Diiksa Thang (pseudonym) and Emily Fishbein look at the rollout of university entrance exams under the National Unity Government.
Authors’ note: A similar version of this article was published on Al Jazeera.
From February to April, thousands of students across Myanmar took university entrance examinations organized for the first time by the National Unity Government (NUG), Myanmar’s resistance administration operating in parallel to the military junta.
It was a rollout carried out secretly, as the junta continues its efforts to eliminate opposition to its February 2021 coup. After fatally shooting hundreds of unarmed protesters in the weeks after the coup, it then retaliated against the armed uprising that arose in response with arson, airstrikes, and mass killings. As the battle for legitimacy and control moves into the realm of public service provision, the military has also gone after parallel services associated with the resistance – destroying schools and hospitals, arresting volunteer service providers, and targeting members of the public seeking resistance-affiliated services with acts of violence.
These factors, along with ongoing armed clashes and military-imposed internet shutdowns, have severely disrupted the provision of public services including education outside the military system. Still, based on our interviews with two students and five educators, communities persevered to organize the rollout of the NUG’s exams, both as a way to reject military rule and to encourage the overhaul of a “military slave education” in favor of one which embodies the values of the post-coup Spring Revolution.
“The Burmese education system is completely unfit and very burdensome for students and parents, and the fact that dictators throughout the ages spread their propaganda and enforce rote learning to remain in power is destroying the people,” said Salai Htun Htun,* who took the test in Magway region’s Saw township. “The coup was like a signal to reform education.”
Following a year of school closures due to the pandemic, the coup dashed hopes of a return to normalcy for Myanmar’s students. More than 200,000 government educators joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and went on strike, while roughly 90 percent of eligible students didn’t attend public schools when they reopened in June 2021. At least half of them have not gone back, according to an article published in Frontier Myanmar this February.
Initially, students had few alternatives, but their options have since dramatically increased. Ethnic armed organizations have scaled up existing education systems in their territories, while in areas where resistance groups formed after the coup have established a degree of territorial control, local education boards have opened thousands of schools, many under the NUG’s umbrella. Independent volunteers have also opened community schools, while the NUG and other institutions have introduced online learning and teaching materials for elementary and high school students.
At the higher education level, new initiatives, including the Virtual Federal University and the Spring University Myanmar, offer a range of online courses, many of them marking a major departure from Myanmar’s rigid pre-existing government curriculum. The Virtual Federal University, for example, offers courses in citizenship and statelessness, labor issues in Myanmar’s history, and “lies my teacher told me,” which looks at the ways that military propaganda has permeated official narratives of the country’s history.
According to research conducted in 2022 by Dr. Mary Shepard Wong and David Kareng of Azusa Pacific University, such changes reflect an “unprecedented educational re-imagining” of the country’s “outdated, highly centralized” higher education system. They found that the higher education options that emerged after the coup feature collaboration across ethnic and generational boundaries, alternative methods of instruction, and curricula which include the languages, cultures, histories of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic communities.
Similarly, in an article published in Frontier Myanmar in June 2021, Dr. Rosalie Metro of the University of Missouri-Columbia argued that Myanmar’s post-coup higher education alternatives have the potential to “transform” the country’s educational landscape, with broader implications for its future. “Education in Myanmar could become not only a response to change but also a driver of it,” she wrote.
The NUG’s university entrance exams—also called matriculation exams—have the potential to offer a way forward for the hundreds of thousands of eligible students who have spent the past two years stuck in limbo.
When the test was last offered under the semi-civilian government in March 2020, 910,000 students took it; when it was next offered under the junta in March 2022, only 280,000 participated, and this year, just 160,000. Offered on a rolling basis from February to April and August to October, the NUG’s exam has so far seen just under 60,000 students enroll according to Ja Htoi Pan, the NUG’s deputy minister of education.
Students can take the six-subject test one subject at a time, receiving their raw scores within two hours of taking each subject test. The NUG will announce the final weighted results in February of next year along with the total number of people who took the test.
The NUG’s version of the test is based on the pre-existing government curriculum and, like the existing test, is offered in “subject pairs” containing one major and five minor subjects. Students can still choose from math, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, economics, history, English, and Myanmar for their major subject, but while the old test requires the verbatim transcription of extensive material into exam books, the NUG’s version includes only multiple-choice questions and is administered by mobile phone application.
According to Ja Htoi Pan of the NUG, the new multiple-choice questions were designed to promote knowledge and understanding of concepts, analysis and creative problem-solving, and the ability to apply knowledge practically. “The old system encourages memorizing everything, rote learning without understanding well,” she said. “The new system doesn’t condone that kind of exam system anymore.”
