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Rights to learn in my native language and access to education in Burma

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In recent weeks Burma’s media has heard the cry for education for all children in rural and remote ethnic areas, as the nation heads toward a democratic government in the 21st century. Burma’s ethnic regions have been marginalized over the past half century due to civil war and oppression by the foremost ruling military hardliners in modern history and now, since political transition began in early 2011, education sectors from home and abroad have been searching for a golden opportunity to realize this desire in Burma.

This personal perspective is a reflection of the majority of parents in rural Mon State and other displaced areas, expressed in the pursuit of bringing a public voice to the national agenda in education reform. This is just the beginning of a process which is quite complex, like any other reform, whether political or economic, due to the nature of reform process itself, which is complex regardless of the socio-political environment. What follows is not a piece of policy agenda, but rather a reflective essay which reflects a vision for the mission of educating Burma’s children.

I left my village at the age of 26 to move overseas, but my connection to my native village has not diminished by my location at present. This piece is a voice for the hopeless people from my village, and other areas, who have been marginalized by the State’s education system over the past half century. The child’s right to learn is the center piece of this essay, in the context of learning to live and learning to be.

A Big Dream for a Child

Scholarly literature provides that a nation has failed when the educational system within the nation has failed. This essay is based on my own experience as a child born in rural Mon State during the Socialist-Military government, and contends that the plight of a child who does not have the opportunity for formal schooling is at greater risk in adulthood.

I urge both Mon State teachers in the Union of Myanmar, as well as teachers from other countries such as Australia and the USA, to join in working towards this mission; educating a child is possible. This is my own observation for further improvement of the education system in Mon State.

Investment in education provides the greatest guarantee for returns in social and human capital and, as such, it is worthy to call upon the new government for social and political change through education policy reform. In diverse communities like Burma, a child’s foundation lies in bi-lingual and multi-lingual education.

Teaching for public good

Teaching is a rewarding vocation, but learning never ends until human needs are socially, physically, and emotionally met. Both teacher and student contribute equally in the path to individual well-being, and the well-being of the family at large. Teachers are well respected in Mon and Burmese communities, as they are regarded as the ‘guide’ of life for a child in preparation for a journey through the long road called life.
The Mon National Schools have employed over 800 language teachers during 2013-2014, who are awarded a salary of only 20,000-25,000 kyat, roughly 20-25 USD, per month. The teachers’ salaries are funded by contributions of both Mon parents and local donors across Mon villages in lower Burma.

The right to learn mother-tongue campaign

The campaign for the right to learn one’s mother-tongue has been visible in Burma from late 2012 through the end of 2014. This campaign is a test of democracy within Burma’s political context and will be a long battle until each child in Burma can learn his or her own native language in each local school. The recent draft of Education Laws merely provides a clause regarding the teaching of bi-lingual classes in public or community-based school, without providing sufficient clarity in the text, but at least the Law is amended to allow local populations to teach a native language as an additional lesson either in extra hours or outside of school.

The September 2014 amended Education Laws ignored the rights of a child as declared in Article 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, by allowing children to only study their mother-tongue outside of formal school hours, when the child should be playing like other children. Discrimination in regards to education shall be examined by our country’s legal experts in order to ensure equity of access in public education, regardless of race, gender or religion. After sixty years of armed conflict, generations have missed the opportunity to pursue education from primary level to higher-level education qualifications.

In early 2013, Mon language teachers under the administration of the Mon National Education Committee reported that the department has been facing financial pressures in allocating funding to volunteer teachers and other school volunteers throughout Mon villages. The cost of living has been increasing since 2010, when the Government of the Union of Myanmar opened up its market economy. The cost of operating a community language school or community language classes can no longer survive under a volunteer system do to the increasing cost of living and other related operations costs. Mon monks, community leaders, teachers and parents groups have been fundraising for cash donations through the sale of products made by local youths such as DVDs, T-shirts, and printed materials in a test of self-autonomy for this mission, but the sustainability of community-based fundraising will be threatened if unemployment rises in local areas. It is in the best interest of the Government of Mon State and its Education Department to provide adequate resources for local public education as a matter of public good, rather than political ideology.

The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education clearly affirms the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education in conformity with one’s own religion and philosophical convictions, and the case of teaching the Mon native language to a Mon child is constituted in the philosophical convictions of Mon parents. I have read the Burmese version of the text of the Education Laws proposed by the USDP’s parliament and alternative advocacy groups, known as the National Network for Education Reform, led by Burma’s education specialist Dr. Thein Lwin and, although the alternative version of proposed draft bills articulates clear policy in relation to ‘language policy’, the government’s proposed bills ignore the desires of the non-Burmese people.

