RANGOON — Nationalists in Burma have opposed a local NGO’s civic education curriculum that introduces the fundamental values of four major faiths, labeling it an attempt at “Islamization” of the country.
The curriculum was independently designed and published in December 2015 as a resource for the government and civic educators by the Center for Diversity and National Harmony (CDNH), a local initiative that promotes racial and religious diversity.
A section called Introduction to Religions is integrated into a module for third and fourth grade students, covering four major faiths—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
Burma’s hardline Buddhist nationalist monk U Wirathu—an infamous member of the controversial Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha—took to social media over the weekend and said the move was an attempt at “Islamization” and that there was no need to include religious education in curriculums and if so, only Buddhist teachings were appropriate.
“Only one popular faith is urged to be included instead of outlining all [four] religions,” U Wirathu stated in his Facebook post on Saturday.
The education ministry is currently redrafting school curriculums for basic education.
According to the 2016 religion census figures, Buddhists constitute 87.9 percent of the country’s population, Christians 6.2 percent, Muslims 4.3 percent, animists 0.8 percent, and Hindus 0.5 percent.
One of Ma Ba Tha’s supporters, the National Development Party chaired by former presidential advisor U Nay Zin Latt, issued a statement on Sunday denouncing the CDNH civic textbooks.
“Civic education is a guideline for the public and should not be religious instruction,” the statement read.
“We strongly condemn any government or non-government organization that incorrectly publishes such inappropriate provisions in curriculums instead of focusing on teaching our own culture of race and religion.”
The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the country’s leading opposition party, also issued a statement on Saturday regarding the curriculum that stated “education and religion should not be mixed up.”
“In such a sensitive situation regarding religious tolerance, such a curriculum provision is unacceptable,” the statement said. “Such an attempt will make the situation more complicated and the Ministry of Education must be transparent with the public about drafting curriculums.”
The USDP expressed concern that the Ministry of Education might use the CDNH materials in the government curriculum for primary school students.
CDNH issued a statement on Sunday clarifying that the contents were aimed at promoting knowledge for children regarding different faiths, adding that its materials are designed by collecting suggestions from civic trainers, specialists, and relevant interfaith leaders.
CDNH said in the statement that its civic textbooks were distributed to educators and the education ministry for reference. “CDNH has never urged any schools or organizations to use its civic textbooks mandatorily,” it read.
The statement also highlighted the fact that CDNH’s civic provisions are adjustable based on the context of individual regions, and urged the public to conduct constructive criticism by analyzing the content published in the textbooks.
The director-general of the Ministry of Education’s Department of Myanmar Education Research Bureau Dr. Khaing Mye said that the national curriculum committee has yet to draft detailed contents for third and fourth grade curriculums.
“In drafting national school curriculums, we always review suggestions and recommendations of stakeholders involved in the education sector,” Dr. Khaing Mye said.
When asked if the education ministry is considering integrating CDNH’s civic curriculums in its national primary curriculums, he declined to comment further.
Dr. Khin Zaw Win, head of the Tanpadipa Institute think tank, commented on the controversy and social media debate regarding CDNH’s civic curriculums by saying that such provisions of basic knowledge about religion are “very important” in teaching children about diversity.
As much as he welcomed the culture of expressing one’s opinions freely, he highlighted that criticism by nationalist groups regarding the CDNH’s civic education contents was “wrong.”
“It is sad to see that diversity has become something to criticize instead of something to celebrate in a transition to democracy,” he said.
According to CDNH, the center has published a total of 17 civic textbooks for basic education—from kindergartens to 10th grade, including handbooks and guidebooks for teachers.
CDNH said in the Sunday statement that it has introduced its civic materials to educators in Rangoon and Mandalay, seeking suggestions and discussions from civil society organizations as well as private and monastic schools.