Education and federalism in Myanmar

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Schoolchildren smile for the camera at a school in Panghsang, the capital of the Wa ethnic region in northern Shan State in 2015. / The Irrawaddy

Through Ashley South February 11, 2022

In federal systems, education is usually a state-level responsibility. The development of locally owned and delivered education can therefore be a model of federalism in Myanmar. Many impressive initiatives are already underway, including half a dozen mother tongue-based multilingual education school systems run by armed ethnic organizations and their educational wings, known as Ethnic Basic Education Providers.

We are at an extraordinary time in Myanmar’s history, with key players working in real time against a backdrop of dire crisis to reinvent the union and its institutions. For the National Unity Government (NUG), Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO), People’s Defense Forces and People’s Administrative Bodies, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and others, there is an urgent need to renegotiating state-society relations, the role and nature of the state and its institutions.

One of the opportunities of the Myanmar crisis is to address issues that were – or should have been – in the previous political reform agenda and/or the peace process, but have been ignored or treated in ways exclude key stakeholders and positions. With the Burmese military no longer seen as a legitimate stakeholder in such discussions, now is the time to consider the issues without the interference of these spoilers – although the “spoilers” do little justice to the inhumanity and the idiocy of the cretins of the junta.

Education, and its link to federalism and self-determination of ethnic communities, is a concern for a wide range of stakeholders. A good place to start is to look at EAO’s education provision, at a time when the public education system is barely functioning and is widely seen as illegitimate.

EAO Departments of Education (EBEP)

Although terminology varies, EAO education systems are often referred to as Ethnic Basic Education Providers (EBEP). They serve approximately 300,000 children, in schools either directly operated by EAO education departments or [at least before the coup] in community and “mixed” schools, jointly administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the EBEPs. Since last year’s coup, the civil disobedience movement has been very effective and many schools under the control of the junta are not functioning effectively. Therefore, since 2021, there are far fewer “mixed” schools.

There are EAO-administered or affiliated schools in conflict-affected areas of Karen, Mon, Kachin and Shan states and Bago and Tanintharyi regions. Curricula range from those that largely mirror the MOE curriculum at the middle and high school level, but are taught in the ethnic native language [e.g. the Mon model]to those who have many distinct elements in government programs [e.g. the Karen school system]. In several ethnic education systems, curricula and other elements are being reviewed and reformed.

Major EBEPs include the Karen National Union’s Department of Karen Education and Culture, with 1,093 schools and over 90,000 students; the National Mon Education Committee of the New Mon State Party, with 134 national Mon schools and 10,324 students; the Shan State Education Commission Restoration Council, with some 350 schools in southern Shan State and 11,000 students [and additional Shan schools administered by CSOs]the Kachin Independence Organization Education Department, with more than 250 schools [and additional schools in government-controlled areas under the administration of Kachin education CSOs]; and the Karenni National Progressive Party’s Karenni Education Department, with over 60 schools [many administered in partnership with CSOs]. In addition, several of these groups often provide educational services to children in refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

These EBEPs variously use teaching methods based on mother tongue and/or multilingual education (MTB-MLE), with child-centred methodologies. Significant funding and technical assistance is provided by international donors, but much is supported by communities. Teachers often receive stipends, but are mostly volunteers. Currently, EBEP schools are the only functioning basic education providers in the country.

Benefits of mother tongue-based education

There are two main reasons for promoting and supporting MTB-MLE in Myanmar: educational and political. Regardless of policy, children from minority communities achieve better learning outcomes if they can start school in their mother tongue. Children who are forced to learn in a language they do not speak at home are educationally disadvantaged and often never catch up with their peers in the majority community, who find it much easier to understand what is going on in class. MTB-MLE is internationally recognized as the most effective way for children who do not speak the national language to have a fair chance of achieving good learning outcomes. Evidence shows worldwide that this is the best way to teach children from minority language communities. The transition to the use of the national language can take place in primary or middle school, depending on the specific model adopted.

