Growing up in southeast Myanmar’s Mon State, Min Yarzar Mon listened to his parents tell stories of ethnic Mon kingdoms that ruled centuries ago, and of decades-long conflicts more recently between Mon armed groups and the national government.
His teachers taught a different version of the region’s past.
“When we went to school, the history was very different,” says the student, now 24, who attended a government primary school near the state capital, Mawlamyine. “We were always confused about history when we were young.”
Min Yarzar Mon was raised speaking the Mon language and often struggled to understand the lessons, which were taught in the country’s official language, Myanmar.
“The teachers didn’t like us asking questions,” he says, noting the emphasis on rote learning. “We didn’t dare ask for clarification.”
Ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of Myanmar’s 60 million or so population. The government, which is dominated by the majority Burman (or Bamar) ethnicity, officially recognizes eight major ethnic groups and more than 100 subgroups. Most of these groups speak their own languages, and more than 10 have fought decades-long insurgencies to achieve greater autonomy from the central government.
The wars are winding down now, with ceasefires signed by most major rebel groups. At the same time, the country has embarked on the colossal task of education reform, undertaking a review of the school system that could lead the government to not only revise its curricula—which experts say is outdated in basic subjects—but to also reconsider the language of instruction and methods of teaching the country’s controversial history.
As Myanmar transitions from nearly half a century of military rule and even longer civil wars, questions are emerging about how education policies could either perpetuate or help reconcile political conflicts that have plagued the country for so long.
Hitting the Books
Students begin basic education at the age of five in Myanmar, with five years of primary school, four years of secondary school and two years of high school.
History was introduced as a core subject at the primary level relatively recently, but government textbooks have long incorporated stories about the country’s past—often in a biased, Burman-centric way. Some democracy activists oppose the authoritarian overtones of lessons, while ethnic minorities complain their own histories have been left out, oversimplified or presented incorrectly.
“Our textbooks are thin. They say the Shan people live in Shan State, that’s it,” says 19-year-old Nan EiEiHlaing, an ethnic Shan student who grew up in east Myanmar and has since moved to Yangon. “There’s very little about Shan culture or my history.”
This problem is not unique to Myanmar. To some extent, school curricula around the world are used for nation-building, with textbooks promoting histories that favor those in power and gloss over unflattering events. In multi-ethnic Myanmar, where decades of dictatorship allowed Burman military generals to stifle voices of opposition and shut out the international community, the issue is perhaps particularly acute.
“In school they mentioned how the government fought for Myanmar’s independence, how the government was great,” says Ma Thida Win, 20, a student in Mandalay. “The fact that ethnic groups are fighting the government—they don’t mention that.”
Textbooks also skim over the Panglong Agreement, a deal reached in 1947 to bring ethnic minorities into the soon-to-be independent Union of Burma. Under the agreement, the government (represented by independence hero Gen Aung San) granted ethnic minorities a considerable degree of political autonomy. However, it was never fully implemented, and when the military seized power in 1962, it was scrapped completely.
“When we were young, they mentioned Aung San,” says Min Yarzar Mon. “Later, when my younger sister started school, there was no more about him. They didn’t want students to think about politics.”
Before colonialism, ancient Burman, Shan, Mon and Rakhine kingdoms in present-day Myanmar kept written records of their achievements, while Kayin and Kachin people passed down stories orally. But researchers believe Buddhist monastery schools, the mainstay of the education system, did not incorporate these histories into their lessons.
When the British took power in the 19th century, they developed school curricula to justify their rule, says Rose Metro, a US-based education researcher who traced the evolution of Myanmar textbooks from colonialism through the military regime. British textbooks described conflicts between ethnic kingdoms, claiming the country was unified through colonialism.
After achieving independence in 1948, Myanmar’s government painted a picture of greater inter-ethnic harmony. Textbooks became more Burman-centric after the 1962 coup that brought Gen Ne Win to power, and when a new military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, seized control in 1988, references to Gen Aung San were reduced. Stories about ancient kings were emphasized instead, and like the military rulers, they were portrayed as advocates of ethnic unity and Buddhism.
As civil wars continued, the government established a committee in 1991 to help enact educational laws that would support national solidarity.
Schools continued to reduce their coverage of minorities, says Ms. Metro, who wrote a dissertation for Cornell University about Myanmar’s curricula after regularly visiting the country and the Myanmar-Thailand border over the past decade. Statements such as, “Mons are considered to be pioneers of civilization in Myanmar,” which were present in textbooks from the 1970s, were removed.
The resulting books were inaccurate, says Yangon-based librarian U Ye HtetOo. “The teachers must teach according to the textbooks,” he says. “But I’m sure most students don’t believe the textbooks, as their parents and peers always say something different.”
‘A Nod and a Wink’
In primary school, a series of textbooks known as the Myanmar Readers also promote a sense of ethnic harmony. The earliest readers include letters of the alphabet and short rhymes, while books for later grades include longer stories for memorization.
“There’s the text, and also the illustrations, which are really striking,” says Brooke Treadwell, an American education researcher who has studied the readers extensively. In one image, people from ethnic minority groups march in traditional attire, in a line behind a Burman man waving the Myanmar flag. “It looks like a nationalistic parade,” she says.
