Ashley South and Marie Lall | Ethnic Education and Mother Tongue-based Teaching in MyanmarBy Jelena Loncar on 24 May 2016
Schooling and Conflict: Ethnic Education and Mother Tongue-based Teaching in Myanmar
Authors: Ashley South and Marie Lall
This report was published by, Asia Foundation February 2016. It Focuses on two main issues: mother tongue-based (MTB) teaching in state and non-government schools in Myanmar (i.e. what languages are used in classrooms); and the relationship between various types of schools in the country, particularly those administered by the government and by Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs) (i.e. the relationship between state and non-state education systems, in the context of the peace process). By ‘ethnic education’ we mean teaching provided by ethnic nationality stakeholders, both civil society and EAGs. ‘Mother tongue-based teaching’ is instruction in a child’s first language (L1), usually with a gradual transition to a second language (L2) or foreign language. In MTB programmes, students have the opportunity to learn core concepts primarily in a familiar language (L1), and later learn the vocabulary for those concepts in a new language (L2). MTB education is especially beneficial in early childhood programmes: preschool and the early grades. The report stresses the importance of the MTB throughout.
This report focuses primarily on the situation in Kachin and Mon States, and parts of neighbouring States and Regions, together with some coverage of the situation in Karen (Kayin) areas and elsewhere. This limitation reflects the time and resources available during the research, and the need to focus in depth on particular communities. Focusing on Kachin and Mon allows for an examination of two contexts where key EAGs agreed on ceasefires with the Myanmar (then military) government—the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in 1994 and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) in 1995. The KIO ceasefire broke down in 2011 and returned to armed conflict, while the NMSP truce has held, despite considerable political stress. Our focus allows for a ‘controlled comparison’ between the two contexts.
The research was funded by USAID. Research took the form of interviews and focus groups using a semi-structured questionnaire. Each interview was based on a core set of research questions, and prefaced by introductory comments guaranteeing the anonymity of informants. Interviews were conducted with representatives of key EAGs, including education department officials, and with a selection of civil society actors, as well as teachers, parents and students. This involved travel on both sides of the Thailand-Myanmar border, and also the China-Myanmar border. We spoke to over 100 people and conducted 25 focus groups and larger meetings.
Schooling in ethnic mother tongues is valuable in a multi-ethnic country like Myanmar, for both educational and political reasons. Recent developments in education and broader political reforms in Myanmar have seen the beginnings of introducing MTB teaching into government schools. In some areas (e.g. parts of Mon State) this has included the teaching of ethnic languages during school hours—one of the main demands of many ethnic stakeholders. This is a positive development, although for many ethnic stakeholders this is only a relatively small step in the right direction. As yet, there has been no progress towards teaching subjects in government schools in ethnic languages.
Most stakeholders agreed that ethnic nationality schoolchildren in Myanmar should learn Burmese and perhaps English as a common language (lingua franca). To be effective, other subjects should be taught in the mother tongue, at least at the primary level—rather than just teaching the mother tongue as a subject lesson in the curriculum. A range of opinions exist regarding the use of MTB teaching in government schools. Many stakeholders would like to see MTB teaching at the primary level, along with some teaching of Burmese, with transition in middle school to mostly teaching in Burmese, while keeping modules for the ethnic language and culture/history through the end of high school. There are also voices (for example, in Kachin) that reject teaching and learning in Burmese totally, wanting to replace Burmese with English.
The promotion of MTB teaching in schools raises questions regarding who would pay for teachers and classroom materials, and how to find suitably qualified and experienced teachers. Several stakeholders complained about the quality of ethnic nationality materials currently used in schools — often translations from Burmese language books — as not adequately reflecting the culture and history of minority communities.
Language policy and practice, and conflict
Language and education policy and practice are deeply implicated in ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. Since at least the advent of military rule in 1962, the state has been perceived and experienced as pursuing a more-or-less explicit project of forced assimilation vis-a-vis ethnic nationality communities. Ethnic nationality elites (EAGs and civil society actors) have resisted ‘Burmanisation’ through a number of strategies, including armed conflict and the development of education regimes which preserve and reproduce their languages and cultures, under often very difficult circumstances. There is a great variety of non-state ethnic education regimes in Myanmar, as described in the main report. The relationship between locally-owned and -delivered education regimes and EAGs varies considerably, on a case-by-case basis. In addition to the important leading roles of political elites, non-state education regimes should also be understood as organic parts of broader societies in non-government-controlled areas.
