(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School).
Just over a year ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in Myanmar was in the midst of instituting fundamental changes to a previously lifeless education system. It foreshadowed a new era for students in Myanmar. In the preceding decades, military rule had undermined any innovation in schooling. Military leaders’ fear of student-led uprisings repeatedly resulted in draconian policies, including the closing or relocation of universities outside the cities, strict control of curricula, and the shortening of the academic year. Part of the NLD’s plan to continue to revamp education also offered a move away from an antiquated system of rote learning. The reforms were encouraging schools and universities to instead adopt student-centered teaching models and focus on elevating critical and independent thinking.
Echoing experiences felt across the globe, the COVID pandemic brought abrupt and unforeseen challenges to the NLD government’s education agenda, however. And like so many others, the NLD adapted—for example, as large class sizes prevented the full reopening of schools, the government laid the foundation for virtual learning around the country. Alongside high hopes for the vaccine rollout in Myanmar, the school bell was waiting to welcome back students and teachers for the 2021 school year and usher in the reforms that the government had been planning.
This cautious optimism came to a grinding halt when Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military, staged a coup d’état on Feb. 1, 2021. The coup has had an undeniable impact on every part of society in Myanmar. The education arena has been no different. For students and teachers, it has meant grave interruptions to what was an already a difficult year for schooling. From contested reopening plans to internet outages and the reemergence of ethnic violence, the fear of backtracking to an educational system that hampered Myanmar’s students for decades affects all involved in education. The chaos of the ongoing struggle for power threatens learning outcomes for a whole generation of Myanmar’s youth, while also undermining the careers of thousands of teachers and professors. To ensure the welfare of our students and teachers, we must not lose sight of the important developments undertaken by the NLD government and continue both foreign and domestic investment in education. We must not let the light of hope that comes with education be extinguished.
Impacts on Both Higher Education and Basic Education
Contested Reopening & Politicization of Education
As discussed elsewhere in this series, the coup has brought widespread protests and brutal crackdowns by the regime in response. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a group that uses work stoppages as a tool for protest, emerged within days of the coup. Since February, it has been one of the most prominent driving forces of the resistance. The participation of over 300,000 teachers and educational department personnel in the CDM has been striking but not without consequences; lives of CDM teachers and students have been in constant danger as the military has raided their houses and detained many. My colleagues have told me of several teachers that have resorted to hiding in villages far removed from their families, fearing retaliation. The military has not been afraid to target family members as blackmail, forcing teachers to turn themselves in. Experts have echoed these alarming threats to Myanmar’s education community, referencing “the arrests of students and scholars, the entry of troops onto campuses, and the frequent use of force against peaceful demonstrators, including one student who died after being shot in the head with a live round.” Beyond the risk of physical harm, the social and psychological wellbeing of the protesters during and after incidents of arrest and detention will likely have lasting impacts on their continuing education.
Recently, the military has attempted to reopen schools and return to “normal” operations. Despite this attempted return to routine, the intimidation of students and teachers, including targeting and mass firings, are already evident in attendance numbers. The junta-led State Administration Council (SAC) Ministry of Education announced the reopening of final-year, master’s, and PhD courses on May 5, but turnout so far has been extremely limited. At the reopening of the University of Htawei in Tanintharyi Region, only 18 students attended out of the nearly one thousand normally expected. Further worsening the state of education in Myanmar, SAC troops have also been using university campuses and basic education school compounds as base camps. The few university students who did attend school on May 5 were interrogated, scrutinized, and their movements were restricted. According to an internal document distributed within higher education circles in Yangon and Mandalay on May 6, a further 339 lecturers and professors from Yangon University and 249 from Mandalay University were dismissed from their duties when they refused to attend school.
