Guest Column

Education and Federalism in Myanmar

By Ashley South 11 February 2022

In federal systems, education is usually a state-level responsibility. The development of locally owned and delivered education can therefore be a model for federalism in Myanmar. Many impressive initiatives are already underway, including half a dozen Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education school systems administered by Ethnic Armed Organizations and their education wings, known as Ethnic Basic Education Providers.

We are at an extraordinary period in Myanmar’s history, with key stakeholders working in real-time against a backdrop of an appalling crisis to re-imagine the union and its institutions. For the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic armed organizations (EAO), People’s Defense Forces and People’s Administrative Bodies, civil society organizations (CSO) and others, there is an urgent need to re-negotiate state-society relations, the role and nature of the state and its institutions.

One of the opportunities of the crisis in Myanmar is to address issues which were – or should have been – on the previous political reform agenda and/or in the peace process, but were ignored or handled in ways which excluded key stakeholders and positions. With the Myanmar military now removed from consideration as a legitimate stakeholder in such discussions, now is the time to look at the issues without interference from these spoilers – although ‘spoilers’ hardly does justice to the inhumanity and idiocy of the junta goons.

One issue of concern to a wide range of stakeholders is education, and how this relates to federalism and the self-determination of ethnic nationality communities. A good place to start is examining EAO education provision, at a time when the state system of education is barely functioning and widely regarded as illegitimate.

EAO Education Departments (EBEPs)

Although terminology varies, EAO education systems are often referred to as Ethnic Basic Education Providers (EBEP). They serve about 300,000 children, in schools either directly administered by EAO education departments or [at least before the coup] in community-run and ‘mixed’ schools, jointly administered by the government’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and EBEPs. Since last year’s coup, the Civil Disobedience Movement has been very effective and many schools under junta control are not effectively functioning. Therefore, since 2021 there are far fewer ‘mixed’ schools.

There are EAO-administered or affiliated schools in the conflict-affected areas of Karen, Mon, Kachin and Shan States and Bago and Tanintharyi Regions. Curricula range from those which largely mirror the MOE syllabus at middle and high school level, but are taught in the ethnic mother tongue [e.g. the Mon model], to those which have many separate elements to the government’s curricula [e.g. the Karen school system]. In several ethnic education systems, curricula and other elements are under review and reform.

Key EBEPs include the Karen National Union’s Karen Education and Culture Department, with 1093 schools and 90,000-plus students; the New Mon State Party’s Mon National Education Committee, with 134 Mon National Schools and 10,324 students; the Restoration Council of Shan State Education Commission, with some 350 schools in southern Shan state and 11,000 students [and additional Shan schools administered by CSOs], the Kachin Independence Organisation Education Department, with 250-plus schools [and additional schools in government-controlled areas under the administration of Kachin education CSOs]; and the Karenni National Progressive Party’s Karenni Education Department, with 60-plus schools [many administered in partnership with CSOs]. In addition, several of these groups often provide education services to children in refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

These EBEPs variously use Mother Tongue Based and/or Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) teaching methods, with child-centered methodologies. Significant funding and technical assistance is provided by international donors, but much is supported by communities. Teachers often receive stipends, but are essentially volunteers. At present, EBEP schools are the only functioning basic education providers in the country.

Benefits of Mother Tongue-Based Education

There are two main reasons for promoting and supporting MTB-MLE in Myanmar: pedagogic and political. Regardless of the politics, children from minority communities achieve better learning outcomes if they can begin their schooling in their mother tongue. Children who are forced to learn in a language they do not speak at home are educationally disadvantaged and often never catch up with peers from the majority community, who find it much easier to understand what’s going on in the classroom. MTB-MLE is acknowledged internationally as the most effective way for children who do not speak the national language to have a fair chance at achieving good learning outcomes. Evidence globally shows this to be the best way of teaching children from minority language communities. Transition to using the national language can occur in primary or middle school, depending on the specific model adopted.

