Nicolas Salem-Gervais, Summer Aung, Amber Spreelung, Ja Seng, Jung Benatar, and Chan* outline the evolving language-in-education landscape following the coup, within and beyond military-controlled territory in Part 1 of a 2-part post.
*Some authors used pseudonyms for security purposes.
Education ranks high among the sectors most impacted by the 2021 military coup and its aftermath. Following a long history of involvement in Myanmar’s successive political struggles, scores of students and school and university teachers have been at the forefront of the protests and subsequent resistance movements, notably the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Choosing to participate in the revolution either with their chalk (“မြေဖြူကိုင်ပြီးတော်လှန်မယ်”) or trading it for a gun (မြေဖြူကိုင်သည့် လက်မှသည် သေနတ်ကိုင်သည့် လက်အဖြစ်သို့), many have sacrificed their careers, their family life, their homes and even their lives to oppose the return of a military dictatorship.
To a greater extent than at any time in Burma/Myanmar’s history, the education sector itself has become a battlefield. After two years of interruption in response to the Covid pandemic and the immediate repercussions of the coup, the State Administrative Council (SAC) has been attempting to reopen schools and universities, starting with the urban areas under its control. It has aimed for a return to “business as usual” despite an at least 40% drop in overall basic education student enrolments (the drop in matriculation exam enrolment, in 2022-23 as compared with 2019-20, is much steeper: around 83% according to official figures). Amidst the SAC’s official declarations repeatedly asserting the role of schooling in the fostering of core military values, such as “patriotism” and “discipline”, sending or not sending their children back to schools controlled by the military regime has been an extremely difficult choice for many, notably among low-income families.
In contrast, the National Unity Government (NUG) has been striving to set-up a parallel, pro-revolution and progressive-leaning education system, of federalist inspiration, in the regions controlled by the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) and other allied groups as well as online. In multiple instances, schools and education personnel have been struck by violent attacks by the military, and at times by other actors, resulting in injuries and deaths of both students and teachers, sometimes in unspeakable circumstances. Teachers working for NUG-affiliated schools have repeatedly been arrested, sometimes condemned to life sentences, and parents also risk prosecution under the Anti-Terrorism Act for enrolling their children in these schools. Predictably, these profound disruptions and climate of violence surrounding education often have disastrous consequences, including on children’s mental health.
For many decades, Ethnic Basic Education Providers (EBEPs), which include some of the Ethnic Armed Organizations’ (EAOs) education departments as well as other and newly formed organizations (see Part 2), have been providing education and relying to different extents on their respective languages. In the post-coup context, the EAOs offer diverse and potentially shifting political stances vis-à-vis the junta and the NUG. Some of the major organizations, including the Karen National Union, Kachin Independence Organization, Karenni National Progressive Party, as well as the historical and newly formed Chin groups, are currently in conflict against the SAC. These EAOs, among those sometimes referred to as Ethnic Resistance Organization (EROs), are militarily aligned with the NUG (in accordance with the federalist perspectives it has put forward), actively involved in education (but with diverse levels of actual collaboration with the NUG’s Ministry of Education), and working to different extents with CDMers.
In this greatly disrupted context, where education is at the heart of battles between vastly different conceptions of the nation, the state and the society — and with the 2008 Constitution being void as far as the NUG and allied groups are concerned, — the SAC amended the 2014-2015 National Education Law in October 2022. This amendment entails, among other things, the nullification of articles allowing the formation of teachers and students’ unions (section 4(c) which was added in the 2015 version of the law, following the 2014 students protests), and the modification of the composition and prerogatives of the National Education (formerly “Policy”) Commission (sections 5 and 6). In terms of language-in-education policy, many observers also did not fail to notice major steps backward at the basic education level, firmly condemning them as evidence of the military’s Burmese chauvinism.