The SAC Ministry of Education likewise had ordered all basic education schools to reopen on June 1. So far, students have remained defiant—the Straits Times reported that “only a quarter of Myanmar’s more than 12 million students have enrolled for the new school year.” While there are no estimates on how long this resistance will continue before CDM teachers return to their jobs or more students enroll in school, many students and families remain adamantly against a military-led education. One parent interviewed by Frontier Myanmar said “there is no guarantee that students will not be arrested or shot, or that female students will not be sexually harassed by soldiers.” Another interview with a parent by Irrawaddy Burmese news mentioned the increased incidents of explosive materials found by children, including in school compounds. At the same time, many parents have reported a general opposition to sending their children to a military regime-led education system.
On May 22, Reuters also reported that the military had suspended more than 125,000 teachers, just days before schools were to reopen. Remaining teachers are worried about decreasing academic freedom and autonomy of schools under the SAC—a fear born out of experience with previous military regimes. Ultimately, students and teachers find themselves in an unenviable position; having to choose between fighting for democracy that they so strongly believe in and their livelihoods and future education.
The coup has also exacerbated obstacles to education access created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the coup, the NLD Ministry of Education forced schools to close and began preparations for virtual learning platforms to prevent COVID-19 transmission at schools. The move to remote learning was a difficult transition, as only a small percentage of people have access to broadband internet and the majority of the population relies solely on mobile phones for internet access. However, some parents managed to familiarize themselves with homeschooling and supported their children in online learning. Students used the online education platforms in various creative ways; from taking art classes to pursuing new hobbies taught through YouTube and Facebook videos.
But since the coup, constant military-instituted internet disruptions have had extremely negative impacts on teachers and students at all levels, many of whom were still in the process of adjusting to virtual learning. I spoke with a home tuition teacher—a ubiquitous form of paid tutoring across Myanmar—who said, “I have been teaching English online to junior students and all my classes were canceled because of internet shutdowns. I have been out of income for three months already.” This anecdotal evidence is emblematic of the experience of many private online teachers in Myanmar. In an Inside Higher ED article, expert Daniel Munier reported that internet shutdowns and a recently proposed cybersecurity bill “risk long-term damage to efforts to build up the country’s university system and connect scholars and students with peers in and outside the country.”
Exacerbation of Ethnic Conflict
Beyond the nationwide problems of internet access and crackdowns on teachers, the exacerbation of violence in many ethnic areas of Myanmar has had detrimental impacts on students and teachers. Even prior to the coup, children in ethnic communities faced barriers not felt by their counterparts in non-conflict areas. As Myanmar (Burmese) is the main instructional language in most classrooms, students in ethnic areas with different primary languages have had difficulty understanding school texts for decades. Research conducted by the Nyein Foundation noted that “ethnic nationality children, especially in remote and conflict-affected areas, cannot read and write Burmese at the same speed as their Bamar peers, and subsequently often drop-out of school.” Prior to the coup, the NLD government was beginning to rectify some of these educational imbalances through including one period per day from kindergarten to second grade that could be developed locally and taught in ethnic languages. Additionally, they were allowing the inclusion of ethnic languages in the classroom to help explain difficult concepts when required. These efforts were small changes to reverse the “burmanization” and centralization of the national curriculum, an empowering move that emphasized the self-determination of ethnic nationalities.
Thus, while literacy competence was already low compared to Bamar children even before the coup, the NLD was taking small steps in the right direction. Not only has the reemergence of violence in these areas worsened the educational challenges, it has also unraveled many of the reforms implemented under the NLD regime. Furthermore, those students displaced by fighting face high barriers to accessing education, not least because school infrastructure has been destroyed by military airstrikes. In some cases, the constant violence has forced children to flee altogether, leaving behind any prospect of educational progress in the short term. Conversely, some students have chosen to fight to protect their homes. Particularly in ethnic areas, there seems to be no end to violence, and the cumulative lasting impacts this has on students will only exponentially worsen.
Rekindling the Light of Education
Although the coup has caused unique challenges for education in Myanmar, many of the current struggles are rooted in long-term problems that need long-term solutions – and that will require difficult political and policy choices.
