Burma watch – A time of reflection and hope

When Prospect Burma was founded in 1989, there were two immediate priorities. First, there were the thousands of students who had taken refuge in the borderlands following the military crackdown and closure of the universities. And second, there was the collapse of education in the country more generally during decades of conflict and government mismanagement. The situation was especially acute in the ethnic borderlands of such peoples as the Kachins, Karens and Mons where many students were taking sanctuary. At the time, large populations of refugees and displaced persons were growing around all the country’s borders.

Thirty years later, Burma – now Myanmar – has changed in many respects. Since transition began from military to a new system of quasi-civilian government in 2011, political freedoms are much more open in the country. It is now possible to talk in forward-looking ways about education, health, the environment and many long-neglected issues under military rule. Hopes further accelerated following the victory of the National League for Democracy in the 2015 general election, and the amount of understanding about the country’s socio-political problems has steadily improved. Many PB alumni are active in the country, playing important roles in different areas of national life – an aspiration that PB always had at its 1989 foundation.

And yet, it is by no means a time for complacency. Significant changes have begun but, sadly, two fundamental challenges remain: humanitarian crisis and educational failings. Myanmar is still a land in conflict; fighting continues in the Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States; up to two million people are refugees or displaced from their homes; Myanmar stands at 148th of 189 countries on the UN Human Development Index; and half the population is living below the poverty line. Meaningful starts have been made in different aspects of reform, but there is still a long way to go.

This is especially true in the educational sector. Here, as the Education Minister Dr. Myo Thein Gyi recently said, reform is being held back by decades of inertia and lack of funding. In many areas, teaching standards are low, and there is a grave lack of suitably qualified teachers. Such challenges exist from the primary to university levels. To give just one example, 45,000 new school buildings were required for the present academic year, but funds were available for just 4,700. To compensate for this, many educationalists believe that concentration should be on the quality of teaching rather than numbers and physical infrastructure. But without peace and inclusive delivery, it remains difficult for educationalists to put ideas into practice.

In the meantime, hope is not lost. Progress may be slow but it is happening, and education is at the core of future peace and development. In this respect, PB continues to pave a pioneering way by providing educational opportunity and outreach in neglected subjects and areas around the country. An important model has been developed over the past three decades. Now, it is trusted, will be the time that the country can accelerate.