Zin Wai Yan argues that the Burman majority should educate themselves for the good of all oppressed.
Due to the Myanmar military junta’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors following Myanmar’s February 1 military coup, armed resistance has now broken out across the country. Determined to continue demonstrating against the coup—yet also concerned that they could not adequately respond to security forces’ deadly violence—protestors began forming militia groups to defend themselves throughout April and May. These groups, self-styled as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), have emerged in several areas of the country. However, military victory alone—an outcome that is still far from certain—will not be enough to secure a better future for Myanmar’s minorities and for other vulnerable communities throughout the country.
The war between PDFs and the military has become more intense recently, especially in Sagaing Region, Chin and Kayah States. The junta has now cut off the internet in at least 24 conflict-hit townships from Mandalay, Magway and Sagaing Regions, Kachin and Chin States according to a local media outlet, Chindwin News Agency. Despite these worsening conditions around the country, the degree of suffering varies from place to place. I argue that the pro-democracy Burman majority population residing in areas that are largely conflict-free, and especially those who have internet access and can afford to study online, should start working on educating themselves about different ethnic issues, as well as all forms of oppression and discrimination having taken place across the country. This is crucial in order to bring people together around a shared vision of common prosperity with other ethnic groups and all other oppressed minorities, such as women marginalized in society, LGBTQ communities, factory workers, farmers, and Muslims in Myanmar. People of Burman ethnicity who are still able to live in conflict-free locations should learn about these issues to develop a better understanding that the hardships they have faced have been relatively less severe than those of ethnic minorities, and other oppressed people like farmers and factory workers who are partly Burmans. Those who have suffered less need to empathize more, and this could eventually translate to a higher degree of unity and cohesion of the Myanmar nation, and the possibility of building peace and welfare for all.
In this article, I begin by considering the education that people in Myanmar received historically and its effects on the unity between the Burman majority and the ethnic minorities. This is followed by a discussion of our common enemy and the narratives surrounding it, and whether now is the best moment to provide this type of education. I finish the article by reflecting on the role of the National Unity Government (NUG) and discussing the many initiatives it can now undertake to educate the public about these concerns.
To gain a better understanding of the historical evidence and current situation, during the month of September, I conducted qualitative interviews with four revolutionaries from different professions and locations in Myanmar to learn their perspectives as to what the Burman ethnic majority can do to improve the unity of the nation, and I also asked Dr. Rose Metro, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri in the US, for some advice on curriculum reform for the future of education in Myanmar.
Public education in Myanmar
Myanmar’s education system, which has been systematically and intentionally constructed over the past 60 years, for the most part fails in educating students about international human rights standards, as well as the oppression and discrimination taking place in our own country. The failings of this system obstruct young people’s views and make it difficult for them to comprehend how such abuses are related to the Tatmadaw’s prolonged existence.
Following independence in 1948, and particularly after the military-socialist regime’s takeover in 1962, central politics became overwhelmingly contestable only in Burmese. During the process of nation-building, people who spoke and wrote in other languages were rarely recognized as having the same citizenship rights. (Callahan 2004, p.118) Despite constitutional safeguards and possibilities for minority participation (for example, the new President was a Shan, who was succeeded by a Karen), the early post-colonial government was unable to establish policies capable of addressing the social and political divides across communities, as Silverstein (1980) points out. “[While] it could be argued that the national leaders supported unity in diversity, it could also be argued, and even more forcefully, that they paid their lip service to that ideal while working steadily toward political nationalization and cultural Burmanization.” (Silverstein 1980, p.207 as cited in Wiant 1982, p.429) By the 1960s, there was little space for ethnic minorities in central Rangoon politics (Callahan 2004, p.102) while the national army evolved into a Burman-dominated institution over time (Thawnghmung 2010, p.149). After 1988, under the SLORC military regime, the condition of citizenship for ethnic minorities became unbearable. As Mary Callahan argues in “Making Myanmars” (2004), “the junta tried to drive a wedge between potential allies in the center and frontiers after the bloody, divisive 1988 uprising by launching a somewhat coordinated political campaign to march peripheral populations into national formation according to the military’s security-focused terms.” (p.103-104) The regime believed that the people of the border regions needed to be integrated and transformed into “Myanmars,” and that any diversity posed a threat to the state’s unity. However, in my opinion, only few people from central Burma were able to understand the true reason behind seemingly endless ethnic insurgencies (such as a desire for greater autonomy), and this prevented them from uniting with ethnic people against the past military regimes.