The report presents a detailed Typology of ethnic education provision in Myanmar (progressing from those closest to government system to those further away). Conflict and peace are key variables in shaping education policy and practice in ethnic areas, and education is also a key variable in the peace process. There is a direct correlation between conflict and how people feel about what language and curriculum their children are taught. Armed conflict makes parents and communities less inclined to accept government schools and Burmese language education—rather, conflict is an incentive to create separate (or parallel) systems. Ethnic education regimes tend to be more separatist in character when conflict is rife, and less separatist (more willing to engage, and perhaps integrate with state systems) when ceasefires are in place. To the extent that ethnic education regimes reflect more ‘separatist’ or ‘pro-union’ sentiments, they also play roles in socialising children into such attitudes and understandings.
In the Kachin context, the resumption of armed conflict since 2011 has led to greater pan-Kachin unity, and cohesion around an ethno-linguistic core, identified particularly with Jinghpaw identity. Significant elements among non-Jingphaw communities seem not to object to adopting this dominant dialect as a Kachin lingua franca, although some sub-groups find the dominance of Jingphaw problematic. Associated with massive and widespread human rights abuses, the renewed fighting has alienated many of those in the diverse Kachin ethno-linguistic community who previously were willing to consider a future as part of Myanmar. Since the resumption of armed conflict, KIO-administered schools increasingly have been switching to Kachin and English, and teaching less Burmese. This is part of a general move to disengage from government education, and to develop a more distinctively Kachin school system.
The Karen National Union (KNU) agreed a preliminary ceasefire with the government in January 2012, bringing to an end more than 60 years of armed conflict. Over several decades, the KNU-administered Karen Education Department (KED) has developed an impressive education system based on the efforts of Karen communities and with support from international donors and NGOs (including some of those who have supported refugees in neighbouring Thailand). Well-suited to local needs, and containing much good practice, this system diverges significantly from the government education regime, not least through the promotion of Karen (mostly Sgaw dialect) language, with only a limited focus on Burmese. Lacking recognised qualifications, KED school graduates find it difficult to enter the government education system or access opportunities in Myanmar or abroad. In the context of the KNU ceasefire, and an emerging peace process which is likely to include the return and reintegration of displaced communities, Karen educators are considering the future of the KED education regime and its relationship to government.
In contrast, the NMSP agreed on a ceasefire with the government in 1995, which despite considerable tensions has held for two decades. In this context, the NMSP’s Mon National Education Committee (MNEC) has developed an MTB education regime in which Mon is used at the primary level, transitioning to Burmese at middle school, and more-or-less following the government curriculum. Graduates of the MNEC’s Mon National Schools speak fluent Mon, but can also sit government matriculation exams in Burmese language.
Ceasefires, ethnic education and MTB teaching; ‘federalism from below’
The 1995 NMSP ceasefire allowed an MTB-based education system to expand into government-controlled areas. Ceasefires have generally resulted in greater collaboration between state and non-state systems. However, many ethnic nationality stakeholders remain concerned that MTB teaching is still largely absent from government schools. There are also concerns that the government is using ceasefires to expand its authority into previously inaccessible, conflict-affected areas, including through building schools and providing teachers to remote communities.
In the context of their respective ceasefires (in 1994 and 1995), the KIO and NMSP expanded their education systems, under difficult circumstances and with very limited funding. In the Mon context, notwithstanding a range of views regarding the peace process, there is a growing convergence between state and non-state education systems. The MNEC curriculum is broadly the same as that found in government schools, with additional modules on Mon history and language. In the Karen context, and increasingly in Kachin, there is a significant gap between the locally-owned and implemented education system and that of the state.
We argue that ethnic education regimes in Myanmar are 'building federalism from the bottom up’, with local stakeholders developing their own systems of education governance, in the absence of an elite-level political settlement. Despite great difficulties in securing financial and human resources, the KIO, NMSP and Karen/KNU school systems are locally-owned and delivered, and support MTB teaching, particularly at primary level. Non-state education regimes are concrete examples of self-determination in Myanmar, in a context where elite-level political discussions around the peace process have yet to begin in a substantive manner, and which are likely to be drawn out over a considerable period of time. This approach to education (one of the key issues of concern to ethnic communities) might be termed ‘federalism from below’, inasmuch as ethnic education systems represent concrete examples, or living images, of what federal political and administrative arrangements for a future Myanmar might look like and how they might function. Issues of language and education policy need to be addressed as part of a structured political dialogue, which most ethnic stakeholders hope will lead to a federal settlement to end decades of ethnic and state-society conflict in Myanmar. Of course, federalism as a concept in political science and constitutional arrangements has a long history, with an extensive literature including structural arrangements between different subnational segments. While ethnic communities in Myanmar may not have such intra/inter-communal considerations in mind when devising their education systems, there is nevertheless a strong element here of self-determination, speaking to one of the main aims and struggles of ethnic communities during decades of conflict in Myanmar. We further argue that various stakeholders’ positions on language policy (in schools, and broader governance) are good indicators of where these actors stand on a range of issues in relation to the peace process.
