National Sangha Committee Rejects Education Reform Demands

By Nobel Zaw 26 February 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s highest religious authority has publicly rejected key planks of student demands for education reform, as the upper house announced on Tuesday that its Draft Law Committee would conduct hearings on the amendment of the National Education Law next month.

The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), a government-appointed assembly of high-ranking monks that regulates the Buddhist clergy in Burma, sent a letter to parliament and education reform proponents on Feb. 22, demanding that religious schools be exempted from any provisions which allow the independent formation of teacher and student unions.

“Buddhist universities and schools that are controlled by unions will confuse religious and political issues. This can lead to a situation where the roots of Theravada Buddhism disappear,” the statement read.

The International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University, state and regional Buddhist universities, abbot training schools and monastic education schools are all nominally under the control of the SSMNC.

Education reform advocates said that the SSMNC’s concerns were overblown, noting that the draft amendments to the education law retains a clause which exempts religious schools from the law’s provisions.

“We haven’t erased Article 68(a), which says schools that only teach religion are not governed by this law,” said Dr Arkar Moe Thu, a university lecturer and member of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER). “They should analyze how the approved education law works and not only the amendments.”

In its statement, the SSMNC warned that restrictions on the ability of students to influence the education curriculum under the amended law, saying that the reform proposals gave students too much power over their teachers, which it argued was contrary to Burmese custom. At present, the education law centralizes the establishment and revision of a national curriculum in a yet to be established National Education Commission, and reformers have pressed the government to allow for curriculum decisions to be made on a local level.

“Education is the medium to connect with the world,” said Arkar Moe Thu. “It should not only be a reflection of Myanmar’s traditions. If we measure education only by our customs, we will all be left behind.”

The SSMNC also raised questions about plans to amend the National Education Law to allow instruction in ethnic minority languages. While Article 43(b) of the current law allows ethnic language instruction alongside Burmese at a basic education level “if there is a need”, at present most children in Burma’s frontier areas currently receive extracurricular native language education from monastic schools.

The committee leadership’s concerns were echoed on Wednesday by the State Pariyatti Sasana University, a Rangoon-based Buddhist educational institution, which were relayed by the state-run Global Light of Myanmar newspaper on Thursday.

“[Too] much emphasis on freedom at schools, for students, in curriculums, languages and ideology will lead to a lack of discipline,” the university’s statement read. “The bill should be drafted with the aim of preservation of the nation and race and more time should be taken for drafting the bill in accordance with the voice of the majority.”

The Draft Law Committee’s hearings on amendments to the National Education Law, to be conducted from Mar. 5-15, will be open to a cross-section of reform proponents, including 20 members each from peak student union body the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE), political parties, the NNER, civil society organizations and members of the public who sent letters to lawmakers calling for a rewrite of the law.

State-run newspaper The Mirror said on Wednesday that the committee would work to approve the bill with the highest priority.

Meanwhile, ACDE member Min Thwe Thit told The Irrawaddy that a group of student demonstrators, who have been marching from Mandalay since Jan. 20, will resume their journey to Rangoon from Letpadan, Bago Division on Mar. 1.

“In reality, the parliament doesn’t need this much time to discuss the bill,” he said. “The hearing period is very long…I think they are deliberately taking time to delay the bill and the government is being dishonest.”