Last year in May, June and July I had the amazing experience to travel to Myanmar as a volunteer teacher. My job was to teach young Burmese adults about equality and justice. I understand that it already seems to be a very long time ago as it was before we even heard or read the word “covid”. To tell you it, I was living in Hpa-An a small city in Kayin state in central/south Myanmar. I was a teacher in a private academy made for young adults to deepen their literature, philosophy and language skills before going to university. While I was living there, I got to give a lot of my time and my knowledge to my students, but I also got to learn a lot about this country. I learned about the complex history it has, about the current education system and mostly about the kind-hearted people there. I have to say that I find it hard to learn about the reality of Myanmar from news websites and articles. They are always inaccurate or lacking in details and research. The point of this article is to share with you some of what I learned and experienced in Myanmar for you to understand better the current situation of this country to create your own opinion.
I- The administrative regions of Myanmar
Myanmar is currently divided into seven states which are inhabited by local ethnic groups, six Burmese divisions and an extra division in the far south of the country. I say local ethnic group because from what I have witnessed and heard, people from Myanmar have a very low sense of national identity. First and foremost, they belong to their ethnic group. They don’t feel Burmese at all. To give you a funny example, when presenting themselves in English they would say: “I am Myanmar people from Kayin state”.
We can count eight major ethnic group, first the Burmese ethnic group and then the seven different states have the name of the biggest ethnic group in the region. In a random order it would be the Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan ethnic group. The capital of Myanmar is Nay Pyi Taw, this is a very modern city. The construction of this city started in 2002 and was completed in 2012. The city is very clean, modern, flashy and nice from the outside but from my experience and what Burmese people told me this is more of a ghost town than a real city as it is totally empty. It was supposed to be the home of hundreds of thousands of people but only a handful of government officials are currently living in Nay Pyi Taw. Everyone is living in Yangon, with more than 8.0 m people living in the metropolitan area, Yangon is Myanmar’s economic and cultural centre.
To give a bit of a back story of this country, the Kayin/Karren ethnic group have historically been enemies of the Burmese. They fought with the UK army against the Burmese during the British rule of Myanmar. As a result, now that Myanmar is unified in one independent country, they have been strongly discriminated by government officials and more broadly by much of the Burmese population. The strong and deep problem we have in Burma is this missing sense of national identity. In Burma we have local nationalism and intra-national racism. This immensely complexifies the mission of the government to create unity within its borders. Furthermore, all the biggest non-Burmese ethnic groups, Shan, Karen and Rakhine to name them have their own local and personal armed group. On paper this is to defend the borders of the state but in reality, this is to limit the spectrum of action and the influence of the national government on local politics and decision makers. To give some highlights on recent and catastrophic news, this explains why during the peak of the Rohingya’s refugee crisis we were under the impression that the Burmese Government and Aung San Suu Kyi the State counsellor didn’t do anything. It was more that they couldn’t do or decided to move with caution to avoid a broader and more deadly intrastate war/civil war. The idea that the Burmese government let the Rohingya die without doing anything was greatly conveyed by reporters and medias which didn’t care to explain the details of the situation. This article is not about the Rohingya’s crisis so I will stop the parenthesis here.
The country of Myanmar is a developing country, and it is developing very fast. I know that I can say that when I look at the fast and drastic undergoing revolution of the education system there.
II- Public and Private schools in Myanmar
Myanmar was ruled by a strong military regime and it only recently it opened its borders. When we speak about education, for us it is a given that every kid must go to school. In the US or in France it is mandatory to go to school until age 16. In Myanmar, ten years ago only 20% of the Burmese population had access to education. As of today, this percentage has increased immensely and 80% of Burmese nationals have a secure and free access to public education. These number are very impressive, but the locals are not satisfied yet. From what I was told, public education’s quality is strongly lacking, mediocre to say the least. Education is used as a way of propaganda for the regime. It might look all grim but don’t forget that the progress is real as the number of people with a free access to education has tripled in ten years.
I understood that the best way for Burmese nationals to get the most of their education is to go to private schools. In Myanmar you have a lot of quality private schools, whether non-profit or normal private schools. For example, I was teaching at one of the non-profit private schools of Hpa-An. The program there are tailored to the needs of the students and students can also ask sensitive questions on Myanmar history, politics or economy without having to be lied to or worse punished for raising a sensitive subject.
Sorry my article is already quite long, so I will have to stop here for now.
I hope you enjoyed my fifth article, please contact me if you wish to learn more about the interesting topic of Myanmar.