Reflections on a Debate on Education Reform

Mael Raynaud considers what education reform debates reveal about current political conditions.

Around mid-February this year, the organization I work for, here in Yangon, the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation, received an invitation to attend a TV show, more specifically a debate, organized by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). The topic of the debate, “how to make school reforms inclusive”, could not have been more relevant to my latest academic article, so my colleagues forwarded the invitation to me.

On Saturday, February 18, an elevator took me to the sixth floor of the Orchid Hotel, where the show was to be broadcast. The producer of the show quickly introduced me to the host, U Thar Lun Zaung Htet, a familiar face to anyone who has seen previous DVB debates. The set clearly looked professional, complete with the technicians who, it seems to be a tradition everywhere in the world, make a point in looking more like they play the guitar in an indie rock band, rather than work in the field of politics…

A few minutes after I had taken a seat in the back among the audience, a young woman sat next to me, and kindly introduced herself as Ma Ei Shwe Phyu, a reporter covering education at the Myanmar Times. When I told her that a friend of mine, U Nay Lin Tun, also covers education, at the 7 Days newspaper, she nodded approvingly and said she was familiar with his work. She then went on to take many pages of notes during the debate, sometimes taking a pause to volunteer the translation of an important point that had just been made.

The cast of the show could not have been more interesting. The first guest to be interviewed was Daw Yin Yin Nwe, a former advisor to President U Thein Sein who played a key role in developing the 2014 National Education Law. Across from her, and in many ways her main adversary in the debate was U Naing Ngwe Thein, of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a former chairman of the All Mon Regions Democracy Party. The two remaining guests were U Kaung Sat Naing, a respected retired professor and author, and Saw Lar Say, of the Karen Education Department.

The debate itself was interesting, to be sure, and touched on some of the key issues related to education reform in Myanmar. Mother tongue based multi-lingual education (MTB-MLE), child centered education, decentralization, the National Education Law, the Government’s National Education Strategic Plan, etc, were all discussed, to varying degrees of depth. While Daw Yin Yin Nwe seemed to try to scare people away from the developing of MTB-MLE (for instance when she talked of teaching Chinese in northern Shan State, or Bengali, one can only assume that she meant in northern Rakhine State – she didn’t specify), other speakers defended a policy that, officially, is also promoted by the Ministry of Education itself, particularly at the kindergarten and primary school levels.

But this, right there, was probably the single most interesting fact of the debate: while a de facto representative of the Thein Sein era was prepared (she must be commended fort this) to come and participate to a debate where she would have to face an audience clearly in favor of her NNER counterpart, the NLD, and the current Ministry of Education under the control of the NLD (a Ministry that for a few days a year ago we thought may be headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself), had declined to take part.

 Knowing the context in which the debates surrounding education reform have taken place, the paradox would be really hard to miss. The NNER used to be seen as the “education” arm of the NLD, but it has slowly but surely drifted apart in the last couple of years. And it now is in a position where it indirectly criticizes the current government, but has to do it through a debate with a member of U Thein Sein’s team, in the absence of any representatives of the NLD or the current government and administration.

The fact that the debate was shot, and broadcast, in Myanmar itself, that it was so lively, and that it so openly touched on key, and sometimes sensitive, issues, that think tanks and local NGOs were invited to attend and that journalists from competing media outlets were there and asked questions even after the show had ended, is a sure sign that, to some extent, the country has become democratic. Or at the very least that clear signs of a healthy and vibrant democratic life, often absent in most of Myanmar’s neighbours, can be now witnessed here.

The first time I visited DVB headquarters in Oslo, back in 2003, I was told that if one day Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were to assume power, the DVB would keep a critical voice on their work, as it did with the military regime then, because that’s what the media should do. DVB has kept its promise.

Whether the NLD also has is significantly more debatable.

To be fair, governing is a lot more difficult than holding the government accountable, as the media does. And this is especially true in the context the NLD has inherited from a regime it fought for the best of three decades.

Daw Yin Yin Nwe rightly insisted during the debate that it had taken Indonesia twenty years to reach the threshold of 20% of government spending allocated to education, that one could not expect teachers with limited training to implement any form of child-centered education or, a topic that is much discussed, generate critical thinking, certainly not overnight. And as she courageously admitted flaws in the National Education Law she contributed to draft, she also had a point when she insisted that people should not be content with tracing all the problems of Myanmar to the 2008 Constitution, but that they should work towards using this existing frame the best it can be, instead. This is a position which, as an analyst, I myself have consistently defended since the Constitution was first adopted.

But as the media reports on an almost daily basis now of the efforts, by 88 Generation activists, to create a “third party”, the NLD cannot remain blind to the fact that such activists have grown frustrated with it, and specifically on the issues that matter to them the most. Pro-democracy activists that can be identified as being part of a wider “88 generation” movement (which in fact includes many people too young to remember 1988, or who simply were not even born then) have mostly been active in five fields, in recent years: opposing the National Education Law, defending land rights, defending labour rights, building bridges with their counterparts among ethnic nationalities to promote peace, and protecting the environment.