Supporting ethnic education is also important for peace-building. One of the main grievances fueling ethnic conflicts in Myanmar is disregard for the identity and languages of ethnic minority/nationality communities in the state education and administrative systems, and ethnic peoples’ experiences of marginalization in the context of a dominant Bamar culture and language [‘Burmanization’]. For these reasons, many ethnic nationality communities regard the national education system as a tool of assimilation, and state education has been seen as a driver of conflict. Therefore, EAOs and CSOs have set up their own MTB-MLE systems. These education initiatives owned and delivered by local actors are key elements in self-determination, and building a just and inclusive federal union.

Civil Society Education Actors

In addition to formal EBEP education systems, a number of CSOs provide informal, including after-school, and/or part-time education in local languages. Some of these work independently, while others work alongside either EAOs/EBEPs and/or with the MOE. Many are faith-based organizations.

Key Myanmar Education CSOs include Literature and Culture Committees, mostly working in government-controlled areas. In addition, several CSOs work in conflict-affected areas [often in partnership with EBEPs], as well as in areas of mixed administration’ and in fully government-controlled areas. Many private, often faith-based schools, follow the MOE curriculum [for example monastic schools]. Most of these activities have been unable to continue since the coup, for now at least.

Some Questions and Issues

In federal political/constitutional systems, education [especially basic education] is usually a state-level responsibility. Education provision can therefore be a model for federalism in Myanmar.

A fundamental issue to resolve is the relationship between the sub-national [ethnic state or EBEP/EAO] level, and the union level. Union-level roles for a federal government MOE can include: coordination; training and teaching resources development; finance (fundraising and distribution), and possibly also dispute arbitration, and some aspects of quality control. These issues need to be discussed, ideally through a structured process of dialogue and negotiation.

Most fundamentally, there is an urgent need for union-level recognition and accreditation of EBEP teachers and student qualifications. At present, EBEP systems are largely unrecognized by the state of Myanmar, meaning that many children find their educational achievements go unrecognized, greatly reducing their options after matriculation [and also limiting opportunities for students to move between EBEP and MOE systems].

This raises the deeper question of what is the most appropriate relationship between EBEPs and the MOE [meaning the NUG’s ‘Democratic MOE’, any engagement with the junta’s ministry being inappropriate]. The most useful approach might be to support parallel EBEP and MOE systems, with mutual recognition based on the elaboration of common standards, and shared learning outcomes [which can be delivered through diverse curricula and education administrations]. Another important set of questions include how to conceive of and support constructive relationships between EBEPs and state-level coordination bodies, which have emerged in a number of areas since the coup.

Focusing on the MOE [meaning the NUG’s ‘Democratic MOE], there is a need to Improve and extend MTB-MLE teaching in schools. Much-needed reforms can be based on those initiated by the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government through the Local Curriculum Content initiative. Under the NLD-led government, the MOE introduced ethnic language teaching up to Grade 3 in five ethnic states. Building on and learning from this experience, MTB-MLE approaches should be mainstream throughout the state system.

These issues need to be decided by Myanmar stakeholders. However, international supporters have a role to play. In general, and particularly during the last decade of ‘reform’ in Myanmar, education and other initiatives were too often driven by external donor agendas. It’s time to refocus this supply-driven approach, and shift towards a demand-driven agenda. Can donors get the balance right, between supporting EBEPs – rather than imposing donor priorities – while offering necessary advice and help to EBEP systems strengthening?

Finally, there are needs for more research and development including language-use mapping and devising teaching materials and supporting training for smaller ethno-linguistic groups, including minorities within minorities. How best to support the educational and socio-political rights of children from communities in areas where the local majority group constitute a minority across the union? These considerations may point towards a rights-based, rather than strictly ethnic-territorial, conception of federalism and self-determination.

There are many dimensions to federalism, especially in a complex and conflict-affected country like Myanmar. Although it won’t be easy, exploring and supporting local ownership and delivery of education can be an important contribution to – and help to learn lessons for – the development of democratic federalism in the country.

Ashley South is an independent analyst, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University, specializing in politics and humanitarian issues in Burma and Southeast Asia. His views are his own.

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