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 2 of a 2-part post.
*Some authors used pseudonyms for security purposes.
Read Part 1.
In addition to spurring the partial collapse of the state education system and yielding a confusing language-in-education policy from the SAC (see Part 1), the 2021 military coup has profoundly affected the education landscape outside military-controlled schools and territories, notably in its linguistic dimension. The NUG has indeed committed to a Federal Democracy Education Policy and non-state education systems and schools have been expanding or (re)appearing. In the following sections, we try to outline the NUG’s language-in-education policy, before moving on to three brief case studies.
Seemingly inspired to some extent by the National Network for Education Reform pre-coup proposals and in line with the Federal Democracy Charter, the NUG has reiterated its pledge to mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) formulated in its (draft) Federal Democracy Education Policy released in September 2021 (and which should be transformed into a more final document in the near future). This policy entails a trilingual system (mother tongue, national language, international language) in primary and middle schools. This model, in comparison to what was being deployed under previous governments, is thus much more ambitious, with extensively documented, multiple and genuine potential benefits, but also a number of tradeoffs and/or challenges to deal with, particularly in the most linguistically heterogeneous regions. With federalism as a core inspiration, the (draft) Federal Democracy Education Policy entails a great deal of decentralization, with school education councils being in charge to decide, among other things, the language(s) of instruction, and with the possibility for each township and each ethnic region within a Region or State to develop local curricula in accordance with their respective State/Region framework and with the approval of the State/Region Education Council.
Following the coup, pro-revolution higher education institutions such as Spring University Myanmar have been offering online classes for learning several ethnic languages (including Mon, Tai Long, Sgaw and West Pwo Karen, Jinghpaw, Rakhine and Tedim Chin). At the basic education level, multiple education programs, some of them directly accredited or supported by the NUG, have come to provide “interim education” (ကြားကာလပညာရေး) in “people’s schools” (ပြည်သူ့ပညာရေးကျောင်း), among other administrative functions, in regions where the military-controlled state administration has collapsed, which include large parts of Sagaing and Magway Regions. In ethnic minority regions, these education programs rely to different extents on local languages, with both educational and ethnic identity mobilization objectives – in alignment with the perspectives articulated in the Federal Democracy Charter and the Federal Democracy Education Policy – amidst a dramatically disrupted political context and a daily reality marked by conflict, displacement, threats of violence, and often an extremely acute lack of resources.
The sections that follow aim at providing a brief outline of some of the many significant language-in-education post-coup developments. The three case-studies – Kayah/Karenni, Chin and Kachin States – have been selected because of their relevance to our perspectives and the availability, access, and interest of researchers in our team. Other key geographies/organizations are not included here, and a comprehensive understanding of the multiple, complex, and rapidly evolving dynamics taking place in often dramatically difficult contexts is beyond the scope and ambitions of this post.
Kayah (Karenni) State has been hit extremely hard by post-coup armed conflict, with up to two-thirds of its population displaced by the crackdown on resistance groups as the military is striving to secure the main roads. According to the Karenni Civil Society Network’s April 2023 figures, since the coup more than 200,000 people in Kayah State have become IDPs, over 1,100 have been killed, arrested or injured, and more than 2,600 CDM education staff have been dismissed. In multiple instances, schools have been directly targeted by military attacks, including airstrikes.
The number of students enrolled in Kayah’s State government schools has plummeted in comparison with pre-coup figures, with SAC MoE statistics showing a drop of 87.5% in students sitting the matriculation exam in 2022-23 when compared with 2018-19. The vast majority of formal education in this state now appears to happen outside of schools controlled by the military regime. Rather, provision occurs through schooling led by CDMers and by Ethnic Basic Education Providers (EBEPs), in alignment with the perspective of a federal education as articulated by the NUG but often operating independently of the NUG.
Kayah/Karenni State is one of the many ethnolinguistically diverse regions of Myanmar: a total of nine languages (Kayah, Kayan, Kayaw, Gaybar, Yintelay, Manumanaw, as well as Tai Long, Sgaw Karen and Pa-o) were being introduced as subjects in its government schools in 2019-20 as part of the local curriculum. As elsewhere, this diversity remains one of the key challenges in the post-coup context, and the realization of an inclusive Karenni identity has been set as a priority by the Karenni State Consultative Council, a revolutionary body formed in April 2021 that works in partnership with the NUG and National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC).
Amidst the partial collapse of State administration and a new impetus for a federal education system since the coup, several networks of schools using different combinations of languages have been operating in the midst of conflict and forced displacement, although many face an acute lack of basic school supplies. In townships such as Demoso, community schools run by CDMers are seeking support from local and national resistance organizations, and the Karenni Education Department (KnED) has expanded its network of schools while also developing a MTB-MLE approach in the Karenni/Kayah language. Within interim community-based schools, lessons inconsistent with Federal Democracy — History first and foremost — are being omitted, and a Karenni National History book was finalized in September 2022. Similarly, Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY) has started to implement in 2022-23 a MTB-MLE program through a curriculum produced by the Central Kayan Literature and Culture Committee (using Pekon region’s main dialect, often considered of high status and adopted as the Kayan standard since the early 2000s).
In addition to an education center with a strong focus on Karenni and English languages in eastern Demoso, a number of post-secondary options, such as Youth Academy College and New Horizon, have been working in partnership with Spring University Myanmar toward ongoing projects of creating Diploma programs. These higher education courses include local languages, cultures, and histories, although finding teachers for some of the local languages has constituted a challenge in the current context. New post-secondary education programs have also included a transnational focus, such as preparation courses towards Thai and international universities.
