Girls walk to school on the outskirts of Rangoon, Nov. 4, 2015. (Photo: Reuters via Irrawaddy.com)

Reforming Education Reform in Myanmar

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By Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw

(Reposted from: Tea Circle – Oxford. May 19, 2017)

In 2016, the new civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took over the country. Education reform and the peace process became the top priorities of the government in order to achieve sustainable development and equitable economic growth. To build an enabling environment for a more effective education system in the country, the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) 2016-21 was developed. Meanwhile, many ethnic armed groups started to engage in a peace process led by the new civilian government for the first time in decades. However, fear and mistrust still linger in the country and it will take generations to overcome those hardships.

Myanmar is a unique country located geographically at the strategic location between China, India and ASEAN countries. It is now in the process of a rigorous democratic transition. Very few countries are ethnically as diverse as Myanmar. There are at least 135 minority groups characterized by varying degrees of social, political and economic difference. Myanmar’s civil war is also known as one of the longest-running civil wars in history. The oppressive military rule for decades in the country also intensified these internal conflicts.

Educating children and young people as agents of positive social change is of vital importance in Myanmar, especially during this critical period. The new education policies in the country should not only be linked to concerns about learning and cognition in schools but also to internal conflicts. Their potential to aggravate or ameliorate conflicts also needs to be thoroughly analysed. They should be conflict-sensitive and have a general pacifying effect.

However, the NESP 2016-21 does not fully focus on curriculum challenges related to conflicts and mother-language-based teaching. It promises that it will focus on the needs of schools in less developed areas as well as support and promote ethnic languages and cultures. It is obvious that the NESP acknowledges the importance of ethnic language policies and equity issues in a sustainable resolution towards the country’s long-running ethnic conflicts. Despite that, the role of education in relation to conflict transformation and peacebuilding through a specific curriculum reform is not discussed in the plan at all.

The curriculum reform is in line with international standards but not linked to any conflict-resolution strategies. Issues relevant to the diverse ethnic groups, and the uneven distribution of educational opportunities are discussed, but they are not treated as important factors in the current conflicts in the country. Introduction of minority languages into government school curricula at the primary school level are established in some states and regions; however, policies concerning such initiatives remain under-resourced in the NESP 2016-21. Since Myanmar’s internal conflicts are long-lasting and complex, the new education system should help people understand the underlying causes of current ethnic conflicts, contribute to social transformation and the peace process as well as learn non-violent ways of responding to conflict.

When I look back upon my childhood, all we learned from our history lessons at school in the 1990s was about British colonization, how it caused deep divisions among the ethnic groups, how Myanmar gained independence, how insurgencies began shortly afterwards and how the military saved the country from harm. We never learned about the different voices of various ethnic groups. We never had a chance to learn their histories and cultures. And we had never heard of any non-violent ways of responding to conflicts at school. I believe that there should be a new and innovative conflict-sensitive history curriculum and relevant peacebuilding programs at schools for the upcoming generations. What forms and levels of curriculum reform, and under what conditions it may contribute to reduce the risks of conflict, should be decided according to the Education for Peace guidelines by UNESCO.

Quality Node on Peace Education defines “Education for Peace” as a deliberate policy and institutional response to conflict. The UNESCO data shows that 84% of the 45 sub-Saharan African countries had national education policies that included culture of peace values. The Ethiopia Education and Training policy of 1994 recognizes the role of education in the peace process. The Gambian education policy also states that the rights of the individual, cultural diversity, indigenous languages and knowledge must be respected and to promote ethical norms and values and a culture of peace. Likewise, Sri Lanka’s “National Policy and a Comprehensive Framework of Actions on Education for Social Cohesion and Peace” in 2008 also aimed to “bring together disparate peace‐promoting activities into a coherent framework” through the key strategic areas of curriculum reform accepted by diverse groups.

According to UNICEF, such policies and programs have proven to be effective. In Burundi, a reduction in student-teacher violence, stereotypes and division between children from different groups at risk of conflict in 14 targeted provinces was found after establishing a peace-building program. In South Sudan, between 2014 and 2015, a total of 8,000 children and youth (30% female) in five States were able to build peaceful relationships within schools and communities. They also reported a sense of belonging to their country. Therefore, the effective integration of ‘Education for Peace’ into the curriculum is essential in conflict-affected countries like Myanmar.

In my opinion, there are two policy options that should be taken into serious consideration by current policy makers:

1) Curriculum Reform

As stated above, the Curriculum Reform for Peace is of vital importance in every conflict-affected country. In Myanmar, the history curricula have not been modified since 1986. A carefully constructed history curriculum that has a positive effect on social reconstruction and long-lasting peace is utterly essential during this critical period. The history of the country and the underlying causes of the armed conflicts should be thoroughly taught at schools. However, what to include and what not to include in the history are very delicate as well as political issues which need specialist consultations. The specialist committee should be composed of various experts on politics, education, culture and ethnicity. It should be a positive narrative and could ignite national unity. One the other hand, one should not get caught in the trap of creating national unity only and ignore the protest voices – who want to create a politics of diversity and preserve diversity by not following the routine line of thought. Thus education must allow divergent and alternative narratives to exist. Creating a common positive narrative can have its own hegemonising tendencies – which could be dangerous in the long run. We could follow the UNESCO guidelines on how to incorporate a “conflict sensitive” approach to planning for education for peace and conflict prevention. There should also be specific school programs to increase capacity of students, parents and teachers to cope and prevent conflict and promote peace. The main purpose is to prepare learners to acquire peacebuilding competencies.

2) Equitable Education and Incentives

Educational inequality should be carefully reduced by incentives, scholarships or material assistance to under-represented groups. Enrollment and intake ratios should be disaggregated to the smallest unit possible. There should be a specific policy to give incentives to the children affected by conflict and poverty shocks. They should be brought back to schools by all means. In the higher education sector, students from the minority groups and from remote and conflict-affected areas should be given scholarships and brought back to the higher-level universities. If the minorities remain dissatisfied with the current situation, they are less likely to integrate into the peace process. And there should be greater administrative flexibility designed to promote the registration of various ethnic groups.

To conclude, the NESP 2016-21 is a very practical and innovative plan. This is not to argue that the NESP 2016-21 totally fails to strengthen the peace process and partnerships between the government and the different education service providers under the ethnic education systems. It only lacks a conflict-sensitive curriculum reform and strategies for the parallel ethnic education systems in order for them to synchronize with the whole system. To fill in the gaps, a very strong Education for Peace Curriculum policy should be urgently integrated into the NESP 2016-21.

Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw (MBBS, PhD) is a former WHO Career Development Fellow (visiting scholar) at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford, USA. She is currently a research scientist at Department of Medical Research (Pyin Oo Lwin Branch), Ministry of Health and Sports, Myanmar. Her research interests are reproductive health, equity, health policies, public policies and gender issues.

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