Rio Kevin and Dr. Abellia Anggi Wardani examine the relations between education and sustainable democracy in Myanmar.
The problem with most countries vulnerable towards democratic instability depends largely on the foundation of its education system. In 2021, Myanmar experienced bitter political turmoil, which finally led to a coup orchestrated by the military, seizing power once again from the elected party into their own hands. This incident also led to the arrest and detention of numerous political actors in Myanmar, mainly from the National Democratic Party (NLD), including Aung San Suu Kyi, leaving no significant opposition or pro-democracy actors to oppose the military. Despite a great number of protests, followed by atrocities and arrests over the past two years, the future of Myanmar remains unclear, putting everyone living in and thinking about Myanmar stuck in limbo.
The coup, on top of the continued civil wars in the subnational conflict areas, marks a substantial regression for democracy in Myanmar’s history. While the democracy has dimmed for decades in Myanmar, it is widely known that a good education system could lead to democratisation. According to this perspective, education becomes a catalyst for nurturing key elements that essential for democracy, such as civic culture, social engagement, coordination, and connection, seamless information exchange, and political participation, while also raising benefits of political activity. Moreover, it is believed that an uneducated man or the man with limited education is a different political actor from the man who has achieved a higher level of education. In other words, education has a prominent role in shaping the political landscapes that is necessary by democracy.
However, in the case of Myanmar, the country’s education system has been suffering since the Tatmadaw until after the coup recently, filled by repression, surveillance, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and low economic investment. This crisis does not meet the sufficient condition for proper education to run, making it impossible for democracy to grow within the education system. For instance, just in terms of student participation, high school students registering for a key exam has plunged 80%, along with 300,000 teachers and other school staffers walked off their jobs and 125,000 teachers and professors suspended by the current regime. This number suggest that the education condition is keep deteriorating since the coup, worsening the condition that is already poor in the first place.
This short article aims to assess the regression of democracy in Myanmar by emphasising the condition of Myanmar’s education system that leads to the inability for the education to promote democracy. We use a narrative approach to analyse the data obtained from desk research in various academic journals and articles, using “democracy and education in Myanmar” as a keyword. We argue that the limited access to quality education in Myanmar was an underlying cause of the 2021 coup. Existing studies on the role of education as a prerequisite for democracy in Myanmar remain scarce despite the education system being politicised, leaving the quality of education plummeting.
Although the correlation between education and democracy is still contested, many believe that education is a prerequisite for democracy to happen. According to this view, education plays the most important role in democracy by efficiently giving students spaces to interact with others and raising the benefits of civic participation. These characteristics of education are crucial in influencing people to support democracy and political causes since it helps them comprehend the duty and significance of political participation and tolerance. Furthermore, education is supposed to promote democracy by influencing individuals’ competence and cognitive orientations and providing experiences that instill democratic values—increasing the likelihood of political participation and getting students used to being involved in and experiencing democracy. Thus, countries with higher levels of education are more likely to experience a transition from dictatorship to democracy and to withstand anti-democratic challenges. This is also echoed by the recent findings by Ahmadov and Holstege, who also found a significant positive effect of schooling on political regime, which implies that education still predicted democracy. They even found that the pro-democratic drive seems to come strongly from primary schooling, which is the early stage of education. However, in order to do so, the educational condition has to be free without any constraint or involvement from other parties, while giving more no room for academic freedom. At the same time, the education system and curricula need to be good enough and full of the government’s commitment to be able to address democratic values.
There are many unresolved issues inside Myanmar’s education system, worsening the conditions and quality of education over time. Most of the problems derive from the entanglement of political interests in education. The cycle of crises that have defined Myanmar’s politics since independence has coincided with the continued decline of the education sector, casting a long shadow on education in Myanmar and causing a generation without proper education as they should have had. Unfortunately, the Myanmar government has realised that education is responsible for producing good human capital, which for them it could risk their status quo and ability to control the country. Since then, the education system has been left to rot and stir according to their own interests. The government uses education as a political tool by preventing children from learning how to think. Under the military regime, young people are expected to be disciplined in and out of school. As such, the government wanted to make sure they wouldn’t turn into a potential opposition to the regime. However, each regime had its own battle in controlling the education development in Myanmar; the dictator and military were obviously obstructing the process of proper education, while the NLD administration made the impression that things were moving forward.
