Myanmar’s Education System- The Need For Change To Promote Development


Education, or the lack of it, determines the level of human advancement and development of a country, and the onus of providing good education falls on national governments. History bears testimony to the fact that the quality of education is reflected in the success of its populace and the growth of its economy. Inevitably, all underdeveloped countries are found deficient in world-class education.

Myanmar, the erstwhile ‘pariah’ nation, is waking up to the need to improve and ideally, revolutionize its education system. Having once had a highly reputed system and being called the “pride of Southeast Asia”, Myanmar’s education system was used as a role model for other Asian nations. Today, it needs international involvement in education more than anything, and private participation to improve and extend its reach to the outer periphery of the nation. As one of the three least developed economies in Asia, Myanmar needs highly qualified locals to push the country out of its current state of underdevelopment and haphazardly slow growth.

The ground reality today

With a 92% literacy rate, and over 156 institutions of higher education, it is surprising to see the dismal, outdated education system. On 9th May, 2013, Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi appealed to universities in UK to help in rebuilding Myanmar’s higher education system that has been crumbling consistently under decades of military rule. Her fervent appeal reflects her strong desire to see the education system reinvigorated so that the local youth are able to acquire expertise and knowledge to take the country forward.

Little wonder then, that those who can afford foreign education, move out to neighboring countries, while others try to pursue degree courses available. In Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, hundreds of youngsters are seen working as waiters and waitresses in restaurants after degrees in physics, chemistry, and others, while engineering graduates are content with secretarial jobs in foreign companies setting up offices in Myanmar. One wonders why there is such a strong mismatch between qualification and jobs taken up. A closer scrutiny of capability and potential reveals their hard working habits, but caliber and capability is nowhere near that of engineering graduates from developed or educationally advanced countries. Abundance of low-level training, severe dearth of high quality coaching, no accountability or accreditation, explains this.

The reasons for this mess in education, are not far to seek. The military rule led to decades of civil strife that only saw gross under-investment, decay, and universities were closed for years at a stretch, following student unrest in 1988, opening only intermittently subsequently. English was replaced by Burmese as the medium of instruction and social sciences were largely removed from the curriculum. Justifiably then, English skills are minimal, and restrictions limit learning at all levels.

The number of schools cannot possibly cater to the population, with remote areas seeing one school for five villages, and in border areas, a single school caters to students of 25 villages. This leads to high student-teacher ratios and overcrowded institutions.

Primary schools see high enrolment rates and a high dropout rate of nearly 50% according to UNICEF. The same holds true for secondary schools. There are approximately 7.5 million students at all levels of education, who need to depend on after-school private tuitions to be successful. Corruption makes it impossible for the poorer students to progress and better schools are reserved for influential families. Grade eleven signals completion of high school and students must appear for a university entrance examination to proceed for a university degree for which private school students are not eligible.

Women and education

Women form 50% of the work force in Myanmar, and most schools teachers are women, besides forming the backbone of organizations. Monastic schools are mainly for boys, and lower enrolment of girls in remote villages is common. Poverty also forces girls to be kept at home, which explains a lower female literacy rate of 73% despite the government’s efforts to maintain gender equality through legislation and concerted efforts to eliminate female illiteracy, providing vocational training to women, and encouraging them for higher education through scholarships.

The role of monastic schools and NGOs

Monastic schools have played a major role in educating children especially those from the poorer rung. Though often limited to boys, they have bridged the gap left by state education. Every village may not have a school but surely has a monastery, that takes on the role of education provider, albeit informally. The parallel, secular system provided stretches beyond religious teaching and over 1180 monastic institutions are recognized by the government for providing co-education. Of these, five monastic schools are registered as high schools. A bridging system is also in place to help such children to be absorbed into the government schools. In keeping with the pace of development, these schools have started providing vocational training, developing computer skills, and trying to assist students gear up to face challenges at the work place.

NGOs have been pitching in, to feel the gaping holes left by government inaction in the education field. For instance, AusAID is investing over $80 million spread over four years to promote primary education. DFID is funding UNICEF’s basic education program with a USD 16.4 million grant. USAID has been focusing on education of migrant labor and the displaced workforce in border areas. Out of all the local NGOs, the Myanmar EGRESS has been contributing substantially to enhance educative skills of the youth.

The NGO directory lists 57 NGOs involved in education, which include monastic schools, church-based institutions and Islamic organizations. If self-help groups and smaller voluntary organizations were to be added, the number would more than double.

Private education

Private schools mushroomed in the 1990s and they were free from government regulation and control. They have been set up with the profit motive seeing the huge demand, and are providing primary as well as secondary education. International schools have brought in global standards and summer schools provide English and other courses, and have in a way reduced the pace of mass exodus of good students from the country. In a place where good education implied foreign education, the international schools are also way beyond the reach of most of the locals, with their high school fee structure and culture of plenty.

However, this has created a vast disparity and widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. There are no private institutions of higher learning at present.

The need of the hour

As the country retraces its steps towards the path of development with a civilian government in place, systematic education, rather the lack of it, has made the government and specifically the President, define the country’s educational goals:

  1. Free primary education to be compulsory.
  2. Enhance the rate of enrollment for basic education.
  3. Improve the quality and capacity of teaching staff.
  4. Provide scholarships, locally and internationally.
  5. Involve private sector in education.

Budgetary outlays have been hiked from 1% to 5.84 % of the annual budget, which though highly insufficient, are somewhat better and reflect the government’s seriousness.

However a lot more needs to be accomplished, like renovation of schools, initiating teacher training programs, provide better books and equipment, attempt focused curriculum development and reintroduce social sciences to enable students to develop critical thinking skills, and change focus from learning by rote in a test-driven system to one of exploration and understanding.

A study of educational best practices to incorporate them into Myanmar’s education system, and seeking international assistance to develop a progressive education system, is critical for the present.

Reason to hope

Myanmar is one of the few growing countries, with some estimates indicating doubling of its GDP in the next five years. Development of the right talent will open avenues for other countries as well. The government has made the development of higher education systems a national priority.

For a country whose people value education so highly, the only way to develop is by giving them what they treasure, and enable them to participate in the country’s development.

The City of No Two Wheelers

A drive around Yangon will reveal traffic with a difference, especially when compared to other Asian countries. The city roads are crammed only with four wheeled vehicles.

Yangon is perhaps the only city in the world where two wheelers are not seen on the roads, or at least, ridden by the common man. You do see the police and military personnel using them as part of security while escorting senior officials, and yes, the lone rider who is seen stopping every few meters to switch on the street lights. This was intriguing at the outset, till research revealed that motorized two wheeled vehicles were banned in Yangon. In March 2010, a select few organizations were given permission to use two wheelers in Yangon, primarily due to the needs of the job. Approximately 120 two wheelers are used by policemen, personnel from the intelligence agency, and members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association.

The two wheeler family includes scooters, motor cycles, mopeds and bicycles. Countries like India, Vietnam, China have roads crammed with two wheelers, as they meander between cars to reach destinations sooner. Bangkok even has motor cycle taxis, which are so convenient, and the fastest mode of transport literally till the destination doorstep.

For those accustomed to seeing two wheelers whizzing past, speeding and racing, often threatening four wheelers, Yangon appears different and one is challenged to pinpoint the biggest reason behind this difference. Seeing only four wheelers plying on all the roads, makes the roads more congested though there is a semblance of uniformity in the vehicles standing in lines at traffic lights, with no motorbikes jumping queues and crowding at the start of the queue.

Obviously, this puts the common man in a quandary since everyone cannot afford cars. Public transport is one option, and the second and equally popular one, is the truckbus – what I would call a lorry, which has a covered back, and seats at the back, accommodating 8-10 in smaller ones, and 15-20 in bigger ones. It is also customary for the work place to provide such transport to its employees.

The rest of the country sees motorbikes in thousands. Figures revealed, indicate that there are 1,880, 986 two wheelers in Myanmar. In case the ban is lifted in Yangon, the number will doubtlessly increase by tens of thousands, as urbanization and development of industry makes people find affordable accommodation on the fringes of the city. Big brands like Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, Piaggio, Peugeot, and others are eyeing this as a huge market.

Two wheelers offer freedom, speed and less commuting time, despite the dangers of  two wheelers and exposure to the elements and pollution. More affordable for the middle class, they save on fuel as well.

On the road, two wheelers can be risky too, since the incidence of accidents increases, and injuries are more severe. It is difficult to decide whether the ban on Yangon is good or bad, but while it lasts, the city is a safer place.

Nine foreign banks get licenses to commence limited operations in Myanmar


Myanmar’s financial services sector is still in a nascent stage of development and while other sectors have opened up, the banking sector has proceeded similarly just a month ago, when the government issued preliminary licenses to 9 foreign banks to start offering some basic services to foreign companies operating in Myanmar. Thankfully, the interests of the local banks have been protected at the outset, but there is hope that this will spur the local operators towards better performance and adherence to international service standards.

I remember my first trip to Yangon in October 2012, and I had the privilege of seeing the first ATM machine being installed. By the time we moved here in January 2013, a handful of them had been installed, but getting cash out of them was not a given-they worked sporadically. So, removing all credit and debit cards from our wallets was the first thing we did each time we returned to Yangon. It is habit that continue-carrying paper money is preferable to plastic, and I have tried using an ATM card to withdraw cash at least six times, but not succeeded with a successful transaction even once. However, I do see hundreds using them and successfully I am sure, I have just become accustomed to the way of life prevalent in the 1970s in India.

Myanmar today has state and private local banks, with the latter offering far superior services and are positively flush with funds. Yet businesses have limited access to funds and loans come with only high collaterals.

Foreign banks had been allowed to open representative offices as a precursor to applying for a license. License applications were invited in May 2014, and 30 international banks applied for the same, of which 25 were shortlisted. It was only on the last day of September that nine banks were allotted licenses. These include ANZ, Bangkok Bank, UOB Bank, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, Mizuho Financial Group, Malayan Bank and Overseas Chinese Banking Corp.

All these banks have been given twelve to build a single branch in the country, and while they cannot start retail banking operations, they can assist foreign businesses and deal only in foreign currency. If these banks wish to deal with local currency, they will be permitted to do so, only in partnership with a local bank.

While these licenses have ushered a wave of optimism, local businesses will continue being dependent on local banks, whose interests have been protected. But growth and development requires funding which will take a long time to come.

But perhaps, in the growth story, every little step counts. And hopefully the banks winning the preliminary licenses may bring in a wave of transformation in the banking and finance sector.

Drive out the Old, Drive in the New-Myanmar’s Auto Industry


As you drive from the Mingladon airport in Yangon down Pyay Road towards the heart of the city, it is refreshing to see large, glittering auto showrooms lining both sides of the broad road. These include not just the Mercedes Benz sales and service outlet and the Tata Motors showroom, but many of the 200-plus used car outlets that have opened in Yangon, a majority of them after 2011.

The automotive sector is abuzz with activity, especially on the retail front. Korea’s Hyundai opened its first sales showroom in august 2013 with plans to open another 13 in the next five years, all over Myanmar. America’s Ford Motor Company entered Yangon with its first dealership in August 2013, and General Motors followed an outlet exclusively for its Chevrolet brand. Japan’s leading car maker, Toyota opened its first showroom in March 2014 in partnership with a local company, though the first Toyota service center has been operational since 1996, the second one having opened in 2013. Mazda, again a Japanese car brand, is operating out of a temporary store for the present trying to capture a slice of the burgeoning auto demand. Mercedes cars zipped on Yangon roads for long, but the first showroom was formally opened in May 2014, after operating out of a small temporary set up since November 2013. The newest to open is the famous UK brand, Jaguar Land Rover, now owned by India’s Tata Motors that has tied up with the local Capital Diamond Star Group.

On the manufacturing front, Suzuki is set to resume production at its shuttered facility, with fresh government approval. Nissan has stated that it will start manufacturing its model, Sunny, in Myanmar in 2015, and is constructing an 80-acre industrial complex in partnership with the local Tan Chong Group. The Malaysian spare parts manufacturer, APM Automotive Holdings, also plans to open a spare parts manufacturing unit in Myanmar to meet the spiraling demand for spares. Not ones to be left behind, Chinese auto manufacturers feel the auto market might be in its nascent stages, but large enough for them to make a place for themselves as well, with their Beijing Automotive Industry Holdings Company and Dong Feng Motor Group starting operations in January and February respectively.

Seeing this easy availability of latest models of some the world’s best cars, it is a little difficult to fathom why the cars on the road, still belong to a seemingly different age, a significant percentage of which are decades old. Long sedans of a bygone era, mainly in black and white, form long queues on roads as the number of cars multiplies, steadily worsening road traffic. 95% of the cars on the road are used vehicles and at least 80% of these are imported from Japan, from the small and compact Belta, to the pre-2006 domestic version of Lexus, namely the Celsior. A significant numbers of these have replaced the rusted, dated British era vehicles that stayed in moving condition with repeated reconditioning, since importing newer models was once unaffordable. High import duties and levels of taxation, made Myanmar one of the most expensive countries to own cars.

Old wheels

Only three years ago, owning a car by majority of the Myanmar populace was a dream, since this was the prerogative of a select few, given the steep import duties and regulations against car imports in a country that has virtually no local manufacturing of consumer durables, leave alone automotives. However, the situation improved, when in 2011, a quasi civilian government took over, opened up the country, eased imports, reduced tax rates, and has since, changed import regulations eight times!

Under military rule, there were stiff import restrictions on automobile imports, partly to prevent outflow of precious foreign exchange. New vehicles could be imported only by a very small section of the elite, including military personnel. The rest had to buy used cars imported from countries like Japan, and sold through numerous used car sales centers. Foreign auto makers had a presence only to offer maintenance services. Japanese cars have always had an edge in Myanmar, and enjoyed something of a ‘most preferred status’, due to their superiority in terms of quality and design, and easy availability of spares.

This explains the presence of 20-40 years old cars on the roads, reconditioned to remain operational and moving. In 2011, import restrictions were eased, and this helped write off some of the oldest vehicles and newer models were permitted to be imported in exchange.

Demand unleashed

Auto manufacturers from across the globe are eyeing the potential demand unleashed by 60 million people as they discover technological innovations and catch up with the rest of the world. According to a KPMG report on Myanmar’s infrastructure, as of now, the country’s transport sector is grossly underdeveloped keeping in mind its size, population and potential. While neighboring Thailand had 432 vehicles per 1000 people in 2011, and Laos 171, Myanmar had only 38, even though the number of vehicles increased two and a half times between 2004 -2011. Myanmar also happened to be one of the world’s most expensive countries for cars.

The latest easing of rules in October 2013 have made it possible for local companies to import new vehicles, but with an inventory capping of 100 vehicles. This has served as a green signal for foreign car manufacturers to eye this potential behemoth in terms of demand, and the market still in its nascent stages, promises room for growth to multiple entrants. While Japan may continue leading, the Chinese are anxious to make their presence felt as well, besides other countries including India, Korea, Malaysia, Germany and America.

One crucial factor that explains this demand is agrowing middle class. In a country where the middle segment of society was miniscule, demand can now be seen growing unmistakably as it is these consumers who have relatively higher spending capability. They are the ones to opt for better cars not merely for their brand value. It is this middle segment that is always targeted by manufacturers wanting to boost sales.

The statistics made available by the road transport administration show the steady demand for vehicles with over 70,000 cars being imported under the substitution program of over aged cars and over 100,000 new cars for showrooms, military, tourism purposes and private ownership, between October 2011 and May 2013. The twelve month period ending December 2013 saw a 30% increase over the previous year, in the registration of 400,000 passenger cars. Predictions for 2014 indicate a 15% jump in demand for cars.

Substitution of over aged cars is a post 2011 phenomenon and in the 11-month period between September 2011 and July 2012, 60,000 cars were retired and scrapped. This explains the quick disappearance of the most dated, rusted and run down vehicles from the roads that posed safety risks.

The numbers apart, sales personnel of the newly opened showrooms are amazed at the number of prospective customers walking in, far beyond their expectations. Small cars remain the best selling due to their affordability by a population that has a per capita GDP of USD 1400 (2013).

This boom in the auto market in Myanmar, is one of the first signs of an economy on a rapid growth path, that will spur growth in related sectors. As predicted by Frost & Sullivan, the real period of growth has only now begun with compounded annual growth rates in the automotive sector touching 7.8% between 2012 -2019.

Yangon is one city that does not permit two wheelers, the most popular medium of transport for the lower and middle strata of society. This necessitates an investment in used cars that would cost an approximate equivalent, or else rely on public transport. In the next couple of years, demand for vehicles is likely to be from tier-II cities, as much as from large ones.

The need of the hour

Going by the surge in the number of cars, the ensuing traffic jams especially in bigger cities like Yangon and Mandalay, are only to be expected. But the long queues at traffic signals and endless waiting periods also reflect the urgency with which infrastructure needs to be developed. The road network is decades old and cannot handle the increased numbers. New roads, flyovers and bypass routes are the need of the hour, and soon, before the road jams become unmanageable.

There is a vast market for vehicles, but not everyone wishing to own a car has sufficient savings to make a down payment and drive off. In a country where the banking system is undergoing change, foreign players coming in, access to credit for buying vehicles would be so welcome. A few banks have already pitched in. For instance, the Ayeyarwady Bank offers credit of up to 50% for Mercedes Benz cars, repayable in 1-5 years, after customers have made a down payment of fifty percent of the price.

Service and Spares

Almost all the newly opened showrooms offer sales, service and spares, facilitating maintenance with original spare parts. Less than four years ago, keeping decades-old cars running, was a technological marvel, with ingenious innovations being made each time the reconditioned cars stalled. Ancillary industries are the next step to feed the auto industry. According to the McKinsey Report on Myanmar, automotive parts and assembly figure high on the list of industries with high growth potential and high levels of productivity. This will give an impetus to demand for skilled labor that is almost missing at present.

As developed nations struggle with lower demand and seek ways to boost it to prevent their economies from slowing down, Myanmar is one Asian nation that shows promise of unprecedented demand, all of it set to benefit foreign auto manufacturers, since the country and its entrepreneurs have yet to dream of an indigenous Myanmar car.