EMReF researchers discuss education reform, the local parliaments, federalism and peace.
This article has been updated to include additional references.
If the issues underlying the current political process in Myanmar had to be captured in four words, then surely these would be: “democratization,” “decentralization,” “federalism,” and “peace.” And if any reform were to be considered central to tackling these four issues, it would certainly be education reform.
Education is key to democratization, because only a well-educated citizenry can face up to the task of rebuilding Myanmar and its institutions, and maybe, even more importantly, because democracy needs informed citizens to function. For this reason, the most discussed of all concepts related to democratization and development in the last decade has been “capacity building” (Raynaud 2016).
Education is also key to federalism, and ultimately, to peace, because so many of the issues related to reforming the education system are also those discussed in the peace process: how the State, in Myanmar, recognizes all citizens as first-class citizens— with their varied identities, cultures, and languages— will be a fundamental, even foundational, aspect of Myanmar’s political reform process.
In practical terms, this demand for equality, self-determination, or autonomy, means decentralization, or the devolution of some of the powers currently held in Naypyidaw to the local parliaments and governments, if not to the districts or townships. Which is far, far easier said than done.
A few weeks ago, our team began to research how the institutions we are focusing on— the local parliaments, as described in a recent Tea Circle piece on this topic— fit into this general picture. It seems obvious that if peace and democratization depend heavily on decentralization and federalism, then the 14 State and Region parliaments are an important place to discuss, debate, and write laws about education, with the 14 associated local governments being key institutions when it comes to implementing these reforms.
After weeks of discussing this topic with a number of education experts, journalists, donors, activists, educators, textbooks authors, and MPs of local parliaments, we can confidently say that what we propose here is based on a wide consensus.
How this could be done— meaning how the local parliaments could contribute to bringing about federalism and peace— is a completely different matter: amongst the stakeholders we’ve engaged with, no two have the same ideas on this question. In other words, everyone understands how important the issue is, but no consensus exists on how to handle it.
Much more concerning are two major obstacles that, despite consensus among practitioners, stand in the way of the entire project of encouraging the discussion of education in local parliaments, and of, more broadly, the establishment of a federal system and the coming of peace. The first is that, in the 37 principles agreed in the recent “Panglong” conference (and in the 8 principles not agreed upon), education, as such, is nowhere to be found. This may not be completely bad news, though it raises the question: do the people of Myanmar want, essentially, soldiers, whichever group they belong to, from the Tatmadaw to ethnic armed groups, to decide the future of education? Are they legitimate in doing so? In that sense, the question is to know to what extent, and how, the peace process is related to education reform…
The second issue is that education is technically not among the responsibilities conferred to the local parliaments by the 2008 Constitution. Indeed, as article 188 states that “the Region or State Hluttaw shall have the right to enact laws for the entire or any part of the Region or State related to matters prescribed in Schedule Two of the Region or State Hluttaw Legislative List.” One quickly discovers that Schedule Two does not include education in its list, nor, for that matter, does it include other issues vital to decentralization and federalism such as labour or health care.
In this context, it is not surprising that when the Mon State Hluttaw tried to pass a bill on education, in April 2014, it was stopped from doing so from Naypyidaw, on the grounds that education is not included in Schedule Two. Yet, one could look at this from a more positive perspective, and see that at least one local parliament was indeed directly interested in debating education.
Since then, the context has changed, dramatically so. A National Education Law, as controversial as it is, was voted in September 2014 and amended in 2015. The National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) was first presented by the Thein Sein administration in early 2016, and then by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2017, and the Constitution itself was amended in July 2015 to give local parliaments a role in supervising primary schools, middle schools and high schools.
There are at least three angles through which to approach the research we have started. The first would be the legal and constitutional aspects of the issue at hand— what we will call “the framework”. The second one would be the recording, understanding, and analysis of the incredibly varied set of ideas and opinions people have on the issue of relations between the local parliaments, on the one hand, and education and federalism, on the other (building on work already done by Ashley South and Marie Lall). Unlike what could be observed on many other issues, in Myanmar, that many may not be interested in, or may not understand, education, and even specifically its relationship to federalism and peace, is an issue every single of the over 50 million citizens of Myanmar, or at least those old enough to form any opinions at all, cares very much about, and has ideas of their own, that they would formulate more or less clearly if they were asked (see, for example South and Lall 2016a and 2016b).
As would be the case in moving from the opinions of the citizenry to actual reform, on any topic, the question that must be asked immediately is how practical such varied ideas may be. How will the government, and other education providers, implement these ideas? How will federalism actually work? Is decentralization a panacea, or does it come with issues of its own? Last, but most definitely not least, the third aspect to our research would consider what the capacity of players on the ground really is to deal with the potential new responsibilities that would be given to them, in different scenarios?