Another issue is the centralised system that prioritises the usage of the Burmese language and history as the majority in Myanmar in the name of ‘national identity’. The disjunction between formal education by the central government and EROs later resulted in a dilemma for students between enrolling in the public school or the EROs school, in which the students could not feel safe in either place due to the conflict between the government and ethnic groups. The system became even more complicated and dispersed since there were other kinds of schools with their own curricula, such as private schools, tuition classes, monastery-based schools, church-based schools, and schools in conflict areas or refugee camps.
The Myanmar government’s commitment to constructing education also remains low. The government’s spending on education was very low compared to the suggested rate by UNESCO, which is 4% of the GDP. In 2007, Myanmar’s education spending was only 0.4% of the GDP, while military spending was 100 times higher at 40%. The NLD administration sparked a great hope for the unresolved crisis of education in the country since its claimed to be a civilian democratic-based regime. Instead, in 2017 the NLD launched the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP), a new strategic plan for Myanmar education, with no significant solutions to the crisis since it was still based on the previous national education strategy by the dictator regime. Furthermore, it was made without any consultation with the civil society groups and still ignores the fundamental problems in Myanmar’s education system: the exclusivity of ethnic minorities languages, teacher autonomy, freedom of expression, inclusive education, academic freedom, and Burmese culture’s which became the main curricula for formal education. These issues do not meet the proper conditions for the education to run as it should. Thus, it would be impossible for the education system in Myanmar to provide room for democracy to grow.
Regardless of the problems mentioned above, the post-8888 uprising posed the biggest latent threat to democracy, putting Myanmar in a very vulnerable position against coups. Before 1988, the students were still able to feel academic freedom and maintained their symbolic role and pro-democracy movements by hiding in the university as their main base. These conditions led to the largest protest against the military in Myanmar, the 8888 uprising. It was led by students, mainly from Yangon University (YU) and Yangon University of Technology (YTU), in their pro-democracy plan. However, after the protest, the situation quickly turned dreadful. Students involved in the protests were then tracked down by the government and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. The enrolment rate of public schools and the quality of education sharply decreased. The government investment in education fell to less than 1% of GDP, and no budget was allocated to the Ministry of Education. Major universities, such as YU and YTU, were split into several institutions or dismissed and moved their location outside the city, adding more practical challenges for protests. In addition, the government exercised its power by keeping track of the university students and overall education performance. These actions were taken by the government to prevent such protests from happening again.
The result of those actions can be seen in the 2000s when students’ roles and participation in protest have dimmed. For instance, in the 2007 economic crisis, a massive protest was led by monks instead of students, known as the Saffron Protests. It showed that the student movement had been greatly weakened due to the suppression by the regime after 1988. Due to the oppression, a gap has formed and widened between the generation of students who were able to take the lead in student activism and the current generation that has ‘forgotten democracy’. Although since 2013, political control over student groups has largely eased up as they were allowed to exist and openly operate on campuses, the state has successfully instilled a sense of fear among students over the last three decades, discouraging university students’ movements. Furthermore, political parties and CSOs are now taking up the students’ portion of activities for democracy in Myanmar, reducing the previous political influence and role of students. The sense of fear instilled among the students, by the repression during 8888, and tight surveillance of the education system in Myanmar has led to the extinction of students’ commitment, role, and will in political protests.
Given Myanmar’s deteriorating education performance and situation, it is undeniably impossible to expect the education system to be able to support democracy. Instilling the idea of democracy could not be done in the current education situation in Myanmar. Even worse, the democratic values that are being fought for by the students are being dimmed by the government through surveillance and restriction. Therefore, in order to create and preserve democracy, Myanmar’s education system needs to be reformed once again, addressing the unresolved yet problematic issues. However, it does not seem possible in a short period since awareness of the importance of education for democracy in Myanmar remains low in the country. Meanwhile, education plays an important role in ensuring that democracy is learned through activities at the grassroots level, too, that politics has an impact on people’s everyday lives. A balanced approach from top-down and bottom-up is needed to achieve a more secure democracy that could resist political turmoil in the future in Myanmar.
Rio Kevin is a Research Intern at Knowledge Hub Myanmar. He is a student at Universitas Indonesia majoring in International Relations. His focus revolves around economic, political, and security issues and major power relations. However, he is interested in transnational issues in Southeast Asia, especially Myanmar.
Dr. Abellia Anggi Wardani is the Executive Director of Knowledge Hub Myanmar and a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Universitas Indonesia. She received her PhD in Culture Studies from Tilburg University, the Netherlands. Her research interests range from peacebuilding, economies of peace, ethnography, informal economy, and community formation in Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, and Indonesia.