Why Education Could Keep Burma's Reforms on Track

December 22, 2011 | Kristen Cordell

“….and that building, that was Yangon University,” our host said, pointing to a massive, empty, and abandoned building. He went on to tell us that following the country’s 1988 coup, Burma’s military rulers began to see universities and their students as the major source of political unrest. As a result, they introduced a “distance learning” system to keep students from congregating, protesting…and in the end, learning. This approach has been devastating for the country’s growth and development.

Youth and childhood education is in a similarly dire state, which suggests that things will not improve soon. According to UNICEF, only 50% of Burmese students finish primary school. Among the displaced, the figures are much worse. Primary education is the second major need cited by IDPs as vital to relief and recovery (after food).

Children and adolescents crowded into camps in and around the northern city of Myitkyina have few options for education after preschool. Uprooted from their home villages by fighting, they cannot reach schools, and a lack of transportation limits the options in their new communities.

Non-governmental organizations in Burma are acutely aware of the need for improved education. But the lack of so-called humanitarian space limits their ability to intervene. NGOs that build schools, and often hospitals, must surrender control of them to the government (which spends only 13 percent of its GDP on education – a very low level by international standards).

One result of this, we were told, is that corruption is rife among students and teachers. The former, frustrated by the lack of meaningful work; the latter, poorly paid and little respected. In remote villages, teachers are sometimes hired for newly-built schools, only to abandon their posts due to insecurity or low government wages.

The many years spent under this system have dramatically impacted the skills and capacity of Burma’s leaders. Community members constantly cited this as a major challenge facing the country – with the potential to limit the government’s sweeping changes and newfound political openness. Specifically, there is a widespread lack of training in the tools of public policy, management, and public administration; never mind any serious discussion of human rights. Without this, basic bureaucratic organization will be nearly impossible, and the effects on Burma’s growth and stabilization will be severe.

Education is, of course, one of the most powerful tools when it comes to developing a nation and creating a vibrant economy. Indeed, by helping Burmese to understand and appreciate one another, improvements in education might even reduce the inter-ethnic mistrust that’s at the heart of Burma’s displacement crisis. The simple act of ensuring children’s textbooks don’t promote ethnic stereotypes, for example, could help remake Burma’s national narrative.

There are children all over Burma (displaced and not) who want to learn and develop their skills. But fixing the country’s education deficit will take creative solutions, considerable time, and real resources. There will be many hurdles and setbacks, so the NGOs and aid agencies working in this sector must take full advantage of the opportunities presented to them, and capitalize on the Burmese people’s desire to to use education as a tool for social reform.