In Person

‘Myanmar’s Education System Should be a System of Many Systems’

10 August 2018

Saw Myo Min Thu, known to many as Saw Kapi, is an ethnic Karen born in Taungoo, a town in Bago Region which is home to many members of the Karen community. After he took part in the student protests that rocked the country in August 1988, he fled to the Thai border and then went on the spend over decade in the US studying, working and continuing his activism, alerting the world of the repression and injustices committed by the Myanmar military regime against its people. In late 2012, with a quasi-civilian government in place and Myanmar opening up to the rest of the world, he returned to Myanmar, settling in Yangon and becoming involved in education reform. He was appointed as executive director of Thabyay Education Foundation, a non-governmental organization which has supported thousands of youths from diverse ethnicities with skills in English, leadership and the knowledge necessary for sustainable development of their communities and Myanmar as a whole.

Thabyay’s new Peace Leadership and Research Institute targets a different group of people compared to the other programmes which are largely for youth from rural, underdeveloped areas. Why have you made that change?

I made that change because of my own experience of the Myanmar peace process. I realised that political parties, ethnic armed organisations and in some cases even the government and civil society sectors are not equipped with proper and accurate information. Leaders who have to negotiate lack access to those who can support them with information for their negotiation process. Another reason was to tackle the cliché used by the State Councelor, ethnic leaders and everyone who says that young people need to be more involved in the peace process. You cannot just make a statement like that. You should ask, ‘How can we open up the way for them?’ ‘What do we need to do to prepare them so that they can and will be able to meaningfully get involved?’ That’s that type of thing that we want to do with PLRI.

In 2014, you wrote an article for the Irrawaddy in which you discussed the importance of deeds over words for the government. Do you think that today the deeds of the government have caught up with their words?

I wrote that article in response to another article about having sensitivity around the use of certain words in the peace process. I wrote it because I didn’t want people to focus on words only because deeds are also very important. Until now, all leaders involved in the process are caught up in the war on word choice and it takes their focus away from what is really going on on the ground in terms of real actions. For example, we would like to see clear evidence of, say, the presence of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) troops being reduced by a certain number; clear evidence of improvement of livelihoods, incomes, or economic situation; clear evidence of the number of schools that have been built; these kind of tangible, real numbers and deeds that I think up until now, we don’t see a lot of. I’m not saying there is a complete absence of deeds but there is not enough to the extent that would make Myanmar people hopeful.

What are your views on the current education system and the changes, small or large, that have happened since the National Education Amendment Law was passed in 2015?

I believe it brings both opportunities and challenges. For challenges, as we are trying to move forward, the education system should give more authority at state and region levels as well as the private education sector and thereby the goal would be achieved through the combined efforts of the government, private education sector and ethnic education sector. However, the law in essence tells us that education in Myanmar will remain highly centralised. In terms of opportunity, by the time we are able to implement this education strategic plan, our education system will be compatible with other countries at least in terms of system. Currently, Myanmar high schools go up to 10th standard, or 11th grade, while other countries have a 12-grade system and a university entrance exam which we don’t have.

Talking about the Ministry of Education, what are your comments on their systems, practices and policies? What aspects would like to see improved?

The Ministry of Education is the second-largest ministry after the Ministry of Defence. There are close to 500,000 staff and teachers so it will take a while for the ministry to implement changes around the whole country. That is the very reason the system needs to be decentralized. The ministry is too big and it is taking on a lot of responsibilities that it cannot handle. Being such a convoluted ministry is a big weakness of the Ministry of Education itself. Another thing is that only about 50% of teachers going into the education sector get training prior to the start of their service. That has to be increased. Worse is that, in rural areas they don’t even have teachers: sometimes they appoint teachers who then don’t even go to school to teach and still the ministry can’t force them. I think that’s a huge thing that needs improvement.

What kind of education system do you see working for the whole country?

I think Myanmar’s education system should be a system of many systems. Because of the nature of our country and because we have multiples of ethnic people in the country, it is important that we set up a system of many systems that allow different ethnic nationalities to create their own and also be part of the broader system of education in Myanmar. That’s a very fundamental step that they need to take at the very beginning. A more modern curriculum that encourages critical thinking and the use of technologies, creativity and all the 21st century literacy skills

What are your biggest personal achievements since coming back to Myanmar?

Instead of thinking about achievements, I feel very rewarded when I see the young people at our own graduations; when I see those who came through our one-year program start something even bigger and better than what we do here, in their own regions. In some cases, they are very creative in terms of the type of programs they design for that particular area. I feel like their achievement is my achievement or my achievement is their achievement too. We want to see more of those cases and the country needs to have more of those kinds of achievements.

What personal ambitions do you have for your future?

My desire is to see a private not-for-profit institution that can bring together ethnic nationalities from all over the country, to learn together for the development of their country. It can be a university, institute or college.