The peace process in Myanmar has had both positive and negative impacts on ethnic education and MTB teaching. Overall, there is a lack of connection between education issues, and the politics of the peace process—other than widespread local resentment of government expanding its authority into previously autonomous, ethnic nationality-populated areas, including through education provision and school building. Ethnic stakeholders are concerned that international aid agencies and donors are, perhaps inadvertently, supporting a government strategy of extending state structures into conflict-affected areas without taking into account existing local activities and services or the impacts on peace and conflict dynamics.
Chapter 6 of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which the KNU, but not the KIO or NMSP, has signed, acknowledges the roles of signatory EAGs in the fields of education, health, natural resource management and security, and provides for international assistance in these sectors, in partnership and cooperation with the government. The NCA signatory groups’ administrative and service delivery roles, having been acknowledged by the government, are now challenged to re-invent themselves as post-insurgent organisations. Those EAGs which have signed the NCA were removed from the Unlawful Associations (Law 17/1), making their engagement with international development partners much easier.
As noted, many of the key issues in relation to ethnic education and MTB teaching in Myanmar must be discussed as part of a structured multi-stakeholder debate—as part of a political dialogue, either coming out of the peace process (as envisaged in the NCA) or in relation to broader political reforms and elections in Myanmar. In the meantime, there is an urgent need to support EAG and associated civil society provision of education and other services, during the probably lengthy and contested 'interim period’, between the agreement of an NCA (and earlier bilateral ceasefires) and negotiation of a comprehensive political settlement. Although more ‘political’ and inherently sensitive than health issues, some of the needs and challenges related to education and language policy may constitute relatively ‘low hanging fruit’ in the peace process, topics which could be addressed post-NCA in fast-track talks, to provide concrete benefits to conflict-affected communities (‘peace dividends’). Unfortunately, discussion of education issues was largely absent from the recent election campaign, beyond some criticism of the government’s handling of the new education law.
Language and education policies - proxies for broader political positions
Positions held on language and education policy indicate or reflect the identities and interests of different stakeholders, in terms of the kind of country they want Myanmar to be, and vis-a-vis the peace process. Debates regarding the status and future of ethnic education reveal views on the appropriate relationships between State and Union governments and ethnic polities. The following table illustrates this proposition in terms of ‘ideal types’, with actual positions varying on a case-by-case basis.
The report presents a detailed Mapping of positions on language and schooling, and political demands. Ethnic nationalist (EAG, but also civil society and community-led) education activities are representative of broader struggles for self-determination. Responses to ‘Burmanisation’ and centralisation may be plotted along a continuum, ranging from demands for outright independence from a Union for which many ethnic people feel little sympathy (secession, or separatism), through varying forms of autonomy and decentralisation (varieties of federalism). At one end of this spectrum would be the ‘Union Karen’ and other ethnic groupings, which while self-identifying with their ethnic community, nevertheless express a fairly strong association with the Union. In relation to education, separatist agendas can be represented by schools featuring little or no Burmese language teaching, using a MTB curriculum often radically different from that of the state. A more federalist approach would be represented by the promotion of MTB teaching in schools which also teach Burmese, and broadly follow the government curriculum, modified according to local contexts and conditions. In relation to school ownership and administration, the former positions demand locally-owned schools, administered by ethnic political authorities. A more federalist approach could also imply non-state school ownership, but with a curriculum and administration linked to the government system, or could mean greater focus on MTB teaching in state schools. In addition to the politics of these positions, important practical considerations remain, including accreditation and funding.
We argue that positions in relation to education can be taken as proxies of different actors’ views regarding a broader range of state-society issues, and the distribution of power and resources between the central government and ethnic polities. In this framing, the NMSP (MNEC) model has achieved a fairly high degree of local self-determination in education, while retaining links to the Union. This was previously the case with the KIO system, which under pressure of the resumption of armed conflict seems to be moving towards a more separatist model, similar to that adopted historically by the KNU.
Similar mapping may be applied to positions in relation to language use and policy in schools and in governance functions more broadly. Most – but not all - stakeholders accept the necessity of teaching children Burmese, as a common/Union language or lingua franca (in some cases together with English, due to its international status). The degree to which Burmese and/or ethnic languages (with the emphasis on the plural, as explored below) should be used for public administration, government and legal processes are indicators of how different actors view the distribution of power between the (Burman) centre and (ethnic) periphery in a reforming Myanmar. These positions can be taken as rough proxies for other sectors in relation to such issues as natural resource management and revenue sharing and distribution between the Union government and ethnic States. For example, those who seek to use ethnic languages as a primary medium of administration in ethnic States can be expected to adopt strong/maximalist positions regarding the extent to which natural resource revenue and other financial and political goods should be retained at, or redistributed to, the local/State level, and may even argue for complete separation of the ethnic polities from the Union. Moderates may adopt positions according to which ethnic languages are used together with Burmese, or in a supplementary manner at the State level—corresponding to varying degrees of autonomy or decentralisation, including various forms of federalism. While such arguments are rarely explicit among ethnic educators or activists, exploring different positions in relation to language and education can help to reveal the kind of country people imagine or desire Myanmar to be. Within this discussion, further reflection is required on the position of ‘minorities within minorities’—ethnic communities with different identities, usually reflected in different languages, to those of the locally dominant minority (e.g. Kachin linguistic sub-groups, the variety of Karen ethno-linguistic communities), and their possible vulnerability in the context of a potentially totalizing dominant local ethnic/national identity.