Students and educators also said that the NUG’s exam format encourages more holistic learning. “Looking at physics and chemistry, I previously only needed to memorize the definitions of particular theories and solve the calculations,” said Esther, a student from Chin State’s Matupi township who took the test from a displacement camp in neighboring Mizoram, India. “Now, I need to read the whole theories carefully in order to understand the main concepts.”
Salai Lin, a volunteer teacher in Chin State’s Kanpetlet township, shared a similar perspective. “I think that this testing system is better than the previous one because the methods encourage creative thinking rather than memorizing answers,” he said.
At the same time, students and educators have faced significant risks and hardships to participate. In Magway region’s Yaw area, volunteer teacher Kyaw said he taught from secret locations at night to avoid military detection, and often could not teach at all due to approaching military forces. “There’s no such thing as being stable or settled in our village, so access to education has become quite distant,” he said. “When soldiers come, we run away. If soldiers leave, we come back and learn again.”
When the day came to administer the test, he only informed his students an hour beforehand to avoid an information leak. “We were very careful and kept actively monitoring and watching the updated news,” he said.
His concerns are well-founded. Last September, military forces bombed a private school run by CDM teachers, killing 11 children; a month later, soldiers beheaded a volunteer teacher at an NUG-affiliated school and impaled his head on the school’s gates. Then in April of this year, the military bombed the opening ceremony of a local administration body under the NUG, killing more than 160 people.
Two educators in southern Chin State described coordinating with the Chinland Defense Forces, a local resistance group, to manage the safety of their students during the preparation and testing time. As extra security measures, some students took the test from shelters in the forest.
Still, some students had to flee a testing site in Matupi township due to active armed clashes, according to exam coordinator Happy New. “We brought the displaced students together by collaborating with the [local] administrative teams and parents,” she said. “The CDF helped with security matters.”
In 48 townships, students also had to contend with military-imposed internet shutdowns. Although the NUG arranged digital wireless devices so that students in these areas could take the test, the devices can only support 20 to 30 users at a time, and in some townships, there were only two or three functioning devices for hundreds of students across multiple testing sites, educators said.
Adding to challenges, communities have had to fund the exam’s rollout on their own. In Matupi, which has limited phone connectivity or internet access, Happy New said that although the township education board offered hostels where students could prepare for the test, they still needed to bring their own food, blankets, and cooking utensils. “We did as much as we could, but the main difficulty is funding,” she said.
Local educators said that most teachers are serving as volunteers, while communities are covering their basic needs and donating what they can. They also described using methods including holding charity events and soliciting donations from the diaspora to cover their basic costs.
“Some villagers donate money for education. They provide the teachers with what they need. The students are rarely absent,” said Kyaw, the volunteer teacher in Magway region’s Yaw area. “It can be said that the people are supporting the education program of the NUG.”
With only one degree-offering alternative to junta-administered universities yet operational in Myanmar and no foreign countries yet recognizing the NUG as Myanmar’s legitimate government, however, what options will be available to students who pass its version of the test so far remain unclear. Ja Htoi Pan told us on July 13 that some universities in the United States had recently indicated that they would accept the exams as proof of high school completion, but did not elaborate on which universities or whether the NUG had also reached any agreement with universities in other countries.
A master’s degree candidate from Myanmar whose research focuses on the exam’s rollout, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, expressed concern that, without meaningful opportunities available for students who pass the test, they could be left in a situation of “ambiguity.” “Taking the military’s exam does not align with society values, but taking the NUG’s exams is insecure in terms of future education pathways,” he said.
Dr. Metro of the University of Missouri-Columbia also suggested a high degree of uncertainty going forward. “The NUG’s matriculation exams represent a leap of faith—both for those who created them and those who take them—that teachers, students, and a democratic government can follow a new educational path focused on developing critical citizens rather than obedient subjects,” she said in written comments. “The question is whether the rest of the world will support that leap of faith by giving these students a chance to continue their education.”
Despite all of these challenges, however, a commitment to the NUG’s test and to an alternative education system remains strong among students, parents and educators, according to local sources.
“Our country is rich in resources, but it is very poor. The reason is that the military has destroyed the education system for generations,” said Salai Htun Htun in Saw township. “In this situation, it is impossible to change everything immediately. I think the benefits will only be apparent from the students who have been thoroughly taught this new system after the revolution.”
*All local educators and students in this piece were given pseudonyms for security reasons, while some of their township names have also been removed.
Diiksa Thang is a pseudonym for a civil society worker and student from southern Chin State who focuses on community-based education.
Emily Fishbein is an independent writer who focuses on underreported issues related to Myanmar using a collaborative approach.