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Building Community Education Program under a democratic government in Burma

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By Banya Hongsar, Canberra – The right to teach and learn in native languages is declared as a universal human right by the United Nations. However, in Burma teaching and learning in native languages are not legal under the current constitution. There are millions of children in Burma whose parents are non-Burmese speaking. Still, learning native languages is neither allowed nor supported in the public education system in Burma.

Will the millions of non-Burmese children have the right to learn their native languages, through the public and community educations systems, under the new government? This essay is based on my own experience as a child and citizen of Burma. I will be addressing this both internally through my experiences in Burma, and externally through examining the issue of education for Burmese students living in western countries, such as Australia.

Community educations is a fundamental commitment of all democratic nations and governments, regardless of their particular political persuasions. Lifelong learning is the new concept and focus in education globally. Likewise, the United Nations new motto, ‘Education for All’ signifies this shift at the beginning of the 21st century. Burma is now transforming itself towards democracy under it’s own terms and referencing its own ideas of democracy and human rights. The community education sector has been severely under resourced for over half a century, since Burma gained independence in 1947. The population of over 50 million deserve better access to education, from primary through to secondary and higher education institutions.

Teaching and learning native languages should be prioritised for both public and community education systems in Burma. It is a human right of each child that they have access to basic education in their native language.

Community education has long been poorly funded and structured by the government. It has survived in Burma purely by the good will of the monastic community, with monks providing free monastic education during the 20th century. This is a challenge for the new government, and a challenge to the thirty-year education plan that was recently released without any public debate on its framework.

There must be a public debate, at the local and national level, between providers and parents about education in Burma. Parents and teachers associations must be legally allowed to operate in each local school and village. For freedom of expression and education to improve in general, free debate about education must be permissible among teachers and parents in Burma.

Education is valued and rewarded in Burmese society, and has been so for many centuries. The concept of education is widely written of in Burmese literature and in literature of other ethnic groups. A common Burmese proverb declares that ‘Education is the brightest on earth’. Education earns reputation. Education enables you to find a good life partner. These are also common Burmese proverbs. The current education system in Burmese must be transformed to be at a 21st century standard. The system has been poorly managed, designed and developed for the past sixty years. Teachers from western countries and the region have been visiting, researching and teaching in Burma since 2000. There are several education projects running designed by non-governmental organisations such as ZOE Refugee Care. However, smaller communities, particularly those in remote and rural areas, struggle to support their children in completely their secondary education or high school education.

The informal role that monastic education has played in rural communities has been investing in rural communities where many refugees and those in need of humanitarian aid reside. For many in Burma education is not a choice, it is rather a lucky chance for few, unlike education opportunities in western countries like Australia. In the new education system and policies on schooling, it is understood that refugees will have more choice and a better chance to access education. It is worth exploring and assessing how successful these policies are in assisting the learning process for refugee and migrant children, youth and adults. Further research, investigation and case studies should be drawn on to heed assist improvements in the year ahead.

Teaching is a rewarding vocation, and a true accomplishment in one’s lifetime. Learning, socially, physically, emotionally and intellectually, on the other hand is never fully completed in one’s life. Both teacher and learner must contribute equally in the path a student, and their family and community, takes to reach well-being and education. The Burmese community will benefit further if there are links between local education and international providers, and if this were allowed under the law. The survival of the nation is solely resting on the capacity and drive of it’s own people, working towards the betterment of the education and health systems. This is a test for Burma in the new post-military era.

According to Xinhua news, in May 2011, “official statistics show that the number of basic education schools in the country has increased to 40,679, where a total number of over 8 million students are pursuing their education under the guidance of over 266,000 teachers”. This is good news for Burma and a sign that the nation is transforming itself, taking another step closer to being able to compete in global education in this new century.

According to an official census of the Union of Myanmar, the population of Mon State is 2,518,152 as of 2010; and is likely to have increased in 2011. At the time of the 2010 election, most Mon were living and working in rural Mon State, or living in Thailand.

Mon State is known as one of the most developed states in Burma, in various reports it is noted as adequately providing education to its citizens. However, farmers and adults who missed out on vocational education in the 1960s and 70s are struggling with literacy and numeracy. It is therefore essential that community education and lifelong learning initiatives, cultural preservation, music and other art education, must be funded and supported by the Burmese government and by Burmese donors.

Likewise, young people who have fled the border areas and are now living in Thailand have missed out on vocational education, such as farming and domestic skills.

Young people those who fled to border areas and Thailand missed out vocational skills from farming and other household skills. It is widely acknowledged that knowledge gap has been concerned among community leaders and monks in rural areas because young people left the village to Thailand for further seeking good income. Farming and plantation skills have been decreased among young adults in Mon State.

Thailand-Burma based non-government organisations have been assisting with children and young people in common refugee camps for accessing and reaching education in Thailand’s system. Education for All is also widely campaigning in Thailand-Burma border areas as well as in some part of Burma / Myanmar recently that linked between providers and local communities. Reassessing the role of education sector in Burma is a much debated in recent years while most western scholars and researcher have been convinced that education has a key role to play in a new social and political system within the country.

Parents, of course, play a key role in early childhood education and far beyond. Parents are the first teacher that a child has. Teachers in school provide guidance and education, but this is secondary to the foundation that the parents lay. It is therefore in the best interest of a child that parents have an active role in their schools and become part of the education environment. Burma will be facing challenges in the new education and employment sectors in the coming years. Children today are not yet prepared to be competitive in a regional education system with the likes of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Soon more parents will be seeking further resources from the government and other private investments to improve local education programs and facilities. Each and every rural community in Burma as of today is lacking in resources and capacity. Teachers are payed less than their urban counterparts and there have been reports of bribery and other types of ‘donations’ collected by some rural teachers from parents. Rural teachers also lack access to resources, such as libraries and training, when compared to urban teachers. Further, the teachers are afforded less power than local village headmen and headwomen in rural areas, which means that education equity for rural children is often poorly achieved. The roles of parents and teachers should be increased, both financially and morally, to assist the further development in rural education for Burma.

Newly elected members of parliament, representing non-Burmese states, must will propose a teaching and learning native language initiative for public schools. If the government of the Union of Myanmar rejects such a bill, millions of non-Burmese children will not be able to read, write or enjoy their native languages. Such would truly be a tragedy for the nation of Myanmar.

Community based education that aims for lifelong learning ought to be seen as a national interest rather than a political motivation of different political leaders and political parties. A democratic government representing the Union of Myanmar will be praised by the international community, such as UNESCO and the United States, when such an opportunity as native language learning is provided to its citizens. Education is not only for a select few, it is for all those who are willing to learn, eager to know, and prepared to work in Burma. Most of all, community education is a pivotal foundation for community development and nation building. I am proud to say that I will be part of this journey.

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