Education, particularly higher education, was perceived as a potential threat by the past military regimes and educational institutions were strictly controlled by authorities. Across government-run schools, curricula and learning materials were sadly out of date, having little relevance to the contemporary context, and history textbooks were designed, in part, to further Burmanization. The system as a whole, being built on the principle of parrot-like repetition, made it impossible to make any progress in developing students’ critical thinking. This is still the case, despite the fact that many young people increasingly understand and show compassion for the oppressed, thanks to the internet, and are bold enough to fight back against the dictatorship.
After the military staged the most recent coup against the democratically elected government in February 2021, Thiri (pseudonym), a Bamar university student from Sagaing, described how she had her heart smashed to pieces—along with her future—and took a vow to fight against military rule. Like many of her generation, she quickly realized that the Burman majority had been gravely mistaken, as they had never tried to empathize with the sufferings of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities as a result of the military’s ruthless operations. Thiri admits that the primary cause of her ignorance was the education she had in the past.
“I must say that it was mainly because of the education system, which has been destroyed by the military. We all experienced the deeply-rooted parrot-fashion learning methods. On top of that, almost all of the teachers were unqualified and things we learned in school, such as history, were just for the purposes of the military’s propaganda,” she said.
“I never supported the military. At the same time, I lived my life thinking that all these ethnic issues are complicated and have nothing to do with me. I do regret this. This might be the case also with other people from our democratic side,” she continued.
After witnessing the soldiers’ brutal torture and the slaughter of innocent civilians in cities, the Burman majority has started accepting the fact that the military had persecuted Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in a similar fashion for decades. That being said, the question still remains whether the Burman population knows, in detail, how minorities were tormented in the past.
“To be honest, I don’t know about it well. I know the Tatmadaw committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in border areas for many years. I also believe they committed genocidal crimes against the Rohingya. But I haven’t done enough research, so I can’t tell you about the infantry units that are responsible for these atrocities or how they were carried out,” Thiri said.
This is also the same for Mon Myat (pseudonym), a university teacher from Sagaing Region who has been taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement right from the moment when the military first seized power in early February.
“I can imagine how atrocious the junta’s forces were to the ethnic minorities in the past. If they commit these inhuman acts now, even in cities, it must have been way worse for the minorities than what we’ve now been experiencing since February. But, I don’t know much about these issues as I wasn’t interested in these matters before,” she said.
According to her, nearly 95% of university teachers in Myanmar might not know or be interested in these ethnic or political issues. They joined the Civil Disobedience Movement not because they had studied ethnic issues in depth, but because the civilian government they voted for, which was primarily composed of the Burman majority, was unfairly overthrown by this military coup. If a person cannot empathize with the sufferings of ethnic minorities at the hands of the military, it is unlikely that he or she will value the rights of ethnic minorities in the future, even after the ruthless junta is destroyed.
“In my opinion, more than half of the university teachers participating in the CDM enthusiastically joined this movement because they reject the coup, not because they are well-versed in these ethnic issues. Some are also afraid of social punishment, and some may have joined this simply because their colleagues were doing it,” she continued. But this could also be the best time to reform the country’s education system, while more concerns are being raised about ethnic issues.
The education system has failed to teach students about Burma’s true history, how to appreciate diversity, or how to find the meaning of humanity and therefore has played a significant role in keeping the Burman majority from uniting together with the ethnic minorities to challenge the past military regimes.
Common enemy narrative
Even though, in the past, the Burman majority was unconcerned about those atrocities taking place in the fringes of the country, today, they have begun to unify in solidarity with ethnic minorities against a common enemy, the Tatmadaw, after the junta launched a systematic and organised attack on unarmed nonviolent demonstrators who were asking for an end to the February 1 coup.
