Burma’s Govt Accused of Excluding Education Network From Reform Talks

By Samantha Michaels 5 March 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s Ministry of Education is facing criticism again for allegedly excluding a prominent civil society network from the education reform process.

The National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a civil society network that includes the education bloc of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, says the government canceled an invitation for its members to attend an education forum in Naypyidaw that started Wednesday.

Thein Lwin, a spokesman for the NLD education bloc, said 150 members of the NNER had been invited to attend the National Practical Education Reform Forum, where Vice President Sai Mauk Kham gave an opening address on Wednesday morning. Government officials, lawmakers and other participants are expected to discuss education sector plans during the forum, amid a push to overhaul the public school system during the country’s transition from military rule.

Speaking at a press conference in Rangoon on Tuesday, Thein Lwin said a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Education informed the NNER on Monday night that their invitation to the forum had been canceled, without providing a reason for the decision.

“We had already prepared to go, and they canceled,” he told The Irrawaddy. “It is difficult to work together with the government because this is not the first time they have changed their minds. It’s difficult to believe them, to trust them.”

Speaking later on Wednesday, he added that NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the parliamentary committee focused on higher education, was not attending the forum.

Sai Khaing Myo Tun, an NNER member and secretary of the University of Rangoon’s Teachers’ Union, said the invitation was initially offered and subsequently canceled by Dr. Myo Thein Gyi, director-general of the Department of Basic Education.

He said participants at the forum would likely discuss two proposals for a new national education law—one drafted by the Ministry of Education, and the other drafted by lawmakers. The ministry’s draft law is expected to go before Parliament this month.

“There is little input from civil society in both drafts,” Sai Khaing Myo Tun said, adding that although government education officials had attempted over the past few months to collaborate more with civil society, the overall reform effort was too unilateral. “In their latest action, they have denied us participation. We don’t think their process is inclusive enough.”

The NNER is a diverse network that also includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, members of teachers’ unions, Buddhists monks and ethnic education groups. The network formed in 2012 and has since held seminars across the country to discuss education reform. In June last year it organized a national conference attended by 1,200 participants. After that, it sent a report with recommendations to Parliament and the government.

The Ministry of Education is currently undergoing a two-year review of the public school system that will identify major priorities for reform and put forward recommendations for new policy. Officials with the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) say they are collaborating with a range of stakeholders, from international NGOs to community-based organizations, but they have faced criticism from some teachers and ethnic education groups for not being inclusive enough.

Myo Thein Gyi of the Basic Education Department did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday regarding the allegations that he had canceled the NNER’s invitation to the forum in Naypyidaw. A spokesperson for the CESR also declined to comment while attempting to confirm the status of the invitation.

Burma’s education system was largely underfunded by the former military regime, but also tightly controlled, as students were known to lead anti-government protests.

During the current reform process, civil society groups are calling for autonomy for universities, as well as higher pay for teachers and the freedom to incorporate lessons about ethnic minority histories in the school curricula. Another area of contention is the language of instruction, with ethnic groups demanding the right of teachers to instruct their students in ethnic minority languages, rather than in Burmese.