On all five fronts, their frustration with the NLD, and the current government, has only grown in recent months. To make matters worse, it is echoed by the frustration of civil society organizations that often feel like the Thein Sein administration was more interested in listening to their voice than the current government, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself, are.

The response many Myanmar commentators have provided to the notion that a third party would be needed (a party that, technically, would actually be the ninety-third party, it must be stressed) is understandable, and respectable: the real risk, they say, is to see the USPD make a comeback in 2020, a prospect that could not be more unacceptable, in their eyes. And it is true that the first-passed-the-post system of elections makes the risk of fractionalizing the vote greater for the so called democracy movement.

But strategy, in politics, must always come second to substance. Those who feel the NLD is not democratic in the way it functions, that it does not allow space for the youth, for women, for those with an actual expertise on a variety of issues, for those who have fought alongside the NLD for three decades and thought they were partners in the fight for democracy, human rights and dignity, that it is blind to the importance and the voice of civil society, and, this is the bottom line, that it could do a better job in government, also are legitimate in expressing frustration and desire for greater, and faster, change.

Here, again, the debate on education reform is rich in lessons about the way the political process is evolving.

Less than 18 months after the 2015 elections, the dynamics on this debate have completely changed. In 2014, when the National Education Law was voted by the USDP dominated parliament, demonstrations (although relatively limited in size) took place to oppose it. On one side, most of us thought, were the Army, the Thein Sein administration and its advisors, and the USDP. On the other, were the NLD, the NNER, and the demonstrators. Civil servants, the cadres of the Ministry of Education, and civil society organizations, were not, that I remember, seen as being on any particular side, or at least no generalization could be made.

Today, the NLD is seen has being on the side of the “system”, an objective ally of the Army, the USPD with which it seems to be working relatively well, and the civil servants corps. Their critics being the NNER, “88 generation” typed activists, and civil society organizations working on education. And yet the main risk underlined, again and again, by those frustrated by the NLD but worried of a USDP come-back, would be for the democratic movement to break-up (assuming that it has not already broken up).

The result is a polite but uneasy, and sometimes puzzling (especially to a foreign observer like myself), consensus. The Army and the USDP would do anything not to be seen as not respectful of the democratic mandate won by the NLD in 2015. The NLD would do anything not to be seen as a threat to the interests of the Army and its USDP backers. Activists would do anything not to threaten the likely victory of the NLD in the 2020 elections.This does not completely force the country into a status quo, as it obviously could. A lot is indeed happening beneath the surface, slowly but surely, on education reform as on any other issue. But it does slow down the process significantly.

 Few people, in Myanmar, want to see a return of the USDP, not to mention of the old political order. Few people want to see any sort of movement (one hesitates to even write the words “uprising” or “revolution”) that could jeopardize the current transition. In this context, the key seems to be, once again, in the hands of the NLD. It is very clear that the vast majority of the citizens of Myanmar want to see the process continue, and the NLD maintain its leadership. As an analyst, it would be relatively safe for me to predict a NLD victory in 2020. The chances the NLD would win successive elections are in fact matched only by the ANC in South Africa, at this point.

The NLD can be satisfied by this state of affairs. Or it could rise to the occasion, and, as Gandhi would have said, be the change it wants to see in Myanmar. It could work on its internal democracy. It could allow for more freedom of speech to its own MPs. It could work harder on reforming the country. It could make space for the youth, for women, for activists representing its own base, at the very least those who have supported it all along. It could listen to those, in Myanmar, with an expertise on various issues. It could consider civil society as a partner.

There is no doubt that the situation, and the system inherited from the past, as well as the 2008 Constitution itself, make it difficult for the NLD to deliver. As someone who spent years asking people to be patient with the Thein Sein administration, I can only ask for at least the same patience with the NLD now. But as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a speech announcing the 5 year National Education Strategic Plan on February 22nd (a plan not drastically different from its first version, presented by the Thein Sein administration a year ago), it was encouraging to see that the debate was not limited to the official position.

It is indeed the job of activists, experts, journalists, scholars, teachers and students, to push for greater change. It is the job of a party asking for their continued support to listen to them.

Nang Mo Hom and Ma Tinzar Htun contributed research to this article. The views expressed here are solely mine, though.

Image: DVB Debate  2017  (Panel participants left to right: Kaung Set Naing, writer/former teacher; Dr Yin Yin Nwe, former member of the Education Promotion Implementation Committee; Nai Ngwe Thein, honorable Member of the National Network for Education Reform; Saw Lah Say, head of department, Karen Education Department)

Author: maelsweb

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He is the Political Information Program Director at the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF) in Yangon: www.emref.org