YANGON — Led by Chief Minister U Nyi Pu, the Rakhine State government plans to open a branch of the University of Distance Education in strife-torn Maungdaw District in order to help local people access higher education.
As of Wednesday, more than 40 people — mostly Rohingya Muslims — had applied to study in the 2018-19 academic year.
Since late last year, military clearance operations aimed mainly at the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) have caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp. The UN Security Council described the mass exodus and devastation in Maungdaw as “ethnic cleansing” after a delegation of council representatives visited the area earlier this year.
After the violence erupted, trade, education and travel in the area was brought to a halt. These have since resumed as the situation on the ground begins to return to normal. While basic education schools have re-opened in the region, however, university learning has been banned for Muslim students since 2012 communal rioting erupted across the state between Rohingya and Arakanese. But Rakhine officials say the situation regarding higher education will end this year with the launch of a local branch of the University of Distance Education.
U Khin Aung, head of the Maungdaw Township Education Department, confirmed to The Irrawaddy over the phone that nearly 90 students had requested application forms since July 13 and about 40 had submitted initial applications. The university will offer Bachelor of Arts degrees in two majors — Myanmar literature, and history. Students will not be offered Bachelor of Science degrees or be able to major in English.
According to U Khin Aung, some Buddhist Arakanese and members of sub-ethnic groups have also applied for admission to the university. The University of Sittwe will determine who is granted admission, and will be responsible for grading the students’ work and issuing the necessary documents. Instructors from the university will be assigned to teach in Maungdaw and if necessary teachers from Yangon Division could be transferred temporarily to the township.
The education official said higher authorities in the state government had not explained the choice of Maungdaw as the location for the new branch of the university.
“As government employees we are following orders here and are temporarily accepting applications at the township education office,” U Khin Aung said.
While the government is gearing up to graduate a new class of local Grade 11 students who passed the 2017-18 matriculation exams, it’s unclear where they will be able to study in Maungdaw, as there is still no university campus or other such facilities in the area.
U Khin Aung said, “I can’t say exactly whether the government will construct new buildings for university students. I assume they will address the issue based on the size of the student population.”
Some Arakanese and Muslims have speculated that university students could attend lectures at the Basic Education High School (BEHS) buildings in Maungdaw town, though the education official downplayed the idea. According to the Maungdaw Education Department, 87 “Bengali” students and 238 Arakanese students from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships passed the Grade 11 matriculation exam last year. “Bengali” is a contentious term referring to Rohingya. It seeks to brand them as Bangladeshi immigrants who have been in Myanmar illegally since being brought to the country by the British during the colonial era.
U Ni Mal, a Hindu leader in Maungdaw, said his community was unaware of the plan to open a branch of the University of Distance Education, saying there was only one Hindu university student in the area that he was aware of.
U Kyaw Kyaw Win, an Arakan National Party (ANP) Upper House lawmaker for Maungdaw constituency, said the government had yet to release any information regarding the plan, but speculation was mounting in the community. He said the surprise move could have both positive and negative impacts on the community in the near future. One potential advantage for poor students, he said, was that they could avoid financial hardship by attending university close to home instead of traveling hundreds of miles and paying monthly rent to lodge in hostels in the state capital, Sittwe.
“It’s too early to say whether it’s good or bad, as we have received very limited information,” he said.
A Rohingya from downtown Maungdaw told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity that Muslim students had been banned from traveling to Sittwe to study since 2012. The Immigration Department refused to issue the necessary travel permits to Rohingya university students, several hundred of whom are now sheltering in neighboring Bangladesh with their families, he said.
“Students prefer studying in the capital Sittwe rather than studying here, as they can observe the diverse community and other cultures there,” he said.