But this common enemy narrative is not sufficient in the eyes of many of Myanmar’s youth. For young people who want an equal society with a genuine democracy, this fact—that the Tatmadaw is the common enemy of all—is not enough to ensure the people will win the current revolution, nor to secure a better future for Myanmar. Although many Burmans, and especially Burman youth, have increased empathy for the decades-long suffering of ethnic minorities, there are still more who need to be convinced. In this sense, there is no assurance that ethnic minorities’ rights will be preserved to the degree that they should be in the future. This is especially the case when the majority does not understand the history of ethnic issues. It is only when the public knows the problems of their own country in detail that they can confidently and wilfully point out when their government does something wrong.
According to Hya (pseudonym), a 23-year-old from Mandalay Region who is helping IDPs and civil servants on strike, if Burmans truly want to build an inclusive and equal society, those living in conflict-free parts of the country have the responsibility to help suffering ones in any way they can, including by trying to understand ethnic issues and various forms of oppression.
“I understand most people are struggling with their daily hardships even if they aren’t from conflict areas. I know we have a collapsing economy and health care system. Everything is falling to pieces. But, the magnitude of the impact is different from place to place, right? You must at least try to have a true understanding of the history of all the oppressed if you’re still capable of doing so.”
EM Law-Yone, who founded the Nation Newspaper in 1948, once said, “there is a preponderance of a one-party rule, which to me, is in the long run, as dangerous as having autocracy… I hold entirely with the view that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The past NLD government’s rule, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence for the Tatmadaw’s atrocities at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), showed that the pro-democracy Burman Buddhist majority who support her government failed to understand the continued violations of the rights of ethnic minorities under Aung San Suu Kyi and her government.
It can be argued that the Tatmadaw’s involvement in politics was the main reason for the lack of strong political opposition parties (which is unquestionably required to keep governing powers in check) running against the NLD. Yet, it is still a question whether the National Unity Government of Myanmar will be able to ensure the rights of all ethnic groups in the post-Tatmadaw era since a genocide denier like Dr. Win Myat Aye, former social welfare minister of the country, is currently serving as the Union Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management of the NUG. This is although he has never officially apologized to the public for his misjudgement. Even though the NUG—Myanmar’s most inclusive government to date and the first in history to officially endorse the federal charter—issued a statement recognising the Rohingya’ right to citizenship, there were concerns raised that the Burman majority or Rakhine people may still refuse to recognise the Rohingya as their equals when suggestions for a Rohingya representative in the NUG were made by human rights advocates.
“I know the NUG is different from the past NLD government. But, I’m still worried for the future of the rights of minorities. Because I have doubts over people’s knowledge about ethnic issues, oppression, and discriminations. If the majority doesn’t have the ability to criticize the government they voted for when it does something wrong, that would lead to further exploitation of minorities in the future”, said Hya, adding that, to best get rid of the junta once-and-for-all, Myanmar’s people will need to truly empathize with the sufferings of all the oppressed including ethnic minorities.
Although some may disagree with Hya’s point, arguing that any future Myanmar government would not exploit ethnic minorities because it was the Tatmadaw that committed atrocities against ethnic minorities in the past, it cannot be denied that he is right to be concerned about the future. Not all ethnic minorities stood up for the truth when the Rohingya were subjected to the military’s genocidal actions. Mar (pseudonym) from Kayah State said that, at that time, she was under the impression that the Rohingya were invading Myanmar. “I think some ethnic friends might have also thought the Rohingya were not supposed to be on this land,” she explained.
When the military committed genocide against the Rohingya in 2017, many ethnic people residing in urban areas believed, as did much of the Burman majority, that the Rohingya do not have the right to live in Myanmar. They did not support the military’s brutality, but they also failed to view the Rohingya as their brothers and sisters. This suggests that city dwellers who are not Burmans, yet didn’t directly experience the military’s brutality, nevertheless failed to empathize with the Rohingya before the coup. They, too, should educate themselves on the intricacies of ethnic issues and of Myanmar’s true history.
Moreover, just as there is no guarantee about the future of ethnic rights, there is no guarantee that the rights of other oppressed people will be protected as they should be in the future either. “This revolution is meant to bring an end to not only the junta but also deep-rooted misogyny and patriarchal norms of the society. We need to educate people about these issues as well,” said Hya.