The readers include frequent references to Buddhism, Myanmar’s dominant religion. Christianity is widely practiced in Kachin and Chin states, while about 5 percent of the nation’s population are Muslim, but in the readers “there’s no acknowledgement of any other religion,” Ms. Treadwell says, noting the exception of a reference to Christmas that lacks context about the holiday’s religious significance.
New core subjects have been introduced to the basic education curricula over the last two decades, but the textbooks have stayed largely the same. “From the 1980s until now, very little has changed,” says Ms. Treadwell. “A version of Myanmar Readers I saw from the 1950s had differences, for sure, but they also had a lot of similarities.”
Among the differences? “In the 1950s, there was a passage about how the government was structured and how to vote,” she says. “It talked about Parliament and had an illustration of a ballot box. There’s nothing anymore about the political system in these Myanmar Readers, nothing about the structure of government.”
Although most teachers stick to the textbooks, fearing possible retribution from the headmaster, some have found ways to subtly fill in historical gaps.
“If there was counter-narrative being expressed, it would probably happen in tutoring sessions,” adds Ms. Metro, who spoke with teachers and students during a trip to Myanmar in July. “In school, some teachers would give a nod and wink to students to let them know something might not be exactly accurate.”
Anatomy of an Education
More than 8 million students attend the government’s basic education schools in Myanmar. Beyond the state system, monasteries remain a major provider of free education, private schools are an option for the wealthier, and a network of more than 1,000 “affiliated schools” are linked to nearby state schools but funded by communities.
In conflict zones, ethnic minority groups have established distinct education systems that often teach their own versions of history. The Karen Education Department incorporates the culture of the Kayin people, also known as Karen, into curricula that are used in more than 1,200 schools.
With funding from the community and limited international donor support, Kayin schools have for more than a decade promoted child-centered teaching methods that state schools—known for rote learning—have only more recently started considering.
Limited resources have forced smaller groups to use government textbooks—or to adopt hybrid teaching materials.
In Mon State, the rebel New Mon State Party (NMSP) administers more than 150 schools, where primary school students are taught solely in the Mon language. “In middle school we teach the government curricula in the Burmese [Myanmar] language, but we include Mon language and history, too,” says Mi Kun Chan Non, a former teacher and adviser to the Mon National Education Committee. “In high school we have the same curricula as the government.”
More than 36,000 students attend schools run by the NMSP, which include an additional 116 “mixed schools” that are administered jointly by the rebel group and the government.
In Kachin State, a ceasefire agreement in 1994 allowed students at Kachin schools to take the government exam that leads to study at Myanmar universities. Schools had their own textbooks, says Ms. Metro, “but teachers had to teach both curricula, or at least tell their students that whatever they believed, when it was exam time they had to follow the government books.”
That ceasefire broke down in 2011 and fighting renewed in the remote northern region, displacing tens of thousands of people. A year later, more than 10,000 students were reportedly studying at schools administered by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and as displaced families took shelter at camps in the KIO stronghold of Laiza, enrollment at the town’s high school more than doubled. Clashes escalated early this year but have since calmed, with a tentative peace deal reached in May.
Myanmar’s state schools were chronically underfunded by the former regime, which ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. Since then, education spending has increased from US $340 million to $1 billion, about 5 percent of the national budget, and a process of education reform has begun.
Universities have taken much of the spotlight, with opposition leader Daw Aung San SuuKyi pushing to revitalize the University of Yangon, but basic education could also see a major overhaul. The government last year agreed to undertake a two-year review of the education system to identify areas for reform, with support from Unicef, the World Bank and other international development partners.
After consulting with the public, the Education Ministry will revise the curricula, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), an arm of Japan’s government offering suggestions about how to effectively present school material. “We can support technically, but they have to decide what to teach their children,” adds JICA spokesman Kohei Isa.
The ministry could not be reached for comment on changes to the curricula. But last year, the month it agreed to undertake the education review, it published a description of long-term plans that said the education system aimed to encourage loyalty to the state, with an emphasis on “union spirit and a willingness to abide by laws.” A history volume was introduced starting from Grade 5 “to nurture patriotism,” it said, along with “union spirit” lessons.
Decentralization is on the table, however, as ethnic education groups push for more control over curricula and school budgets. This is “very much a focus,” says Jamie Vinson of UNICEF, adding that decentralization was not explored in detail in the first phase of the review but would be a priority in the second. “The Ministry of Education is very interested in options for how this can be done and headed in that direction, without knowing specifics.”
A separate review of the school system is also being conducted by the National Network for Education Reform, a civil society group led partly by the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The network held a conference in June with more than 1,200 participants to revise policy recommendations that would be submitted to Parliament.
“We suggested educational freedom to develop curricula in different regions,” says U TheinLwin, the NLD education spokesman. “They should be able to teach in their own language and teach their own culture.”
According to the network’s recommendations, curricula would be based on a new national education policy, with quality monitored by an independent body of scholars recognized by the government. A child-centered approach to teaching would be promoted, along with better pay for teachers.
Min Yarzar Mon from Mon State supports efforts to give ethnic schools more freedom.
“But it has to be systematic,” he says. “In Mon State, we have many ethnic groups—not just Mon, but also Kachin and Rakhine. If we allow teachers to focus on Mon language and history, what about other ethnic groups?
“Every group has a great history. If they really want the country to be a union, they should teach it.”
This story first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.