Supporting ethnic education is also important for peacebuilding. One of the major grievances fueling ethnic conflict in Myanmar is the disregard for the identity and languages ​​of ethnic minority/national communities in state education and administrative systems, and the experiences of marginalization of ethnic peoples in the context of a dominant system bamar culture and language [‘Burmanization’]. For these reasons, many ethnic communities see the national education system as a tool of assimilation, and public education is seen as a driver of conflict. Therefore, EAOs and CSOs have set up their own MTB-MLE systems. These locally owned and operated education initiatives are key elements of self-determination and building a just and inclusive federal union.

Civil society education actors

In addition to formal EBEP education systems, a number of CSOs offer informal education, including after school and/or part-time in local languages. Some of them work independently, while others work alongside the EAOs/EBEPs and/or with the MOE. Many are faith-based organizations.

Major education CSOs in Myanmar include literature and culture committees, working mainly in government-controlled areas. In addition, several CSOs work in conflict-affected areas [often in partnership with EBEPs], as well as in areas with mixed administration” and in areas entirely controlled by the government. Many private schools, often faith-based, follow the MOE curriculum [for example monastic schools]. Most of these activities have not been able to continue since the coup, at least for now.

Some questions and issues

In federal political/constitutional systems, education [especially basic education] is usually a state-level responsibility. The provision of education can therefore be a model of federalism in Myanmar.

A fundamental question to be resolved is the relationship between [ethnic state or EBEP/EAO] union level and union level. Union-level roles for a federal government MOE may include: coordination; training and development of educational resources; financing (fundraising and distribution), and possibly also interest arbitration, and some aspects of quality control. These issues need to be discussed, ideally through a structured process of dialogue and negotiation.

More fundamentally, there is an urgent need for union-level recognition and accreditation of EBEP teachers and student qualifications. At present, EBEP systems are largely unrecognized by the state of Myanmar, which means that many children have their school results unrecognized, which greatly reduces their options after enrolment. [and also limiting opportunities for students to move between EBEP and MOE systems].

This raises the deeper question of what is the most appropriate relationship between EBEPs and MOE? [meaning the NUG’s ‘Democratic MOE’, any engagement with the junta’s ministry being inappropriate]. The most useful approach might be to support parallel EBEP and MOE systems, with mutual recognition based on the development of common standards and shared learning outcomes. [which can be delivered through diverse curricula and education administrations]. Another set of important questions concerns how to design and sustain constructive relationships between EBEPs and state-level coordination bodies, which have emerged in a number of areas since the coup.

Focus on the MOE [meaning the NUG’s ‘Democratic MOE], there is a need to improve and expand MTB-MLE teaching in schools. Much-needed reforms can draw inspiration from those initiated by the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government through the Local Curriculum Content initiative. Under the NLD-led government, the Ministry of Education introduced ethnic language education up to grade 3 in five ethnic states. Building on and learning from this experience, MTB-MLE approaches should be generalized throughout the state system.

These issues need to be decided by Myanmar stakeholders. However, international supporters have a role to play. In general, and especially during the last decade of ‘reform’ in Myanmar, education and other initiatives were too often driven by the agendas of external donors. It is time to refocus this supply-driven approach and shift to a demand-driven agenda. Can donors strike the right balance between supporting EBEPs – rather than imposing priorities on donors – while providing the advice and assistance needed to strengthen EBEP systems?

Finally, there is a need for further research and development, including mapping language use and designing educational materials and training support for small ethnolinguistic groups, including minorities within minorities. How best to support the educational and socio-political rights of children from communities in areas where the local majority group constitutes a minority in the Union? These considerations may point to a rights-based rather than strictly ethno-territorial conception of federalism and self-determination.

Federalism has many dimensions, especially in a complex and conflict-affected country like Myanmar. Although not easy, exploring and supporting local ownership and delivery of education can be an important contribution to – and help draw lessons for – the development of democratic federalism in the country.

Ashley South is an independent analyst and researcher at Chiang Mai University, specializing in political and humanitarian issues in Burma and Southeast Asia. His opinions are his own.


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