To build an equal society for all people in Myanmar, there must be cohesion between ethnic minorities and the Burman majority, as well as compassion and understanding for other oppressed people. However, it appears that the common enemy narrative has failed to make sure that the people triumph over dictatorship and that all the oppressed have a better future. This raises the question of what else can be done, beyond identifying a common enemy.
Is now the best time to educate?
Other than the ruinous education system, there are many reasons for the Tatmadaw’s prolonged reign. The Tatmadaw’s deep penetration of society, culture, and even religious life, and the control it has on the national economy are also important factors when analyzing the reasons for military rule’s persistence over six decades.
The Tatmadaw has maintained its power by propagandizing a narrative that it is the sole force protecting the country from various security threats. Political elites struggled to cope with the imperial state’s preoccupation with security during the 1948-50 civil war, as Mary Callahan explains in “Making Enemies” (2003). As a result, the country’s civilian and military officials concluded that the day had come to enforce wholly militaristic remedies to all internal issues. When diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the US-backed KMT operation in Shan State, “the Tatmadaw underwent its most significant structural transformation into a war-fighting machine.”(Callahan 2003, p.18)Since the 1950s, the Tatmadaw, dominated by the majority Burmans, became more powerful and the belief of military state builders that only the Tatmadaw can save the country developed as many military units spread across the country. (Beyond Panglong 2017, p.6) The military’s control of that narrative has meant that EAOs have had little chance to talk about their grievances with the Burman majority.
Now, the Tatmadaw’s violence against ordinary civilians has shown the people its central claim—that it protects the country—is a dishonest one. People have seen the Tatmadaw commit violence against all categories of people, even the Bamar Buddhist majority. They have seen the Tatmadaw killing innocent civilians, terrorizing families in their homes, even setting houses on fire. That makes this the best time to deliver education about the true history of Myanmar and its ethnic issues, as well as education about all types of oppression and discrimination. The goal of this revolution is to entirely break away from the past, and therefore it is critical for people to understand what happened in the past.
However, because the NUG has declared a “people’s defensive war against the junta,” it has become nearly impossible to establish effective educational programs for the public due to the strong focus on the ensuing civil war as well as their individual security concerns. Hence, some think that any kind of education other than for children shouldn’t be conducted during these challenging times as getting rid of the junta is the number one priority.
“I have some reservations about the notion that now is the best time to educate the public about these issues because nearly everyone in the state is suffering,” Thiri said, adding that even people with access to online education from conflict-free areas may be distracted from studying if the junta exists.
Despite these challenges, the NUG, teachers’ and students’ unions, the education departments of ethnic nationalities, various non-profit organisations and other groups are offering excellent educational opportunities as alternatives to the junta’s ‘slave education.’ With these groups’ help, both teachers and students participating in education programs can improve their knowledge and develop the skills required to build a better future for all in Myanmar. Online courses offered by institutions like Parami Institute of Continuing Education and Spring University Myanmar can help students improve their critical thinking skills and knowledge about current political and social issues of Myanmar. However, they are very limited in the number of people they can admit, students are generally young, and make up only a fraction of the country’s youth population. In other words, these online programs are unable to provide education to the broader population due to their limitations on access, scope, and class size, as well as the junta’s maladministration and inadequacies.
Yet, it is harder to defeat the junta and achieve a better standard of living for all the oppressed without having those Burmans educate themselves first on how the military has been manipulating education, culture and religion, or abusing the national economy for its own ends. As a result, we must discover alternatives to conventional learning, including such online courses, due to the fact that they do not currently work for many individuals in this country.
What can be done now?
The NUG is without a doubt accountable for leading the road to the success of this revolution and the forging of Myanmar’s best possible future since it is the entity with the most power bestowed upon it by the people. As a result, I’d like to make some suggestions to the NUG about how it could better educate the Burman majority about ethnic issues, oppression, and discrimination.
Firstly, the NUG should clearly and continuously inform the public about what kind of society it is they are trying to build. Ultimately, this would strengthen the revolution. Not only does it offer a vision to unify across racial, ethnic and religious divides, but this revolution must also strive for equality and development for all people, regardless of social status.Everyone in Myanmar—a country in which most people are living under the threat of violence and on the edge of extreme poverty—wants to live in an equal society. The more that those people striving for democracy understand about the end goals of the revolution, the more they will realize how to ensure its true success. With this vision clearly communicated, even the remaining few who support the bloodthirsty Tatmadaw might switch sides.
