Myanmar’s Shadow Govt Operates Network of Schools in Resistance Strongholds

By The Irrawaddy 7 June 2022

In parts of Myanmar’s northwest and southeast, where anti-regime resistance has rendered the junta’s administration largely ineffective, students are back in class—but not at military government-run schools.

They instead go to community schools staffed by former government school teachers—locally known as “CDM teachers” for their participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which was set up by state employees who refuse to work under the military government.

Most of the schools are under the guidance of the civilian National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government set up by lawmakers from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) and its ethnic allies in the wake of the military coup last year.

Students from primary to high school age in Sagaing Region, Magwe Region, Chin State, southern Shan State, Kayah State and Karen State are now attending the community schools supported by local well-wishers.

A community school in Myaung Township, Sagaing Region / Myaung Education Network

The NUG’s Ministry of Education has issued a recognition policy for the public schools while providing teaching guidelines. Textbooks and other teaching materials are provided by local communities and the classes are free.

In Sagaing Region’s Myaung Township alone, nearly 4,000 students are attending 27 community schools run by 380 CDM teachers.

Ma Tereza, a school administrator for the Myaung Education Network, said the organization had been providing interim education since March 2022 to ensure children aren’t deprived of their right to education.

“Their education was delayed by the pandemic and the coup. Students were away from the classroom for two years,” she said.

Regime education not wanted

Education is among the social sectors most seriously affected by the coup. A majority of students who had been kept out of classrooms by the COVID-19 school closures in 2019 and 2020 refused to return to their schools when the regime tried to reopen them in June last year. Both parents and students boycotted the education provided by the junta, which has so far killed more than 1,800 people, mainly for rejecting its rule. The NUG encouraged the boycott by offering online classes run by CDM teachers. Some well-to-do parents have enrolled their children in private schools.

A community school in Myaung Township, Sagaing Region / Myaung Education Network

In a big blow to the regime, 150,000 out of the more than 430,000 teachers in the country joined the CDM, causing a teacher shortage at schools, according to the Basic Education General Strike Committee (BEGSC).

The regime is still struggling to cope. Shortly before June—the start of Myanmar’s basic education school year—it invited CDM teachers to go back to work, saying they would be pardoned provided they hadn’t committed serious crimes like killings.

However, barely 2,000 out of the 150,000 striking teachers showed up for work, according to the regime’s own figures announced this week.

Student attendance has been similarly unimpressive. According to the junta, while 9 million students are officially enrolled this year, only 5.2 million have appeared in class, meaning nearly 4 million basic education students are still boycotting the regime’s education system.

A parent of a high school student from Shwe Pyi Thar Township in Yangon Region said she would never send her son to school as long as the junta exists.

“I will provide vocational training to him. If a civilian government takes power, I will let him go to school, no matter how old he is.”

For students who refuse to attend the regime’s schools, the NUG this year is also offering online classes via its schools such as the Free Online Educational Institution Myanmar, Yangon Federal School, Nway Oo Federal School, Mandalay Federal School, Ayeyarwaddy Federal School and Kaung For You Education, among others.

The schools seem to be popular among those in cities. For example, Kaung For You Education received 100,000 enrollments a few hours after its admission announcement, well exceeding the number it could accept.

But there have been complaints from some parents who can’t afford online learning and private schooling; their children have missed two years of school so far.

A mother from Yangon’s North Dagon Township said that as her family has little income, she couldn’t afford the admission fee to send her daughters to a private school. So she has to send her children to a regime-run school, as there are no community schools run by CDM teachers in Yangon, where the junta’s administration is still functioning to some extent.

A community school in Myaung Township, Sagaing Region / Myaung Education Network

“Therefore, I send them to their school, but it doesn’t mean we support military rule,” she said.

Learning amid raids, torchings and fighting

The emergence of community schools in some townships in Sagaing Region, Magwe Region, Chin State, southern Shan State, Kayah State and Karen State can be attributed to the areas’ unwavering armed resistance against the regime since last year.

Fighting in these areas has inflicted serious casualties on the regime, leaving the junta unable to fully control them, especially in the countryside. In response, the junta raids villages and torches homes.

At the same time, the NUG is trying to establish its administration in these areas while setting up an interim education system through community schools under its guidance.

The total number of community schools in the areas is not yet available, but their popularity is easy to see.

In Sagaing’s Kawlin Township, 300 CDM teachers are struggling to take care of more than 10,000 students at community schools.

Students, teachers and PDF members salute the Myanmar national flag at a community school in Myaung Township, Sagaing Region. / Myaung Education Network

In neighboring Magwe Region, which has seen frequent clashes between junta troops and local resistance forces, nearly 70 community schools have been set up by the NUG’s people’s administration this academic year in villages in Myaing, Pauk, Gangaw and Yesagyo townships, according to local people. They use every space available, from government school buildings to Buddhist monasteries. Learning materials are provided by local communities as well as local People’s Defense Force groups (PDFs) for students whose villages have been torched by junta troops.

Given the regime’s frequent raids on villages, the PDFs also try to provide a degree of security for the schools. But when the military mounts serious raids, all have to flee.

Ma Tereza, the school administrator for the Myaung Education Network, admitted that this is a problem. “But teaching resumes once the soldiers have left the village. Even if the village is burnt, parents don’t fail to send their children to school,” she said.

In Kayah State, an anti-regime stronghold in Myanmar’s southeast, 90 percent of students are attending community schools this academic year, according to the Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY) group, which has been providing education for local children there since 2007. It operates schools in Pekhon Township in southern Shan State, Thandaungyi Township in Karen State and Demoso Township in Kayah State.

The KNGY began setting up its own schools in 2020-21. So far, it has taught over 8,000 primary school students. Unlike schools under the NUG’s guidance and support, the ones run by the KNGY are independent.

“Our schools are based on social development and nationalism,” said Khun Maung Tin, a KNGY spokesperson.

The KNGY holds classes in religious buildings and residents’ houses.

As the Myanmar military frequently conducts offensives in Kayah State, some of the group’s schools in Demoso and Pekhon were closed this year, he said.

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