MOUNTAIN LAKES, New Jersey — As the government of Burma attempts to transition from military rule to a more democratic system, it will need to address failed policies that hurt the country’s citizens. One of the primary areas that would benefit from reform is Burma’s education system. Education in Burma is not only inaccessible to many people but also heightens existing ethnic tensions.
Historically, Burma, officially called Myanmar, has not supported and has even been hostile to education. In response to student protests against the 1962 military coup, Burma’s government violently suppressed dissent and closed universities until they adopted the current government-sponsored curricula.
Other than working to shut schools down and to regulate what is taught in them, Burma has not spent much on its educational systems. The World Bank found that in 2011, the Burmese government’s spending on education was less than .8 percent of GDP, compared to 4.9 percent globally.
The lack of government support for schools makes it difficult for low- and even middle-income families to pay for education. According to the Oxford-Burma Alliance, an advocacy group in support for Burmese democratic reform, parents must pay for transportation to schools and additional fees to help the schools buy textbooks and desks. Although primary education in Burma is meant to be free, the supplementary costs can add up to $100 annually, which is more than what many Burmese families earn.
Secondary education in Burma, unlike primary school, is not compulsory but is more expensive and virtually inaccessible to most people. Data from the World Bank indicate that only about 50 percent of secondary school-age children are enrolled in Burma compared to 65 percent worldwide. The students who can afford it have limited access to current textbooks, making education less effective.
While education is difficult for the general population to obtain, minority groups in Burma have even fewer educational opportunities. The Burmese government and ethnic and sectarian rebels often engage in conflict. Recent violence in the western Rakhine state displaced over 140,000 people, many of whom were minority Rohingya Muslims. Due to the fighting, Burma prevented aid agencies from working with refugees, denying them access to healthcare and education.
Part of the reason why minority groups in Burma do not have strong educational programs is because the government wants to control what is taught. Local community schools run by minority teachers are often shut down because the state wants to enforce its curriculum and promote national unity. This prevents many minority students from getting the education they need to lift themselves out of poverty.
With democratic reforms starting to be enacted in Burma, the country’s leaders have the opportunity to make sure all citizens have access to rights like healthcare, political representation and education. The U.S. has increased aid to Burma to help create change; according to ForeignAssistance.gov, U.S. aid spending to Burma increased to $75.4 million in 2015 compared to $38.6 million in 2011.
Education, however, is not a strong priority for U.S. international development spending; of the $75.4 million allocated to Burma in 2014, only $2.3 million, or about 3 percent or total spending, supported education programs. Spending to promote good governance and health care are important, but greater spending on education may help promote democracy in the future as well.
At the same time, foreign aid spending alone will not create the policy changes that will help protect human rights in Burma. Political will to establish more accessible and more modern systems of education must come from within Burma itself. Only if Burma’s leaders accept reforms and desire to protect human rights can the situation improve.
– Ted Rappleye