The emerging role of Mon politicians and MPs in the public policy agenda for Mon State
Mon politicians and Members of Parliament (MPs), both at the National and State level, have been advocating for the right to teach native languages in every non- Burmese ethnic state across Burma. The case of Mon State has been discussed seriously amongst parents, teachers and researchers over the past two years and local Mon MPs and politicians have been discussing options for the right to teach native languages in the public education system under the new government. The right to learn native languages and to establish a good education system were the focal points of the campaign for Mon leaders in 2011, based on the interests of the party and the community alike.

Nearly all elected Mon MPs had access to good education from the early 1960s to the late 1970s and therefore value the role of education and the benefit of its investment. It is the parents’ view that at least 50% of operational costs shall be devoted to non-government schools, including community language classes, but the Government of Myanmar lacks will in fulfilling the desire of the populations of Mon State.

On the contrary, the education policy released by the Ministry of Education (MOE) from late 2010 to present lacks clarity in relation to the teaching of non-Burmese native languages across the public and community learning sector, excepting classes administered by the Monastic education system. UK Education specialist Marie Lall asserts that, in the case of the Mon National Schools and mixed schools, it is shown that there are already education systems in place on the ground in ethnic states that are demonstrably effective, which can be replicated in other regions. Burma-born educational specialists shall be as articulate as western scholars in addressing this critical issue, as outlined in the Thirty Years Education Plan.

Bilingual and multilingual education is a good investment for a child’s learning
Burma/Myanmar’s recent growth in the education sector over recent years is a good sign, however, parents and teachers should be informed in a timely and appropriate manner as to what extent the government and education providers make policy and procedural changes within the school system. Children from Burma/Myanmar’s ethnic communities must have access to native and national languages through a new learning plan that includes the old culture of learning, while adopting a new way of study in each local school based on ethnicity and cultural identity.

In late 2012, the Ministry of Education of Myanmar released its education reform policy and frameworks (available online from the Government’s website) which articulated the modern education system in the country, however, the policy platform and framework fail to specify the ‘language policy’ of the non-Burmese people in terms of teaching and use in public administration such as court hearing and instruction in schools. According to official documents released by the Government of the Union of Myanmar, Ministry of Education entitled, Development of Education in Myanmar (2004), the sixty-page policy platform does not articulate ‘language policy’, rather articulating the modernization of the entire education sector under the dominion of the ‘Burmese/Myanmar’ language instruction, across the country’s public schools.

It has been the case that many ethnic politicians and MPs, including ethnic armed leaders, have left this issue to the last minute during the transformation of the socio-political system in the country, in which the basic step towards peace lies in the unity and national reconciliation between the diverse populations in the country. Furthermore, Professor Han Tin presented a paper at the Australian National University in 2004 on education reform in Myanmar, but the scholar failed to address ‘language policy’ in the context of early childhood education.

In his paper, Burma education expert Professor Han Tin presented his findings on the Myanmar education system, its challenges, prospects and options, and concluded that, “Myanmar education will improve only when the education and training of its young improves.”

According to Burma’s leading educational scholar in this modern era, a child’s education should be carefully planned and mapped out. Professor Han Tin’s chapter identified the various stages in the education of a child and the development of the child’s behavior, in which interventions could be made to establish habits of thoughtfulness, emotional discipline, self-management and conflict resolution. Only with such interventions will an evolutionary process begin in the mindset of the population, Professor Tin asserts, making it possible for change to occur.

Professor Tin further warns that “the underpinning of all of these points is needed for generational change, which will transform the psyche of the whole nation and enable its society to move away from a dominator type towards a more liberal and freer one.”
However, ethnic scholars and educators hold the view that early childhood education, at least from Kindergarten to Year Four or Six, shall be taught in the child’s native language in every public school across the country. Therefore, the advocacy of cultural identity proposed by the Ministry of Education’s education policy shall be examined by both domestic and international scholars.

Conclusion

My dream is simple, every child must live in safety, without fear of any threat. All children must have access to basic education and the right to learn their native language during formal hours at any public or publically-funded community learning center. All children should also have access to learn, read and write the English language to allow for better access to training and employment by the year 2030. Education for livelihood is my priority. Education for peace, prosperity and development is my second agenda. Only an educated person can change from within; social and political change must come from within. It is education that builds community cohesion and stability, and education can be used as a better tool to solve social and political conflicts than firearms. Let’s work for civil good, and for all interests regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Parents, teachers, and the leaders of each community in each village and town shall foster the approaches on the ground in terms of funding and improvement of infrastructure.

The child’s right to learn is a basic right endowed to each child at the moment of his or her birth. If this right is taken away, either by law, policy, practice, or constitutional constraint, educational advocates and community leaders must stand-up for the just right to learn in Burma. Burma’s native scholars will be acknowledged for the wisdom of their mind only when they propose an agenda to set ‘language policy’ within the Ministry of Education. On this note, the proposed education laws and policies shall be reviewed and amended with the respect for the right of a child.

About the writer: He finished Year One at Public school in Burma but he is taught in Monastic education from the age of 9 until 24. This essay is based on life experiences as a child of a Mon parents in rural Mon State.

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