Following staunch local resistance and the constitution of the Chin Defense Forces as early as March-April 2021, Chin State has also been extremely disrupted by the coup. Particularly hard-hit regions include Thantalang (see also here), Mindat, and bordering areas of Sagaing and Magway Regions. According to the Chin Human Rights Organization, two years after the coup a quarter of the state’s population has been displaced (including both refugees and IDPs). In addition to hundreds of deaths, close to 1,500 people have been arrested and over 2,000 houses and religious buildings have been destroyed; tens of thousands have fled to the neighboring Indian state of Mizoram, with reportedly thousands of children in government and private schools, as well as many out-of school children.
Characterized by a sharp mountainous topography, Chin State (and its neighboring regions) is home to a great ethnolinguistic diversity, even by Myanmar’s standards: prior to the 2021 military coup, 24 languages and counting were in the process of being introduced as subjects in its government schools, while multiple and often challenging projects to select (or even create) one or several main/common languages were underway. This diversity remains one of the challenges to the mobilization of a common identity, yet the coup has also contributed to strengthening a sense of belonging to an overarching Chin nation.
The Chin State administration and schooling system has collapsed to a significant extent outside of some major towns and roads. Township-level People’s Administration Bodies (PABs), in general alignment with the NUG’s federalist perspectives (but not under its direct authority), have taken over with associated education departments (some community schools also seem to operate independently). These local education systems run in extremely difficult conditions, with volunteer or quasi-volunteer (sometimes CDM) teachers in the context of an acute lack of resources, and deal with major security threats. In some cases, they operate both sides of the border with India: for instance, the Matupi township education committee runs 150 schools, some of which are located inside Mizoram, which lead towards the NUG’s Basic Education Completion Assessment (BECA).
In terms of curriculum, these schools usually follow to some extent the national framework but with various degrees of adaptation to the local contexts. Local Chin languages tend to be included, both as subjects and “classroom languages” (oral media of instruction — a situation which is not new in Chin State). In some cases, most of the schooling seems to be conducted through local Chin languages, which is described as a very positive development by the newly established education administration, and with Burmese as a subject in primary schools. As the national history curriculum in its current version is perceived as irrelevant for Chin State and incompatible with federal education, ongoing projects also include the development of a Chin history curriculum, with 80% on the history of the Chin Nation (ချင်းပြည်ထောင်သမိုင်းကြောင်း) and 20% of local content (မိမိဒေသ သမိုင်းကြောင်း).
Experiencing conflict since 2011, Kachin State has also been profoundly disrupted by the coup and its consequences. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the Myanmar military’s most long standing and redoubtable opponents, has been largely aligned with the NUG’s federal perspectives. In the wake of the coup in 2021 and 2022, the KIO’s education system has experienced a major increase in the number of enrolled students from diverse ethno-linguistic backgrounds, which is not unlike the experiences of the Karen National Union’s (KNU) Karen Education and Culture Department (KECD). However, its model in terms of language-in-education (with, so far, Kachin language and culture as an additional subject alongside the national curriculum and as a “classroom language”) seems to have required less adaptation than KNU’s Karen-medium education system, which recently opened additional Karen language classes to help this new population of students overcome language challenges.
Similar to the KNU, the KIO shelters CDMers from the education sector, who have become involved in a variety of online and in-person education projects. The graduates of KIO’s high schools can enroll in a number of higher education institutions, notably those located in its territory. This includes the newly opened Kachin State Comprehensive University, which was jointly established by the KIO, the NUG, and CDM teachers, and has recently held the first graduation ceremonies of programs in literary and scientific subjects.
In Kachin State, the SAC, in line with previous military governments, has carried on with its divide and rule strategy (a practice itself largely rooted in Myanmar’s colonial past); other regional armed groups have different political stances and strategies vis-à-vis the junta. Some schools controlled by the military regime have been reopening in Kachin State, particularly in the more remote regions where alternatives are lacking and access to the internet is scarce (in addition to other challenges of alternative online schooling). Despite financial incentive, however, the extent of this reopening is limited and the schools’ educational standards often seem questionable.
The Kachin Baptist Convention’s church-based education programs have been revived, retaking to some extent the role churches had between the early decades of the 20th century and the mid-1960s with full-time teaching. These schools tend to at least partially follow the (Burmese language) national curriculum, but some prefer a curriculum in English. Different combinations of Jinghpaw and other local languages are also used in these schools, which seem to gather children from very diverse populations.
Other recent language-in-education developments in Kachin State include an increasing popularity of Chinese schools, which tend to be affordable and open academic, as well as at times professional, avenues towards Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Several Kachin National Schools (Myusha Jawng / Myu Shalat Jawng), which started before the coup, also run in urban centers and constitute an alternative to government education, using Jinghpaw and English as the main media of instruction.
Amidst dramatic situations of conflict and with new impetus for an education in line with federalist perspectives, the coup has profoundly altered Myanmar’s education landscape, which more than ever resembles a battlefield. Regarding language-in-education policy, the SAC, in contrast with its communication in state-media, has made major legislative steps back in the schools under its control, which have experienced a severe drop in enrolment and attractivity (see Part 1). Meanwhile, non-state education systems and schools in Kayah/Karenni, Chin and Kachin States (and assuredly in other States/Regions) are largely integrating local languages and have been expanding or appearing, often in extremely precarious contexts, in general alignment with federalist perspective, and with various degrees of collaboration with the NUG. At a time of great disruption and great political uncertainties for Myanmar and its populations, one of the few predictions that seems safe to make is that education, ethnic identities and, at their intersection, language-in-education matters will remain among the core aspects of Myanmar’s longstanding and unresolved issues, and thereby one of the key components of any durable political solutions.
This two-part article is dedicated to Mael Raynaud (1976-2022). It is part of a research project involving several organizations, 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.