 2011, new efforts are underway. Last year the education budget was increased from $340m to $740m, 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 politicians who have called for new legislation for dealing with universities.

Experts say the battle to overhaul the education system will be long and tough. The military junta not only failed to invest in education, 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 stopped in middle-schools.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest there are far fewer people in Burma able to speak English compared to India or Pakistan, despite their shared colonial history. Experts say there is a shortage of trained workers, something that could hold the country back as foreign companies begin to to invest and open operations that were previously prohibited by sanctions. During the long years of military rule, some of the brightest students escaped to exile overseas.

Statistics compiled by Unicef suggest that up to 90 per of children attend primary school in Burma, although only a little over half of the pupils complete all five years. Around 60 per cent of children attend secondary school, though is considerable variation among various socio-economic groups and the country’s different states. 

One area that has seen considerable expansion in recent years is that of monastic schools, most of which receive some funding from the government. The figures show that the number of students registered at such places grew from 93,000 in 1997 to around 190,000 in 2009, the last year for which figures are available. There are around 4,000 formal primary schools and around 1,500 monastic schools, such as that 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 this summer by Mr Thein Sein will look at everything from primary schools to higher education. Many believe that the colleges and universities, once celebrated within the region, are the most telling symbol of the junta’s ruinous handling of education.

Nowhere suffered more than Rangoon University, now renamed as the University of Yangon, where President Barack Obama delivered a televised address when he visited Burma last November. The once-bustling campus now only accepts graduate students, the undergraduate facilities having been dispersed to others on the edge of the city. As Mr Obama noted in his speech, the university was the centre of many democratic movements, both against British colonial rule and against the military government. The junta once destroyed the student union facilities there in rage.

When Ms Suu Kyi visited Britain earlier thus year and spoke at the University of Oxford, where she studied at St Hugh’s College between 1964 to 1967, she said she was saddened by what had happened to her country’s higher education institutions.

“University life has been shattered because of a perceived need to keep students in order. That’s not possible. Everybody knows that students can’t be kept in order. So we shouldn’t spend our time on such a futile and really undesirable mission,” she said. “I would like to see university life restored to Burma in all its glory.”

On a recent afternoon, three young Burmese students had gathered at the Critiker English School, a private establishment in Rangoon that focusses on English language teaching.

All three criticised the way they were taught at government institutions, saying there was too much focus on rote learning and answering exam questions rather than encouraging students to think. Even today, it was impossible to study subjects such as political science.

“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 is 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 perhaps less ambitious. He wants to ensure the 60 or so children who attend get a grounding in Burmese, English, science and mathematics. Around 20 of his pupils have already graduated to secondary school.

He said he had come to the Delta in the aftermath of the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and discovered that the village had no school. “It is very difficult to run the school,” he said, claiming he received no money from the government and relied on donations.

The wheat and paddy farmers who send their children to his breezy classroom, where lessons are accompanied by the sound of bird-song, are grateful for what he has done. Daw Mya Than sends her five-year-old, Nhin Mon Kyaw, every day. She said: “The other school would require a long walk."

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