Once again, our team specializes in the local parliaments and governments. And while we have been fervent supporters of the role of these parliaments and governments and acknowledged the quality of their performance— underestimated by many in our opinion— we also have seen first hand the limits to their own capacity, not to mention that of other players at the local level. Decentralization would mean, for example, that there should be education ministers in the local governments, and education, culture and languages committees in the local parliaments. Clear mechanisms would also need to be put in place so that the Union level— starting with the Ministry of Education (MoE) in Naypyidaw– and the local level, would coordinate. This would also mean reinforced coordination between the Government and non-state providers of education, and among them, ethnic providers such as the Karen Education Department (KED) or the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC) – see in particular South and Lall (2016b), and Jolliffe and Speers Mears (2016). Unfortunately, if education can help bring about peace, war, on the other hand, has direct consequences for education. The Kachin, for instance, had an education system, controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), that was arguably closer to the MoE than the KED or the MNEC have today under the ceasefire. This situation was reversed overnight when fighting resumed in 2011.
It is important to underline that such efforts at coordination between the MoE and local actors has started to develop. Three areas where this is the case are in the distribution of text-books to non State providers of education, the sharing of curricula, and the recognition of education provided by other actors and the diplomas they may award (Lall 2016; Jolliffe and Speers Mears 2016). This, we believe, is a very encouraging sign. The grounds on which federalism may one day flourish in Myanmar are already being built (similarly to what South and Lall call “federalism from below”). When the MoE thinks of ethnic providers of education as partners— and when ethnic providers in turn recognize the legitimacy of the MoE as the main provider of education across the nation, and a legitimate institution to supervise the general field of education— then undeniable progress has been made in terms of mutual understanding, and capacity to work with one another, as shown in South and Lall (2016), and Jolliffe and Speers Mears (2016).
Most recently, the fact that on June 3rd, 2017, the deputy director of the Union Ministry of Ethnic Affairs declared that schools could freely hire teaching assistants to teach ethnic languages was a clear step in the right direction. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this will be confirmed and implemented by the MoE. More generally the teaching of ethnic languages, often referred to by using the concept of MTB-MLE (for Mother Tongue Based Multi-Lingual Education), is key in addressing the issues of education, federalism and peace (South and Lall 2016; Jolliffe and Speers Mears 2016). As countless international studies have shown children learn better at a young age if they’re being taught in the language they speak at home. On the other hand, even ethnic rights activists whom we have interviewed have told us how critical it was for the children of their communities to master the Burmese language as early in life as possible, which confirms the findings of South and Lall (2016). We will leave it to education experts, from MoE civil servants to networks such as the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) and ethnic providers of education, as well as all Myanmar citizens, to decide how a future education system might work, in a federal system which itself remains to be designed, but the tension between these two rather obvious facts provides one of the main questions that need to be answered. The same can be said of the teaching of history, one issue with at least as great a potential for controversy and confrontation than the teaching of ethnic languages, in a country with such a violent recent past and such one sided versions of history being taught by all sides (Salem-Gervais and Metro 2012).
As with all issues facing Myanmar, communication, inclusivity, dialogue, debate, will all be essential: there is a need for a national conversation on these topics, which is essential for the future of education itself, and for democratization, decentralization, federalism and peace. Key questions remain: how much do the Burmese want their country to be decentralized? Can people even understand what it means? How does this apply to education, specifically?
While our team will be trying to suggest answers to some of these questions, the general frame for this research, and the debates it aims at contributing to, is already clear: decentralization is far from being a perfect answer, but it seems hard to avoid if the country is to adopt a federal system. Strengthening the capacity of those tasked with implementing it will be of utmost importance. Budgets allocated to education must grow, especially if they are themselves distributed along federalist lines. Teaching ethnic languages, while making sure the citizens of Myanmar can all communicate with each other and participate in the change the country is undergoing, are two seemingly contradictory objectives that need to be reconciled. The Union level, in Naypyidaw, and the MoE in particular, have a central, supervising role to play, but they must acknowledge and work with other providers of education. And the local parliaments and governments must play a key role in designing the future of education in Myanmar if the country is to successfully attain democracy, federalism and peace, thanks to, among others, well designed and balanced forms of decentralization.
This article was written by the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation’s Political Information Program’s team of researchers: Zaw Min Oo, Nyein Thiri Swe and Mael Raynaud. Tinzar Htun also contributed research. For more information, visit: www.mypilar.org
Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.