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Myanmar education offers Thailand a lesson in pluralism

In a sign of what the future may offer, two major reports on Myanmar’s education system released by Save the Children and the Asia Foundation underline what can be achieved by ethnic communities educating themselves. The reports detail the rise of ethnic basic-education providers (EBEP) in Myanmar, a local response to the policy of ultra-nationalist “Burmanisation” – equivalent to ongoing “Thai-ification” here. 

Now increasingly cooperating and coordinating with the Myanmar education system, they are yielding concrete lessons in those instances where the centralised administration respects the EBEPs.

Because of longstanding conflicts triggered by Burmanisation, together with funding problems, the Myanmar Ministry of Education (MoE) has for decades been unable to reach many ethnic minority children. These are instead schooled by the education departments of various ethnic armies and community-based and religious organisations – the EBEPs. 

The main model of education provision in these conflict zones, especially in Mon, Shan and Karen areas, is community schools funded, managed and maintained by the ethnic communities and overseen by school committees, with assistance from Western democracies.

The recent introduction of partial democracy to Myanmar, together with ceasefires and a quadrupling of state spending on education, has meant that the MoE can reach more areas, primarily through supporting infrastructure in primary schools in border areas. However, MoE expansion has typically been politically aloof and attempted to override EBEPs, wasting resources and risking restarting conflicts.

Crucially, the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) saw Myanmar’s military agree to a federal union approach – which would allow greater decentralisation of education administration – in return for ethnic armies dropping their demands for secession. Federalism is now the official position of the democratically elected government of President Htin Kyaw.

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is worth quoting: Myanmar’s government will work “collectively to establish a common national identity that embraces the diverse ethnicities and languages by recognising the distinctive history, cultural practices, literature, language and national characteristics of all ethnic nationalities living within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” That the MoE should co-ordinate with the EBEPs is part of the basis for increased cooperation in this sophisticated ceasefire.

Regarding the Karen, the Karen Education Department (KED) in association with the Karen Teachers Working Group is leading the way. Education in Karen areas faces multiple challenges, including high dropout rates, accreditation issues, low matriculation rates for students and few promotion opportunities for teachers. There are also problems of teacher shortages, quality improvement, quality control and evaluation. Nonetheless, the KED is serving 160,000 children in seven Karen National Union areas.

This system necessarily prioritises the wellbeing of teachers and students in order to overcome the humanitarian crisis, poverty and lack of resources that it faces. They are bolstered by the fact that the Karen have a strong sense of community; have a unique language, culture and history; are strongly committed to education as a means of preserving their language and culture; and have their own curriculum and decades of experience in terms of a dedicated ethnic education governance structure in the KED.

The KED model is two-fold and focuses on teacher quality, quality teaching and student and community participation to establish authentic community schools. Teacher competency and practice are emphasised, with the goal of creating partnerships between teachers and local communities, including local recruitment. School-parent partnerships are stressed, and mother tongue-based local curricula are developed. Schools actively engage with parents and the community in school management, including regular communication with parents to reduce dropout rates. Training is conducted at schools via mobile units. With similar programmes throughout Myanmar, a pluralistic education system is guaranteed to be part of the emerging National Education Strategic Plan.

In principle, Thailand’s latest constitution permits pluralism. Thailand’s constitution divides the social contract into the rights of the person and community, and the responsibility of the state. According to Article 43, a person and a community shall enjoy the right to conserve, restore, or promote wisdom, art, culture, tradition and custom of good value in the locality and the nation. Further, according to Article 57, the State shall act similarly, while providing public space for related activities and promoting and supporting people, communities and local administration organisations to exercise their rights and participate in the implementation.

This language clearly imposes on the state a responsibility to provide public space and promote and support people, communities and even local government, to “conserve, restore and promote” multiple local cultures as well as the national culture. This pluralistic language overtly promotes multiple cultures but does not overtly promote nor revitalise the various regional cultures themselves, since they are not specifically named. Pluralistic language was introduced in 1997 and maintained in all subsequent constitutions because of a major realignment of state policy in the 1990s that embraced cosmopolitanism and diversity and legitimised decentralisation.

It is this pluralistic spirit of the 1990s which is being suppressed by military rule. Regrettably, the programme of Thai-ification is intensifying. The Twelve Core Values of Thai People, a non-constitutional charter founded on Buddhist principles, penned by General Prayut and introduced by diktat in 2014, are now being taught to kindergarteners clad in military uniforms via military boot camps. Further, the ban on human rights advocates and ethnic minorities from freely assembling means no public lobbying for legislation supportive of educational plurality, eg, the draft National Language Policy, is possible. 

The nascent Myanmar model, of ethnic-based education providers working with a national education system, provides a progressive, federal response to maintaining the identity and human rights of ethnic minorities. However, EBEPs are still being marginalised and obstructed in their work by Nay Pyi Taw, and the political system is still far from federal. Moreover, EBEPs are still inconceivable in the case of the Rakhine state Muslims. Nonetheless, embedding a federal structure in the education system is potentially a beacon for Asean countries, particularly those leaning towards totalitarian forms of government, including Thailand. 


Note: This column was co-authored with Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa and was previously published in The Nation at this link:


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