In Person

Mon National Schools Show the Way on Mother Tongue Education

By Nyein Nyein & Zue Zue 29 November 2019

MOULMEIN, Mon State—The Mon National Education Committee (MNEC) runs 133 Mon national schools in Mon communities across Mon and Karen states and in upper Tanintharyi Region.

Established more than 40 years ago, the committee administers a network of schools offering a mother tongue-based curriculum for primary level students.

The Irrawaddy talked to U Min Aung Zay, MNEC’s research manager, about the committee’s experiences and the major challenges currently facing Mon national schools. U Min Aung Zay worked as a teacher and has worked on Mon national education development for more than 30 years. He is a leading developer of the Mon mother tongue-based curriculum and an advocate for the local curriculum initiated by the Mon State government.

Could you tell us how Mon national schools started?

They started during the fighting [between the Myanmar military and the New Mon State Party’s Mon National Liberation Army] in southeast Myanmar, [in areas] where the NMSP controlled Mon and Karen states and part of Tanintharyi Region. The villages in those areas did not have teachers. The community had to hire their own teachers for the children during those times, paying them in rice. The schools were run purely with community support.

U Min Aung Zay, research manager at the Mon National Education Committee (Photo: Nyein Nyein/ The Irrawaddy)

HtetLater, the NMSP started supporting schools and they formed the Mon National Education Department to oversee education. The schools were established as Mon National Schools and in every township there is a Mon teachers association, which offers any necessary educational support. This community-supported teaching started in 1972, and has been going on for 47 years now.

When did the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC) form, and what role does it play in the development of Mon national education?

The MNEC was established in 1992 to support education through policy development and to communicate with international organizations. After its formation, we started receiving assistance.

After the NMSP signed a ceasefire with the former military government in 1995, education was among the areas covered by the terms of the ceasefire. Five points were agreed regarding education development. These included the right of government schools to teach in the Mon language—but outside of school hours—and the integration of students who had completed their high school education into government universities. University students whose studies were interrupted when they joined the NMSP in the jungle could go back and continue their university studies; many of them were RIT [Rangoon Institute of Technology] students. Based on the agreement, Mon national school students started taking matriculation examinations at government schools in 1996, helping to integrate [the education system].

A Mon national primary school in Nai Lon Village, Mudon Township, Mon State / Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy

This allowed students from Mon national schools to move to government schools and vice versa. It was agreed that Mon national schoolteachers would be allowed to join the government’s education colleges and universities, but we could not do that. Most of our teachers at that time had themselves only completed the high school level. But now we have many teachers who have completed university. We have discussed sending our teachers for training at the education colleges and we have an agreement to implement it.

What are the differences in the curriculums used by Mon national schools and government schools?

There are many differences. Mon national schools overseen by the MNEC focus on a mother tongue-based multilingual curriculum at the primary level. We use three languages … Mon, Burmese and English. It is compulsory. What is different from the government schools is that our students are entitled to study in their own language. Additionally, our schools have links with the government schools.

The students from our schools can move to the government schools and vice versa. We have different systems, but we are linked. The difference I was referring to is in terms of the language of instruction, but [the government and Mon national schools have] similar class and school structures.

In the government schools, the children—whether Mon, Bamar or Karen—learn only in Burmese. In our schools, as most of the students are Mon, they learn in their Mon mother tongue.

In primary school, all subjects are taught in Mon with a Mon curriculum. After primary, both academic and supplementary subjects are based on the government’s curriculum, but taught in the Mon language.

What do you think about teaching ethnic languages in government schools?

In terms of the Mon language, it is not effective. It would be difficult for the government to implement without our help. Although there have been some developments in teaching Mon in government schools, it is not at a satisfactory level yet. The children do not yet fully benefit from Mon-language learning at those schools.

Also, the teachers do not work hard, and so they do not master their subjects. In order to improve the situation, the government’s Education Department and the MNEC should work together, because we have an established Mon literature, the teaching methods, skilled teachers and a qualified curriculum. We have trained our teachers. Cooperation between the government and MNEC education departments on Mon-language teaching would benefit us a lot.

Why should children be taught in their mother tongue? How does it benefit them?

Children at the primary level understand the language they use at home—they don’t understand Burmese well. Teaching them in their own language helps them understand the issues well and gives them a quality education. So we try this approach, although it is quite challenging.

We need a lot of support, including financial support, to draft the curriculum, train teachers and so forth. Maybe that’s why the government has not been able to implement mother tongue education in [ethnic] areas. A lack of resources is also a difficulty for us.

