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Asking a Fish to Climb a Tree and Myanmar’s Education System

By Timothy Syrota  •  May 30, 2015


An old cartoon is circulating on social media. It depicts a tree, a schoolmaster and assorted creatures lined up including a goldfish, an elephant and a seal. The schoolmaster says, “For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam – please climb that tree.” Beneath the cartoon is a quote from Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.”

Houng Hsar, a refugee from Karenni camp 1 in far northern Thailand, is metaphorically the goldfish who tried to climb a tree. A polite, self-assured 17-year-old, Houng Hsar faced a problem last year: If he completed high-school education in camp his graduation certificate would not be recognised in his home country, Myanmar, or his host country, Thailand. As a consequence, he returned to Myanmar to try to enter the government education system and get a recognised high-school graduate’s certificate.

“I went back to Myanmar last summer and tried to get into Standard 10 there,” he said. “The principal said I needed to take the tests in all subjects of Standard 9. But in almost every subject the curriculum was very different. Therefore, I did not take the tests. I choose to come back [to the camp].”

Curriculum is not the only challenge presented to returning refugee students. The majority of refugees are ethnic Karen who are not taught in Myanmar language, nor do they speak it in domestic or social environments. School-level entrance tests in Myanmar, however, are only in Myanmar language.

These requisites – having to sit entrance exams in an unfamiliar language based on unfamiliar curriculum – will, for many returning refugee students, be an insurmountable barrier to accessing government education systems. Those undertaking the process face being placed in age inappropriate classes, impacting a child’s learning, social and psychological development. Other refugee children will invariably forgo education altogether. This leads to child protection issues: Keeping children in school is acknowledged as a very good way to protect them from abuse.

A recently released study titled “Beyond Access” conducted by Save The Children Thailand confirms that returning refugee students are struggling not only to gain access to the government education system but also that they have no support even if they succeed. These challenges are compounded by issues related to teaching methods. While refugee students are likely to have had some exposure to student-centred, participatory learning, education in Myanmar is predominantly by rote, even at tertiary levels. Thein Lwin, director of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), said: “The system of government testing is reciting the exact same words from the textbooks in the government schools. The grading system depends on how much children can memorise.”

More fundamental issues regarding Myanmar’s education system are made clear in the Unicef 2013 Myanmar annual report. At 1.7 per cent, the ratio of government spending on education is one of the lowest in the world. The end result is that just over half of Myanmar’s children |complete primary education. The figure is even lower among ethnic groups.

Comparisons between refugee camp and Myanmar government education lead to a disconcerting hypocrisy. While the government is reluctant to recognise refugee education, observations from The Border Consortium (TBC), in its report ‘What Refugees Say’, note “The comparative low-cost access to and quality of |education opportunities in the refugee camps is a highly sought alternative to the expensive and low-quality opportunities in rural areas of southeast Burma.”

Sai Thip, a student from Shan State, said: “…we don’t have basic levels, like government school. As I cannot continue in Burma, it is better if I move to the refugee camp. If I improve or graduate here, maybe I can go back and help my community.”

This desire to become educated, return to Myanmar and help struggling, local communities is shared by many refugees. Naw Mu, a petite 11-year-old, said: “I would like to become a nurse, to heal patients. Children will be able to learn |better if they are healthy.” Other students want to be teachers because villages don’t have teachers, or engineers because building standards in Myanmar are poor.

K’ Paw Shee, headmaster of a camp-based high school, asserts that older and graduated refugee students can positively contribute to development in Myanmar.

Currently, however, camp-based high-school graduation certificates are not formally recognised in Myanmar when applying for tertiary education or jobs requiring high school completion. This affects their access to livelihoods.

These conditions for returning refugee students have ramifications in the broader context of refugee repatriation from the Thai-Myanmar border. The governing international humanitarian principle is that refugees return voluntarily and with dignity. Non-recognition of refugee |education, however, represents a serious impediment to any meaningful definition of a voluntary return.

The corollary of these factors begs the question, why does the Myanmar government not take a more reconciliatory approach to the issue of refugee camp-based education? Part of the answer lies in the historically interwoven, often acrimonious, relationship between Myanmar’s |government and education.

For almost 50 years (1962-2010), under successive totalitarian military regimes, education suffered in Myanmar. Bans on teaching in the mother tongue as a means of cultural and political oppression of |ethnic groups, the closure for more than a decade of tertiary institutions nationwide following the 1988 student-led demonstrations, the grotesquely inadequate military expenditure on education – these are examples of what led the once enviable Myanmar education system to become one of the worst in Asia. This repression saw an increasing reliance upon parallel education systems. Ethnic governments established de facto education departments – the Karen, the Karenni, Kachin, Mon, Shan. These taught a non-military curriculum in the mother tongue. Monastic, Christian and Islamic faith-based schools provided further education as did after-school schools supplementing the inadequate Myanmar education system.

Today, after four years of fledgling democracy, these parallel education systems, like refugee-camp education, are not recognised by the government. Instead the government, often in partnership with Myanmar-based international aid organisations, pursues its own education agenda.

In September 2014 the National Education Law was adopted by Parliament. Thein Lwin of the NNER said: “The National Education Law is controlled by the National Education Commission. The government formed this National Education Commission. Government |ministers sit on the commission. In this law, democratic rights are deprived, |human rights are deprived, and freedom of education is also deprived.”

Students, local non-government organisations, and civil society opposed the bill. Concern focused on curriculum review and decentralisation, opportunities for native language instruction, restrictions on |student assembly, and the powers of the National Education Commission, which was widely perceived as a proxy for state control.

Returning to Karenni Camp 1, Houng Hsar maintained his ambitions. “If I have enough education, I want to accomplish one of my dreams.”

His plan now is to travel 600km to a border town in Thailand. “I will try to get in to a school in Mae Sot or other schools,” he said. “After studying, I plan to work in an organisation. After that, step by step, I plan to do politics.” This is his dream.

The ultimate question is who is going to help Houng Hsar and 30,000 other refugee students fulfil their dreams for a recognised education? Will it be UNHCR that lobbies for tangible substance to the notion of voluntary repatriation with |dignity? Will it be the Myanmar government acknowledging that time has come for transparent and inclusive reform of national education? Will the leadership of ethnic groups play their part placing education on the table at ceasefire discussions? It is incumbent upon each of these stakeholders to play its role. Currently, this is not happening. If it were, Houng Hsar would not be the goldfish who tried but failed to climb a tree. Instead he would be a student about to begin his final year of schooling in Myanmar, and with a very real prospect of a university education in Yangon ahead of him.

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This post is in: Press Release

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