Secondly, the NUG should also recognize the struggle of the working class more. The working class—especially urban textile factory workers—took to the streets in huge numbers and have been resisting the junta together with students, LGBTQ activists, farmers, and different ethnic groups. The true reason behind their struggle is to gain rights they should have possessed in the first place. It is not because of their political support for the NUG. They have been fighting over wages and work conditions since a long time before this coup and, therefore, the rights of workers are a good example of a cause that the NUG should highlight in expressing the intentions behind this revolution.
Thirdly, the NUG should encourage the people to try to educate themselves. Despite the limited scope of online courses, it should officially endorse online courses that can boost people’s knowledge about ethnic issues, oppression, and discrimination so that those with the ability to study online might do so. Moreover, it should present more information about ethnic issues, for example, collecting life histories from people who have lived through many decades of conflict, via its communication platforms. This will also help the NUG listen to people’s opinions with more attention. This would help the NUG to know what to do next to educate the public. A widely-popular mask-making competition led by Aung San Suu Kyi to raise awareness for COVID-19 prevention is a good example of a successful publicity campaign that the NUG could emulate.
Lastly, the current educational curriculum used in Myanmar’s state schools should be reformed by the NUG. This is relatively easier to start now when compared to the task of rolling out entirely new educational programs. Constructing an inclusive curriculum and de-Burmanizing the national curriculum, which will need to conduct a thorough research of the history of language-in-education policy, is very important for building a fair and equal society for all people in Myanmar. Dr. Rose Metro, assistant teaching professor from University of Missouri, said that an inclusive curriculum would represent the identities of all people living in Myanmar, including all ethnicities, religions, colors, genders, socio-economic groups, regions and so on:
“It is important to have a wide range of people involved in crafting a new curriculum. Moreover, the national curriculum could be just a part of the curriculum taught, with local curriculum taught alongside it. The curriculum could be used in the current situation in areas the military does not control; this has been done for years in ethnic areas and in schools outside of the state system,” she said.
To conclude, the society and the economy of Myanmar have been unjust for a very long time and to so many people, and this revolution is meant to put an end to all these problems. This is a process that will take years. Not only is a decentralized political system needed to end Burman political domination over minority communities, but a system that can end all forms of oppression and discrimination is also needed. While we don’t yet know what form this will take, it certainly must be preceded by a major shift in collective understanding of the problems that the ethnic and other oppressed minorities are facing. The people of Myanmar, and especially the pro-democracy Burman majority, should be educated in this regard. These outcomes are in the interest of the National Unity Government of Myanmar, and so it shares the responsibility to help people educate themselves.
Callahan, M. (2004). Making Myanmars: Language, Territory, and Belonging in Post-Socialist Burma. In J. Migdal (Ed.), Boundaries and Belonging: States and Societies in the Struggle to Shape Identities and Local Practices (pp. 99-120). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511510304.006
Callahan, M. P. (2003). Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma. Cornell University Press.
Silverstein, J. (1980). Burmese politics: the dilemma of national unity. Rutgers University Press.
Thawnghmung, A. (2010). The Dilemmas of Burma’s Multinational Society. In J. Bertrand & A. Laliberte (Eds.), Multination States in Asia: Accommodation or Resistance (pp. 136-163). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511750755.007
Transnational Institute, “Beyond Panglong: Myanmar’s National Peace and Reform Dilemma”, Myanmar Policy Briefing 21, September 2017, https://www.tni.org/en/publication/beyond-panglong-myanmars-national-peace-and-reform-dilemma
Wiant, J. (1982). Burmese Politics: The Dilemma of National Unity. By Josef Silverstein. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1980. xii, 263 pp. Selected Bibliography, Index. The Journal of Asian Studies, 41(2), 428-430. doi:10.2307/2055023
 Regarding history textbooks, see Salem-Gervais, N., & Metro, R. (2012). A Textbook Case of Nation-Building: The Evolution of History Curricula in Myanmar. Journal of Burma Studies 16(1), 27-78. doi:10.1353/jbs.2012.0003.
Zin Wai Yan is a student from Sagaing Region. He recently graduated from the Parami Institute of Continuing Education.
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