Mon national school principals train at the headquarters of the Mon National Education Committee in Nyisar, Ye Township. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

By mother tongue language we mean a child’s own language, whatever the location. For any child, whether they are Mon or Bamar, the location in which they are raised is important. If they are raised in Mawlamyaing, where Burmese is the main language, they speak Burmese first and their own language is Burmese, so Burmese is their mother tongue. The child’s familiarity with the first language they learn at home or in the community determines their own tongue.

When these children are taught in their own tongue, they can get a quality education. If not, the children will not understand. If the children are taught in a language they do not know, it can’t be called teaching—it does them a disservice.

In Mon national schools, are all the students Mon children? What about other ethnic children? If they attend a Mon national school, are they taught in the Mon language?

We have Bamar students, as there are many migrant workers from Irrawaddy and Bago regions. The parents send their children to Mon national schools because they cannot afford to send the children to other schools. We teach them in Burmese.

At the primary level, Mon literature is the priority, though we have textbooks from the government curriculum. But our teaching is not based on those textbooks—we use a child-centered approach.

How many Mon teachers and students do your schools have?

We have 133 Mon national schools; three of them are high schools, 18 are middle schools and the rest are primary schools. Most of them are in Mon State, but there are a few in Karen State and Tanintharyi Region. We have 686 teachers, teaching nearly 12,000 students. The high schools are in Andin and at the MNEC headquarters in Ye Township in Mon State, and in Winkabar in Kyar Inn Seik Kyi Township in Karen State, where Mon is the most widely used language.

What would you say are MNEC’s major achievements in its more than 20 years of operation?

In the past, the Mon National Education Committee comprised seven people, and all were members of the NMSP. In 2014, it was expanded to include community members, monks and businessmen, and it now numbers 25 members. The MNEC has been reformed.

Also, we work closely with the government’s Education Department. Our teachers can now join teacher skill training sessions on the new government curriculum, which are provided by the government. And our students can take the Grade 8 exam in our own schools.

On the other hand, our students received funding through school grants provided by UNICEF in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years. Each student was entitled to 5,000 kyats [about US$3.30]. After 2018, our schools were not provided that support, though the government schools received it. We raised the issue and were told that we would be provided with support, but we still have not received it. It makes us feel that we have been pushed aside—as if the government is only cooperating with us because they are obliged not to leave us behind. We feel sad. We are indigenous people, we are citizens and we want equal opportunities.

Mon national schools are self-supporting, but the assistance you receive is unreliable. How do you manage to continue running these schools? What are the challenges?

The biggest challenge is salaries. Every year, this is a headache for us. When we ask for support from NGOs, they are not interested in paying our teachers’ salaries. They may not be interested because it would require long-term support. But some groups support us a little.

We pay 96,000 kyats [about US$63] per teacher [per month] and our communities provide an additional 30,000 kyats for each teacher. The government’s salary is 180,000 kyats for teachers at the primary level. We have our own fundraising committee in each township and these committees address our financial needs. The government provides us with free textbooks based on the government curriculum.

So how does the MNEC keep the Mon national schools running?

We try to achieve sustainability through community fundraising. The community also helps teachers survive by providing basic items of food and accommodation. The Mon exile community also transfers money to us. We save this money and use it only in emergencies.

We also have Mon monasteries; a monk suggested we seek help from the more than 1,000 Mon monasteries. The monk told us that a Mon monastery could offer us 500,000 kyats annually. We will meet this monk too.

In addition, we keep raising our voice to seek support from the government.

The Mon curriculum is way ahead of other ethnic language-based curriculums. Based on your experience, what can you share with other ethnicities in terms of mother tongue-based teaching?

We have shared our experience with the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Kachin. We exchanged experiences with the Karen Education and Cultural Department in Mae Sot, Thailand; the Karenni Education Center in Demoso Township in Kayah State; and the Shan National Education Committee in Taunggyi, Shan State. We have also shared our experiences with other Shan groups in Lashio and the Kawng Hka militia-controlled area. We also shared our experiences with the Kachin Education Department under the Kachin Independence Organization in Mai Ja Yang.

They are all different from us. The Kawng Hka militia-controlled school’s curriculum is based on a church approach.

They have their own mother tongue-based learning in Karen [State and areas controlled by the Karen National Union], teaching in Karen, Burmese and English. But their system doesn’t have links with the government [system].

Our mother tongue-based curriculum is focused on the primary student, and uses the government curriculum for middle and high school students. Mon literature is one subject, and we are preparing to be able to do research at the university level.

Because of the bridges between our system and the government’s, our students can join universities in government-controlled areas, as well as international universities.

This is our model. And we have found that many people like our system. But it is difficult for others to model themselves on us exactly, as we have different issues and histories.