First, for the benefit of future generations of students, Myanmar must avoid politicizing the educational curriculum and continue to implement the reform agenda promoted under the NLD government. This approach does not entail recognition or acceptance of military rule, however. At all times, there should remain a concerted effort to provide Myanmar’s children with fundamentals to avoid falling into the same traps that stagnated student development and growth and improvement of the education sector for decades. Efforts to develop critical thinking, shrink class sizes to a manageable level for teachers, and improve school infrastructure must continue. Furthermore, continued teacher capacity development is equally essential. For teachers ingrained in a system that for so long focused on rote memorization, falling back to this status quo would be all too easy. It is also necessary that faculty trainings include psychological support to heal the impacts of the coup on both students and teachers – currently, no such support program exists.
These educational reforms cannot be accomplished by the SAC Ministry of Education alone – international aid and nongovernmental organizations have been critical in the reformation of Myanmar’s education system over the past few years. While controversial, the international community should continue to provide some degree of support to Myanmar, even if it must be channeled through the SAC-controlled Ministry. As foreign governments and international organizations are deciding whether and how to sanction the junta, it is crucial that they do not suspend aid to the education sector but instead ensure appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent financial resources from being improperly diverted. Carefully designed sanctions can also be used to redirect aid funding to disadvantaged areas and underachieving schools, particularly those in the ethic regions of Myanmar, undercutting the junta’s illegitimate power but not leaving Myanmar’s children in an even worse position. Expanding online learning may also be part of the solution.
Finally, informal education programs like vocational training for students who decline to attend school under the junta should be established for their continued learning. When government education cannot fulfill the learning needs of the children, the rich will more easily find better alternatives and low-income populations will disproportionately suffer. To combat this divide, any forthcoming education policy should be directed at supporting low-income students, creating scholarship opportunities for students from all income levels to attend school and study abroad. Recently, there have been positive developments in this direction. Three independent websites are already providing an alternative learning platform for students, one of which is linked with the National Unity Government. These efforts to support education without legitimizing or empowering the SAC regime must continue and expand, and the central goal must be maintained—to improve access to education and prevent irreversible generational harms on the learning of Myanmar’s children.
An Uncertain Future: Lessons of Unity
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, protests, strikes, violent clashes, displacement, and destruction of infrastructure, students are missing out on crucial years of education. Even if the resistance prevails and reforms are continued, students and teachers have sacrificed their education, their livelihoods, and sometimes even their lives, leaving an irreparable scar on Myanmar’s educational future.
Despite these harrowing challenges and the difficult reforms needed for Myanmar’s education sector to persevere, one painful realization has emerged from the human rights violations and international crimes perpetrated by the military. Particularly among Myanmar’s young population, empathy, understanding, and guilt toward ethnic communities who have lived under such hardship and violation for years is now apparent and widespread on social media, including for the Rohingya community. The thinking and attitude of many young Bamar—the majority ethnic population of Myanmar—have been changing along with the coup. Their recent and unprecedented experience of brutal acts by the Myanmar military has changed their acceptance of diversity and unity within the Myanmar community. Many young Bamar can now put themselves in the shoes of minority ethnic groups and understand why they have resisted the military for decades. Beyond the systemic education reforms that must continue, the unity displayed by Myanmar’s youth demonstrates the impact and power of independent and critical thought currently unfolding. This evolution in thinking needs to be part of Myanmar’s education system in the future.
In this way, the coup itself has provided a brutal but important education to Myanmar’s people, teaching lessons of unity in the face of oppression. When fighting to preserve the light of hope that comes with education, these lessons of unity and independent thinking must be brought along to create a more united, resilient, and inclusive Myanmar. Ultimately, we must hope that a renewed understanding of unity, along with the needed reforms expanded under the NLD government, will endure and blossom among a new generation of Myanmar youth and teachers.
(The author would like to thank Ma Nyo, for her help in researching and editing this article.)