The long and difficult path to education reform

Richard Cockett is an author, and editor for The Economist. His most recent book, “Blood, dreams and gold: the changing face of Burma” was released in 2015 and provides a comprehensive overview of the struggles that the country has faced over the last half a century. We asked Richard why he thinks that education is so important to Myanmar. 

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“The heady days of November 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory, seem a long way off. Nobody said that ruling a country that had become as poor, dilapidated and divided as Burma had done under decades of military rule was going to be easy. Even so, the intervening years have been extraordinarily tough. The romance of Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and her swift rise to power captivated the world’s media, but now Burma grabs the headlines only for the wrong reasons. The Rohyingya crisis is currently consuming the Western coverage of Burma, with many people turning on Suu Kyi and the government for doing too little to help the Rohingya.

It is right to focus on the wretched plight of the Rohingya, but there is also a risk that the rest of the country will be forgotten about. Burma remains as vulnerable and poor as it was when the NLD took over. Despite the many disappointments, of failing to achieve a nationwide peace deal with the armed ethnic groups, for instance, or failing to prevent an escalation of the Rohingya crisis, the government and its foreign supporters have to plough on with the hard and unforgiving work of rebuilding an entire country from the bottom up. The roads are still terrible, the trains sporadic and electricity intermittent, but above all, as Ms Suu Kyi has always argued, it is the education system that is most in need of repair.

Before the generals took over in the early 1960s, Burma had some of the best schools, and certainly the best University (of Rangoon) in the region. However, starved of funding and systematically gutted under the military regimes, by 2015 the system had all but collapsed. Many Burmese families heroically saved all the little money that they could to hire private tutors for their children, but this seldom amounted to much.

So the launch of the National Education Strategic Plan in April of this year was very welcome. It is an attempt to lay down a long-term plan to turn the whole sector around, and found a modern education system. There was some criticism that the government had not consulted widely enough on the plan, especially with the ethnic minority groups, but by and large most people will support it. Funding will remain difficult as the country’s finances remain fragile, but the principle aim of the reforms should be endorsed, namely to abandon the rote learning that prevailed under the military.

The new system wants to move to “outcomes based learning”, where children are encouraged to explore their own ways to learn or solve problems, rather than just sitting passively in class copying down what the teacher says. I have met many Burmese who believe that rote learning was encouraged by the military so that children would not question authority – especially their own authority – in later life, and I am sure they were right. Democracy begins in the classroom. If Burma is really to change for the better over time, education reform is fundamental. But we have to be in it for the long haul.”

Richard Cockett