Myanmar’s educational sector is turning out to be a new front in an ensuing battle between the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement and the military junta. Outside of the state-run education system, however, the number of viable options for students are few and far between.
On 1 June, the first day of Myanmar’s 2021-2022 academic year, teachers and students from the country’s basic education schools — schools in the state-run education system below the University level — donned their uniforms for the first time since 2020. But while some anticipated a day of classwork, others readied themselves for protest. Alongside photographs of students streaming into schools, Myanmar’s state-run media announced that “children happily go to schools nationwide.”
The upbeat picture, however, belied the reality of a country riven by divisions. Four months after the country’s historic coup, images of defiance filled social media. School entry-gates were papered with anti-coup posters, and walls were spray-painted with slogans. Most disturbingly, young schoolchildren wore paint-soaked uniforms — invoking the memory of the bloodied bodies of children killed by the military since 1 February. A campaign at a Magwe school underscored the high stakes of a return to “slave education” under the military: “Going to school is standing in front of the barrel of a gun.” Unofficial reports indicate that close to 90 per cent of students refused to return to school on 1 June.
These protests spotlight Myanmar’s education sector as the latest front in a battle over the legitimacy of the military junta and its effort to present a public image of a functioning state. Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) — which encourages citizens to resist the military by all means possible — continues to impede the basic operations of key government sectors, promoting a high-stakes wager that pits the movement’s anticipated achievements against the short-term sacrifices required of those who join. CDM has asked students to forgo this year’s lessons for a higher-quality, safer, and freer education to be provided at a later date. This trade-off is particularly fraught as the coup has compounded the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept schools closed for much of the 2020-21 academic year. If students are to remain out of school for another year, systematic and widely accessible alternatives are necessary to support those who choose to keep their children at home.
Myanmar’s academic year concludes in February with a vacation from March-May prior to the start of a new term in early June. In March 2020, amidst rising COVID-19 cases, most students managed to complete their end-of-year examinations, but the start of the 2020-21 academic year was delayed. High schools opened briefly during July-August 2020 but closed after only one month when COVID-19 caseloads soared. In December, authorities were still debating reopening. Such faltering plans raised the stakes of students’ proposed return to the classroom, and now political concerns and the lengthy disruption of school-based learning — compounded by a lack of access to online alternatives — means many schoolchildren face a two-year gap in education.
Parents were pressured to sign their children up during the May 24-31 school enrollment week, with users of the state-owned MPT telecom receiving text messages offering free masks, face shields, pencils, and notebooks. Nevertheless, the reasons to keep school-aged children home are many. Foremost are the objections of the anti-coup protest efforts, which fear that students’ return would be tantamount to a vote of confidence in the military junta’s ability to manage the country’s affairs. Over 125,000 basic education teachers have been suspended, and the education sector’s General Strike Committee, a group that organises CDM activities, has been actively opposing all directives issued by the military. Keeping children at home is an expression of support for local teachers. It also reflects a concern that untrained educators hired to replace striking teachers may be poorly prepared to lead the nation’s classrooms.
If students are to remain out of school for another year, systematic and widely accessible alternatives are necessary to support those who choose to keep their children at home.
Urgent, too, are questions about school security. The junta has proposed that retired military veterans would be stationed at schools to protect against politically motivated attacks, but this offered little comfort to a population already frightened of military-associated personnel. These security guards can do very little if faced with emergencies such as the unattributed school bombings that have taken place throughout Yangon and across Myanmar in recent days, from Dawei to Magwe and Mandalay.
Despite reports that a low proportion of students have returned to school, few educational alternatives have been proposed. Of those that have been, none ensure educational access for the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable. Private schools offer one solution, but high tuition fees present an impossible barrier for many, especially in light of the country’s protracted economic crisis. Rejected by Aung San Suu Kyi during the COVID-19-associated school closures, online education models risk omitting students who lack access to reliable internet or electricity. Even now, there are low enrollment figures in the rural Mon and Chin states. The National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government rivalling Myanmar’s military junta, has embraced home-schooling as an alternative education model for the general public, though the NUG faces limitations in its capacity to implement or support such an option. Moreover, discrepancies in education levels, language use, and parental availability mean that home-schooling does not present a sustainable or equitable solution to the educational gaps emerging in Myanmar’s post-coup landscape.
What can be done for Myanmar’s estimated nine million schoolchildren? Crucial will be the speedy development of immediate solutions that do not require students to lose out on another full year of schooling. While informal reading groups, virtual degree programmes, and text-based or downloadable coursework options are currently available to students at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, few equivalent resources exist for students in Myanmar’s basic education system. While the NUG’s longer-term proposals and programmes for a parallel education system are laudable, more should be done to fill the void that will certainly stretch between the June school openings and the implementation of a comprehensive alternative education program.
Courtney T. Wittekind was previously a Visiting Fellow in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and a Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellow.