May 13, 2005

A Note on Education Reform for Burma

A Note on Education Reform for Burma: Necessities and Challenges

This brief paper was presented at the Open School Campaign Conference held in Chiangmai, Thailand, in 2000.


Current education system in Burma has two main problems. The first one is over centralization, which is related to, and also the consequence of, the political system. The second one is the lack of sufficient resources, both human and financial, and this is apparently a consequence of political problem facing the country today.

This brief presentation will discuss the necessity for Burma’s education reform focusing on the former issue and enumerate some recommendations from a non-Burman ethnic nationality perspective. This is by no means to say that the opinion expressed, or recommendation made herein, represents the desire of all the ethnic minorities of Burma.

A Need for Decentralization

Education reforms are being introduced in a number of countries around the world. Most reforms are implemented as part of a transformation process from a centralized to decentralized one. The underlying concept is that by bringing decision-making power and accountability closer to school administrators, teachers and parents, schools will become more efficient in allocating and using resources as well as more effective in instructing students and keeping them in school. Particularly for countries with heterogeneous population, we find such expectation to be plausible.

Specifically for Burma, we believe that education is the key not only to produce educated labor force but also to foster ethnic harmony. To improve understanding among diverse ethnic communities and incorporate all available human resources into the transformation process, education reform must ensure the participation of community, particularly in decision making in both resource and academic realms.
[1] Such policy approach will not only contribute to modernization, but simultaneously, engender the opportunity to address the goals of long-term economic development, poverty alleviation, and most importantly, social harmony in diversity. In line with a decentralized political structure, the table attached more or less suggests the scope of administrative authority that can be delineated for different levels of political structure. In a federated Burma, most educational responsibility must fall under the administration of state governments. The central government will be responsible for structuring the overall education system in order to maintain comparable standard between states.

The current education system in Burma is highly centralized. The Education Ministry, consequently, is insensitive or unresponsive to the local needs. Social science curriculums are not reflective of regional cultures and social realities. It is extremely difficult to accept the mandate where students from a Karen village in Pa-pun area or a Kachin village in Sumparabum region have to limit their studies to Burmese historical figures such as Mahabandula, Anawyahta and Alaungpayar, but nothing at all is mentioned about their own history. Such curriculum bias makes most ethnic groups feel threatened to their cultures and identities. On the other hand, by not knowing the histories and cultures of ethnic minorities, some ethnic Burmans tend to lose respect for those minority peoples. Even worse is the fact that ethnic nationalities are deprived of learning their own language at schools.

Language Issue: A Challenge

Given the heterogeneous nature of Burma’s population, the language issue can be the most challenging one and thus deserves a great length of discussion. Yet, our discussion here is somewhat general and may be insufficiently brief as it is concerned mainly with the survival of ethnic languages.

As does in many other countries, the political structure in Burma has distinctive effects on education policy and some education policy instruments, in turn, appear to have a significant effect on social harmony. In this sense, it is important that the design of education policy, especially on language and social science subjects, complies with political structure and social realities. It is important to note that, by employing only Burmese as a means of disseminating knowledge, other ethnic minorities are practically put into disadvantaged position as many of them never learn to speak or write in Burmese.

It is assumed in this essay that all the ethnic nationalities and Burman democratic forces alike are struggling to build a multi-ethnic federation of Burma, and further elaboration on the issue is made in that context. A constitutional recognition of language diversity to promote equal opportunity for all ethnic peoples is essential. People from Shan State or Kachin State, for example, may consider themselves citizens of Burma, but only in their own state that they feel at home and are willing to reside and settle. It is natural and perfectly legitimate that these ethnic peoples struggle to maintain their cultures and identities through the preservation of their own language. Language preservation is a crucial means to maintain their culture, identity and dignity. It is important that in the new education system, people in each ethnic state have the right to be educated in, and to use in official dealings, their own language. This means that they must be able to study subjects such as history, geography and sociology in their own language, in addition to the ‘federal’ official language, which can be Burmese.

On the other hand, it is foreseeable that the cost of maintaining language diversity in the education system can be high, and without a common official language, the language barrier between states or different ethnic nationalities, for instance, can raise transaction costs in inter-regional economic activities. Policymakers should seriously consider this possible high transaction costs in the making of language policy in each ethnic state. Thus, for economic benefits, it may be practical that Burmese language (a language spoken by the majority Burman) remains as a national official language. However, English can be an alternative to this issue, and it is desirable that this international language be taught from Kindergarten, as currently is maintained in Burma. Singapore, India and the Philippines may be studied as examples. Further discussions and debates at the national level will be imperative for any concrete conclusion.

Education and Ethnic "Social Capital"

The better people are educated, the easier will the process be of "social capital" building. In economic terms, “social capital is a legitimate factor of production, either substituting for another factor of production or complementing the productivity of other assets, such as labor.”
[2] While human capital emphasizes human skills and knowledge, social capital basically stresses relationships and trust among people, in a broader sense, among diverse ethnic communities as well. Hence, ethnic social capital mentioned hereinafter should be understood as an extended application of social capital.

It is important not to confuse ethnic social capital with ethnic assimilation. Ethnic social capital can be improved while each ethnic group maintains its own culture and identity whereas in ethnic assimilation, one ethnic group absorbs other ethnic groups into its cultural melting pot, and in the process culture and identities of other groups disappear.

Either interethnic tension or conflict between ethnic groups and the government can be mitigated as we improve ethnic social capital. The first step to be taken is to make education less politicized, but encourage more creativity to reflect the variety of social and cultural realities. Partial privatization and decentralization of education will help ease ethnic tension, because different ethnic regions will be able to maintain their own identity by learning their own language and adopting curriculums that reflects their cultural essence at schools in their respective states. Therefore, productivity-enhancing effect of education combined with its benefits towards ethnic harmony will help create a stable environment in which economic activities can efficiently take place.


After all, the success of any educational reform depends primarily on the balance between education in the ethnic languages and, at the same time, the learning of one major language, may it be Burmese or English, as the language of, and for, national cohesion. It is extremely important for policy makers to take into account the language diversity in their policy formulation. The development of a reform model, which gives a high degree of respect for diverse historical backgrounds and cultures within the country, including that of language minorities, is essential. This is consistent with UNESCO's position to promote “the right to learn in one’s mother tongue, as well as the right to access to languages of wider communication.”
[3] In a multi-ethnic country like Burma, democracy or social justice, let alone peace, will not be attainable without such respect and understanding.

[1] Nicaragua school autonomy reform was introduced in 1993 based on this same concept.
[2] See for detail “Social Capital, Trust and the Agribusiness of Economics,” 1999 WAEA Presidential Address by Paul Wilson. Available from:
[3] UNESCO (1995), MULTICULTURALISM: A POLICY RESPONSE TO DIVERSITY. Paper prepared on the occasion of the "1995 Global Cultural Diversity Conference", 26-28 April 1995, and the "MOST Pacific Sub-Regional Consultation", 28-29 April 1995, both in Sydney, Australia.

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