‘Ne Win Manipulated Educational Affairs’

By Yan Pai 27 August 2013

When Burma’s former regime was crafting its education policy and determining how to mold the young minds of the nation, Than Oo was there to offer advice. A former high school principle and teachers’ training college principle, Than Oo was an adviser to the Education Ministry in 1988, the same year student-led protests swept the nation. During his career, the US university-educated scholar also served as chairman of the country’s Education Research Bureau, director-general of the Basic Education Department, and chairman of Wisdom Light, a group formed by U Thant, the late former secretary general of the United Nations. Today, as chairman of the Myanmar Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is cooperating with Burma’s quasi-civilian government to review the national education sector and identify areas for reform. In an exclusive interview with The Irrawaddy, he criticizes former dictator Ne Win’s education policies and offers thoughts on the current reform process.

Question: Rangoon University is reinstating undergraduate courses, but only 15 students are allowed to enroll for each subject. Don’t you think that number is too small?

Answer: University authorities seem concerned about the possibility of future student movements, because almost every student movement in the past originated from Rangoon University. I think that’s why they accepted only 15 students for each course. They may accept more students in the future, depending on the situation.

Q: Is the country’s basic education system in need of an upgrade?

A: It’s wrong to use the term “basic education.” I submitted a bill on “general education” during the days of the Union Revolutionary Council [a supreme governing body under Ne Win], but Ne Win changed the term to “basic education,” without understanding the meaning of the term clearly. Internationally, education from Grade 1 to Grade 12 is general education. The purpose of general education, in a word, is to produce good citizens. University education is when students specialize in a desired subject. … An educated person is someone who understands cause and effect, good and bad, right and wrong. We need educated people, not just literate people.

Q: What’s your opinion of teaching methods that are promoted domestically and abroad?

A: Both the United States and Japan are many steps ahead of Burma in the education sector. We cannot copy everything these countries do, but we should pay attention. …We need more teaching materials. Schools in the United States and Japan have complete teaching materials—we just have chalk and blackboards. We can’t even arrange for a chair and desk for each student. Some areas in our country don’t have schools—we need to build schools. …At this point, we can’t even think about installing projectors in the classroom. First let’s check kindergarten textbooks, which are tattered and torn. And even if someone wants to donate books, we don’t have cupboards to keep them.

Q: Autonomy will reportedly be granted soon for universities. What are your thoughts?

A: President Thein Sein said universities must be autonomous in the near future. That’s really reasonable. …There must be academic freedom among students and teachers. Nobody should repress them. That [autonomy] is the main feature of a university. Universities abroad are run this way.

Q: You worked during several eras of Burmese history—from the post-independence era of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, to the Burmese Way to Socialism and the so-called State Law and Order Restoration Council of the military regime. Which era was best for academic freedom?

A: The post-independence time, from 1948 to 1962, was best. … As you know, during the era of the Burmese Way to Socialism from 1962 to 1988, and during the military regime’s time from 1988 to 2010, academic freedom and the academic atmosphere of the country’s education system was degraded.

Q: Do you think the present government can raise education standards to former post-independence levels?

A: They have to try really hard. In the past there were issues like a three-month academic year, a six-month academic year, and students being allowed to pass exams even though they weren’t qualified because there was a fear of student-led uprisings.

Q: Can you talk more about your experience as an educator under the military regime?

A: A lot of universities were opened to prevent the gathering of many students [at a single university]. Universities were moved to the outskirts of towns to prevent students from demonstrating. Dormitories were abolished, also to prevent student gatherings. … Students had to spend hours on buses to get to class, and they did not have enough time to study or read books in the libraries.

Q: What was the education standard under former dictator Ne Win?

A: He [Ne Win] made mistakes and manipulated educational affairs, pretending that he understood everything. He was the one who separated the studies of arts and sciences. Before, it was only at university level that arts and sciences were separated. Starting from the days of Ne Win, when arts and science subjects were separated, fewer students studied arts subjects in high school. It was his mistake.

Q: Ne Win didn’t seek advice from scholars to shape education policy?

A: No. Ne Win opposed three main things. First, he was anti-politics, but he took part in politics. Second, he was anti-intellectual. Third, he was anti-democracy. It’s my impression that nothing could be implemented during his time, and the country became poor while the people tried to carry out his orders.

Ne Win was even pessimistic about Min Thu Wun’s [U Wun] work to create a Burmese dictionary. He often compared U Wun to a loaf of broad that had not been baked properly. This upset U Wun, who confided in me. … I told him not to get discouraged by the words of Ne Win, who knew nothing, and to only suffer if an intellect like Saya Zawgyi [Thein Han, a distinguished writer and scholar] criticized him. …When Dr Hla Han became education minister, he told Ne Win that he was not skilled in educational affairs and urged Ne Win to appoint someone else. Dr Hla Han sought help from Dr Nyi Nyi [former deputy minister of education] and me, appointing us to important positions. But Ne Win was very influential over us, and we couldn’t implement anything as we wished.

Q: Now that you have retired from the Education Ministry, some organizations are seeking your assistance to develop Burma’s education system. Do you have plans to cooperate with them?

A: I will, of course, cooperate if it’s in the interest of our country. … Last year, I went to Budapest, Hungary, to attend a meeting there and discuss education with [George] Soros, an American tycoon who runs OSI [the Open Society Institute, now the Open Society Foundations]. I have been cooperating with OSI to review the education sector in Burma. Whenever the NLD [the National League for Democracy] holds educational meetings, I also attend if they invite me. … I help them because it is for the good of our country.