Education Left Behind: COVID, Coup and Conscription

by mohingamatters

Myanmar’s education system improved between 2010 and 2020, with high primary and secondary enrollment rates. Reforms began by then President Thein Sein and were carried out by the NLD government, with the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) and the curriculum was also reformed in the academic year 2016-2017 to align with basic education structures in other ASEAN countries.

However, from February 2020 to February 2022, Myanmar faced a major challenge when public schools were closed for 532 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This prolonged closure resulted in learning losses. Then the military coup led to a complete schooling crisis in Myanmar. Estimates suggest that there are around 6-7 million children in Myanmar who are not attending school, including those who were out of school before the pandemic and those displaced due to conflict. Ongoing conflicts have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and have no access to education. In 2023, about 17.6 million people, nearly a third of the population, are believed to need urgent humanitarian assistance.

Moreover, the politicization of education has led to a lack of safe learning environments which has prevented thousands of teachers and millions of children from attending schools. Since the military coup started in 2021, around 150,000 teachers, nearly 35% of the total teacher workforce in public education, have joined civil disobedience movements (CDM). Both CDM and non-CDM teachers have faced physical violence or threats from various armed groups, including the military and local defense forces.

Enrollment in State Administrative Council (SAC) schools has dropped significantly from around 9 million in 2019-2020 to around 6.4 million in 2023-2024. Therefore, it could be assumed that over 40% of students of school-going age are no longer attending SAC schools, either by choice or because of the situation. There are also teacher shortages, with many replaced teachers being under-trained and under-qualified. The 2023 SAC schools’ matriculation exam had a drastic decrease in the number of students compared to previous years, also with controversy over the pass rates with a near 100% pass rate reported for primary and secondary education.

Meanwhile, the National Unity Government (NUG)’s Ministry of Education (MOE) is offering interim education and it has reported approximately 150,000 enrolled students, mostly in areas of active armed resistance. This includes 50,000 in Sagaing Region and 45,000 in Chin State according to 2022 data. Education is provided online through ‘federal schools’ and in-person at community-led schools mostly taught by CDM teachers, especially in areas controlled by the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). The online schools are under the NUG-MOE, while community schools start independently but later become affiliated with NUG-MOE for accreditation. However, the effectiveness of online education is uncertain.

In 2023, the NUG-MOE conducted matriculation exams for the first time with nearly 60,000 students who took virtually or in-person in the NUG’s Southern Military Command 3 area. It is unclear what higher education opportunities the exam will lead to; therefore, some federal schools are, including General Educational Development (GED), suggesting that the NUG-MOE’s interim education may be struggling to provide sufficient higher education opportunities, necessitating alternative paths.

Moreover, demand for ethnic basic education providers (EBEPs) also has increased due to several reasons as there has been an increase in the number of people displaced to areas controlled by Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). Additionally, some families choose to send their children to EBEP schools instead of SAC schools. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, EBEPs provided education to around 300,000 students annually. Key educational bodies, including the Karen National Union, New Mon State Party, Restoration Council of Shan State, Kachin Independence Organisation, and Karenni National Progressive Party oversaw numerous schools across Myanmar. For instance, the Karen Education and Culture Department managed 1,093 schools with over 90,000 students, while the Mon National Education Committee supervised 134 schools with 10,324 students. Additionally, the Restoration Council of Shan State Education Commission oversaw around 350 schools educating about 11,000 students. The Kachin Independence Organisation operated 250-plus schools, including those in government-controlled areas managed by Kachin Education Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). The Karenni Education Department ran 60-plus schools, often in collaboration with CSOs. These groups also extended educational services to children in refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.

It is unclear how much EBEP enrollment has increased since 2021, but anecdotal reports are suggesting that some EBEPs have seen a 50% increase. In areas where new non-state ethnic minority groups have emerged, such as Chin and Karenni (Kayah), there has been a rise in minority-language education provision with low resources. This development can be viewed as a step towards self-determination, decentralization, and federalism by ethnic minority groups.

It has been three years since the military seized control, and two-thirds of the country is in conflict.  As the conflict’s tensions increase, education has become less of a priority for both sides. Schools, universities, and education infrastructure have been targeted in attacks, resulting in a dangerous environment for students, parents, and teachers. This interruption in learning is causing serious concerns about the future of education in Myanmar.

Recently, a mandatory conscription law has added to the worries of people in Myanmar. The law requires men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 to serve up to two years under military command. Avoiding conscription can lead to three to five years in prison. Some students plan to go abroad to continue their studies, while others consider joining the PDFs to avoid military service. This has made parents anxious about sending their children to school or university, as they fear they may be forced to join the military instead.

The announcement of the conscription law has already had visible effects, with a significant increase in visa applications for Thailand and reports of young people being arrested for trying to leave Myanmar illegally. There has also been a sudden increase in passport applications, leading to tragic incidents like the one in Mandalay where two women died and one was injured. Overall, parents and young people are in a state of panic, unsure of what the future holds and desperate to avoid military conscription.

Even though some students have been temporarily exempted from conscription, the uncertainty about their future after they graduate is causing a lot of worry. The COVID-19 pandemic, the military coup, and the mandatory conscription law are all having a severe impact on education, crushing the hopes and dreams of young people in Myanmar. While some, especially those who are wealthier and more privileged, can choose private education, study abroad, or even use bribery to avoid conscription, most people in the country do not have these options.

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