‘Convergence’ in educational reforms and the peace process
The state’s unwillingness to countenance the existence, or support the development, of locally-owned education regimes is changing. The U Thein Sein government (2010-15) promoted significant reforms in education, including elements of decentralisation. Education reforms have opened some space for MTB education in government schools, although not to the extent demanded by most ethnic educators. While it is increasingly possible to teach ethnic languages in government schools, there is as yet very little practice of teaching other subjects in mother tongues. The language and education policies of the new government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which assumed power in April 2016, are as yet unclear.
What has not yet been considered in much depth in the context of Myanmar's political transition is the relationship between state and non-state basic education provision in conflict-affected areas, and how this relates to the peace process. As noted, Chapter 6 of the NCA acknowledges signatory EAGs’ authority in a number of fields, including education. If and when political dialogue begins, either as a result of the peace process or as framed by parliamentary politics, education issues are expected to constitute a major locus of debate. One of the key issues emerging from the peace process is the status of and future of EAGs’ governance regimes, and service delivery systems, which are often implemented in partnership with associated and/or affiliated civil society actors. Will education and other service delivery systems under the authority of EAGs be gradually, or more rapidly, displaced by the state system, continue in parallel with that system, or undergo a process of ‘convergence’? This key issue has received little focus in relation to ‘interim arrangements’ covering the period between the agreement of ceasefires (including the NCA) and a final negotiated political settlement after decades of armed and state-society conflict in Myanmar. Thus far, those engaged in the broader movement of political reform in Myanmar have largely addressed education and peacebuilding as separate issues; likewise, state, international (donor) and other actors in the peace process have largely ignored issues of language and education.
Reform of the state education sector is already underway, and likely to continue in the future. In several States (e.g. Mon), local languages are being introduced as a taught subject in government primary schools. Reforms need to move toward MTB teaching (teaching other subjects in ethnic languages), and toward greater local control and ownership of education (decentralisation). This could include the training and hiring of teachers who have links to EAG schools, yet without ‘poaching’ them from local school systems.
These issues need to be addressed during structured, multi-stakeholder political dialogue - either as framed by the peace process, or as part of broader political reforms. Such debates will need to address issues of resources and identify the necessary human and financial capital.
In the interim, while negotiations and political struggles to reform the state education system are underway, it remains important to support and further improve non-state education regimes. The government should recognise and support, or at least encourage donors to fund, locally-owned education systems based on commonly agreed minimum educational standards. To this effect, the main ethnicity languages should be recognised as official languages of the relevant States, in public administration and access to justice, as well as schooling. Resources should be made available to develop teaching materials and expertise in these languages. Further research and discussion is required regarding the status of, and educational opportunities for, ‘minorities within minorities’ in Myanmar’s heterogeneous society.
A sustainable resolution to Myanmar’s long-standing state-society and ethnic conflicts will be difficult to achieve without significant education and language policy reforms. Political leaders should negotiate the relationship between state and non-state education systems, and where possible oversee their gradual convergence. This, in the context of a reforming state system, should move more towards a federal relationship between the central government and ethnic States. MTB teaching should be introduced in all (particularly government) schools, so that non-Burmese speaking children can be taught most subjects in their own language, at least through primary school.
There are understandable historic reasons for the emergence of separate education systems, often developed under EAG authority in areas affected by armed conflict, using curricula different from government schools, and teaching Burmese only as a subject-lesson. Efforts to provide MTB teaching demonstrate the commitment of communities and other stakeholders to provide education under often very difficult circumstances. However, these separate systems have some distinct disadvantages: limited options for school graduates if they cannot speak Burmese and have no recognised qualifications, and difficulty for graduates to reintegrate with Burma, or consider themselves citizens of the Union. Furthermore, separate systems marginalise already poor and vulnerable communities, which is an issue of equity. A system of accreditation and transfer should be negotiated that includes Burmese language training for those who want to join government schools. The administration of such a transfer (or bridging) program needs to be made as simple as possible, and government teachers should not be expected to bridge the language deficit without proper support.