Almost a decade ago, the promulgation of the 2014 National Education Law (which was amended in 2015) sparked controversy around several aspects of its content and was faced by reiterated demands for a proper mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) policy. Although debatable in many regards, these legislative developments were nonetheless part of a process, along with UNICEF work and advocacy for multilingual education, to noteworthy steps towards including ethnic minority languages and cultures in government schools in the late 2010s through some extent of decentralization to the States and Regions and including the development of local curricula. Although implementation was often slow, imperfect, and contingent upon many factors, this framework offered the possibility to teach ethnic minority languages as subjects in government schools a few periods every week and to use them as “classroom languages” (oral media of instruction — different from MTB-MLE) when relevant.
The 2022 amendment to the National Education Law by the SAC, in addition to reducing the prerogatives of the regional governments in education (nullification of 49(f) granting them the freedom to administer educational matters), explicitly suppresses the possibility of using ethnic minority languages as “classroom languages” through the amendment of article 43(b), from:
“If there is a need, an ethnic language can be used alongside Myanmar as a classroom language at the basic education level.”
“Myanmar language shall be used as the classroom language at the basic education level.”
Similarly, the amendment of article 44 unambiguously restricts the teaching of ethnic minority languages as subjects to the primary level (Grades 1-5), from:
“In Divisions or States, teaching of ethnic languages and literature can be implemented by Division or State governments, starting at the primary level and gradually expanding (to higher grades). ”
“Learning ethnic literature and languages in regions and states shall be undertaken at the basic education primary level under the relevant region or state government.”
These major steps back towards a more monolingual and monolithic conception of language-in-education policy potentially have two sets of consequences: not only do they limit the usage of ethnic minority languages in government schools themselves, but they also hinder the possibilities of recognition and bridging with non-state ethnic education systems, which typically use their respective languages to a wider extent, as documented in several studies. Many non-state ethnic education systems are far from being on any kind of speaking terms with the military-controlled MoE at the moment, but some of the organizations which are not currently in open conflict may be wondering what the mid-to-long-term implications of such an amendment might be for them. This backwards shift in language inclusion must also be situated in the perspective of a national education system which does not seem on track to offer attractive perspectives in the foreseeable future, including in terms of the development of analytical skills and of recognition outside of Myanmar, while alternatives largely grounded in ethnic identity and often eager to connect with transnational/international avenues are developing in the border areas (see Part 2).
Interestingly, in parallel to this tightening legislative framework, the SAC has recently been communicating heartily regarding the teaching of ethnic minority languages in universities and in basic education schools, as well as the hiring and training of the Teaching Assistants (TA) and Language Teachers (LT) in charge of these subjects. In March 2021, the SAC chairman “instructed to appoint more TA/LT and provide decent salaries,” reiterating these instructions in September 2022. Ministry of Ethnic Affairs (MoEA) officials frequently include in their speeches the ubiquitous saying of warning against the “disappearance” of ethnic groups as a consequence of failing to protect their languages (စာပျောက်ရင် လူမျိုးပျောက်မယ် and variations around that formula). During the late months of 2022, short trainings for the improvements of these ethnic language teachers’ skills were organized in several States and Regions (including Karen, Kachin, Mon, Tanintharyi, Ayeyarwady, Magway and Yangon) with ceremonies held in the local Education Colleges and widely reported in military-controlled media.
These were followed in late 2022 and early 2023 by public donations from the MoEA to some of the Literature and Culture Committees (LCCs, some of which may have been compelled to reluctantly participate), including in Mon State (see also here) and Bago Region, as well as other education ceremonies involving some of the LLCs and the regional authorities. Incidentally, perplexing articles (original here) have seemingly advocated for MTB-MLE and could be spotted in the state media for 2023 International Mother Language Day, underlining the contradictions between the SAC’s desire to project an image of inclusivity and actual legislative reforms under its rule.
