School still out for some – The Edge Review

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Questions over Myanmar’s new education law

YANGON – In the years following the failed 1988 student revolt against authoritarian rule, Myanmar’s military disemboweled the country’s once-respected education system, which the junta by then viewed as a hotbed of dissent.

By 2011, when a nominally civilian government led by former general Thein Sein took office, Myanmar allocated just 1 per cent of the annual budget to education and the average Burmese spent only 4 years school, according to World Bank data. Yangon University, where U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on November 14, was closed to undergraduate studies until late 2013.

“Our education system is really bad and we need to reform it,” Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a student union leader, told The Edge Review. “Before our education system was wholly controlled by the government, and that effect is still being felt,” added the 26 year old, who was banned from studying because she was deemed to have skipped class for too long.

Class underway at Kachin Independence Army-run school in Mai Ja Yang, on the Burma-China border, Feb. 2012 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Class underway at Kachin Independence Army-run school in Mai Ja Yang, on the Burma-China border, Feb. 2012 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Her excuse? She was in jail for three years after talking to foreign media covering the aftermath of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 147,000 people and left 3 million homeless.

The Myanmar government belatedly acknowledged its failings in a Framework for Economic and Social Reforms policy document published in early 2013. In a concession unthinkable during military rule, the government said that “the average length of schooling [in Myanmar] is low compared to those of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam; the quality of education at all levels of the system is generally poor, and the ratio of government expenditure on education to overall GDP is amongst the lowest in the world.”

Following up on this sackcloth-and-ashes self-assessment, the Thein Sein government pledged to put 5.92 percent of the budget into education over the course of the 2014-15 fiscal year. That outlay is another marked contrast to army rule and falls in line with other commitments made by a reformist government that has freed most political prisoners, relaxed press restrictions and which says it will hold free and fair national elections in late 2015.

A United Nations-backed review helped forge a new education law, which was passed earlier in 2014 and aims to be the bedrock for a wider modernization of the entire education system. In a June 2013 survey of the Myanmar economy, McKinsey Global said that education reform is key to the country’s prospects of quadrupling GDP by 2030.

But as concerns grow that the Myanmar government is putting the brakes on reforms, the new education law has sparked opposition from students and teacher, who have protested a drafting process they see as redolent of the murky and apparently bygone days of army rule.

Opponents of the law complain that it includes government committees that will supervise educational institutions, including universities, thereby curbing their autonomy. The NNER says the law also fails to give assurances about teaching in ethnic minority languages spoken by around 40 percent of Burma’s population.

Thein Lwin leads National Network on Education Reform (NNER), which was formed in October 2012 and includes students, academics, religous leaders and members of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

“The new law is opposed to democratic principles and academic freedom,” Thein Lwin told The Edge Review. “Students, teachers, parents should be allowed participate in the law reform, the government did not allow this.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior education ministry official told The Edge Review that groups such as the NNER were consulted during the drafting process and that the new law is needed to kickstart education reforms. Thein Lwin said that the NNER’s recommendations were not included in the final law. Thein Lwin added that the NNER wants the law amended as the activists believe it gives the government too much say in the running of schools and universities.

City authorities tried to ban a November 12-13 NNER gathering – a meeting organized to discuss the law and which coincided with the East Asia Summit held in capital Naypyidaw.

Under pressure from the local council, several possible venues refused to accommodate the NNER, prompting one of Myanmar’s best known public figures to step in.

Kyaw Thu, an award winning actor who turned to philanthropy in 2001, played host. The meeting was held at his Free Funeral Services Society headquarters near Yangon’s international airport, and was addressed by Tin Oo, a confidant of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Ko Ko Gyi, one of the frontmen during the 1988 student protests.

Explaining why he offered to host the meeting, Kyaw Thu told The Edge Review that “education is important for the future of our country, yet the government tries to stop it [the meeting]. It feels like we are going backwards again.”

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