In 2017 and the following years until the Covid pandemic and the coup, the civilian government began a process of hiring more than 11,000 ethnic languages TAs and creating the opportunity for the matriculation exam holders among them to pursue their training in Education Colleges and to ultimately become full-fledged teachers. In each State and Region, the LCCs attached to each ethnic group were playing a central role in this process by designing the curricula, selecting the teachers, and training them. Although from many stakeholders’ standpoint the overall language-in-education policy was not going far enough, these developments were nonetheless generally perceived (see also here) as a noteworthy step forward, linking ethnic languages to job opportunities and increasing the proportion of teachers able to use and teach ethnic minority languages in government schools, with potentially genuine long-term educational and political benefits for the country. Critically, although the process was still young, some of the EAO’s education departments were involved in the development of their respective State local curricula.
In the post-coup context, however, the SAC’s interest for ethnic languages teachers and willingness to appoint TAs belies other motives. In 2021, after an increase of their salaries, some of the TAs who did not choose to join CDM were promoted in order to “fill the gaps” and replace the missing workforce among primary school teachers. Late 2022 speeches in the Education Colleges suggest that the TAs could be perceived as a reserve of a (rather docile) workforce, constituted of individuals in often precarious positions who would be grateful for a substantial promotion. Wearing colorful ethnic costumes during the ceremonies as reported in the state media, these TAs not only contribute to illustrating the idea of an ethnically inclusive education system but may also be seen as a credible vehicle to convey the military’s national narrative into schooling.
The reports of the trainings given to the TAs in Education Colleges seem to emphasize their role as a kind of civics (စာရိတ္တနှင့်ပြည်သူ့နီတိ) teacher in charge of upholding “Union spirit” (ပြည်ထောင်စုစိတ်ဓာတ်), “patriotism” (မျိုးချစ်စိတ်ဓာတ်), and the “unity of the national races” (တိုင်းရင်းသားစည်းလုံး ညီညွတ်ရေး), all of which have been core concepts of the central state, and particularly of the various military governments, for many decades. Some of these speeches even exhort the TAs to contribute to “အမျိုးစောင့်” (protecting/defending the race/religion), a concept commonly used by Buddhist and nationalist hardliners (probably understood as inclusive of all the “national races” in this case).
Despite this communication and reiterated objectives in the state media, in practice the teaching of ethnic minority languages seems at best very unsystematic in the schools controlled by the military regime that have reopened. While the teaching of some ethnic languages in the schools under the SAC MoE has recently been the topic of bilateral negotiations in order to be more systematic (and possibly going beyond the primary level in some regions), elsewhere the interruption of education due to the pandemic and CDM in reaction to the coup, as well as delayed salaries for the TAs, have often led to the disappearance of local languages classes.
Overall, the opportunistic prioritization of short-sighted political benefits, including the desire to hold elections for which the SAC needs the participation of a credible number of ethnic parties, seems to be at odds with the military’s monolithic conception of the Myanmar nation. This contradiction is also found in the SAC’s language-in-education policy, which is rather confusing: a desire to seize upon previous governments’ reforms to project an image of inclusivity in its political communication; a drive towards using ethnic language teachers to instill the military’s values and conception of the nation in the students’ heads; the granting of privileges to groups willing to negotiate with the military in the frame of what resembles a classic divide-and-rule strategy; but also decisive legislative steps backward and very unsystematic teaching of ethnic minority languages in the schools controlled by the junta MoE. Meanwhile, in large chunks of the country’s territory, non-state education systems, largely relying on local languages, have been expanding or have appeared since the coup (see Part 2).
This two-part article is dedicated to Mael Raynaud (1976-2022). It is part of a research project involving several organizations, operating inside and outside of Myanmar, including the Institut de Recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est Contemporaine (IRASEC), Mahidol University’s Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies (IHRP), and CASE.
The six authors all work/study in the field of education, in very diverse positions and locations, inside and outside of Myanmar. We wish to warmly thank all the reviewers for their close readings and constructive comments.