Parenting Challenges in a RapidlyChanging Myanmar


Zu Zu put her hands up in despair yet again. She has not been able to understand, for the last couple of years, how to react to her teenaged daughter’s behavior. She doesn’t seem to relate to her children any more, and while, in public, she feels proud that they speak well and conduct themselves appropriately, and have become smart and confident, their conduct at home, seems less warm, and are always finding fault with her, the way they live and what they do  not have. She is just one of many parents feeling this way.

Sounds familiar? Yes, this is one of the outcomes of rapid changes in society, when external international influences impact traditional beliefs and practices. The contrasts become stark, with foreign ones holding more appeal, and domestic patterns and ways of living appear archaic and unappealing, especially to the younger population. Parents, however wish to cling to their system of values and ideals, balance the western and Asian influences, limit the penetration of practices that clash with their religious and personal beliefs, and keep their children rooted in the local systems.

As economies get globalized, multinationals and international organizations bring with them, modern influences on education, living styles, social interactions and have a deep impact on society, particularly the vulnerable youth, that is hungry for change. Global connectivity and access to the worldwide web gives a virtual view of life and liberal practices, often very different from Asian norms, and seem so easy to emulate.

The mushrooming of numerous international schools in big cities and an inadequate local education system has pushed parents to send their children to these elite institutions with the hope of providing the best education to their offspring.  The academic learning apart, international education encourages independent behavior, makes children responsible for their tasks, encourages to form opinions and inculcate the ability to discuss. This is somewhat in contrast to traditional Asian values, where children must listen and obey rather than argue, especially with elders, where family hierarchy is respected more than equal standing for all. The result is conflict and resentment that tends to build between generations. Parents are not able to enforce rules they previously did, children become secretive since they find parents non accepting, and literally lead dual lives, one in school with friends where they have many commonalities, and one at home that they wish to break free from, eventually.

Many well-travelled parents themselves exposed to western ways, are more accepting and give children sufficient leeway, while many more try to enforce discipline in the traditional manner, that causes distress and some children end up with psychological problems. Neither side is wrong, one generation wishes to practice age-old ways of socialization of their offspring, and the other that prefers the more appealing western contemporary attitudes and perspectives.

Conspicuous changes in youth

An individualistic mind set, and being self-absorbed, wanting make their own choices and take decisions, shake off parental control, and being less thrifty than the previous generation. The family unit is also changing especially in urban areas, joint extended families are being replaced by nuclear ones, the role of grandparents is reducing, but family bonds remain strong. The youth remain respectful with just less time to devote at home, since gadgets and devices keep them hooked to online games and social media.

  • Greater use of the English language
  • Discarding traditional attire
  • No longer have tanakha smeared faces
  • Hanging out in trendy shopping malls
  • Cafes have replaced tea shops, an intrinsic part of traditional Myanmar

Both generations are impacted by the new wave of consumerism, a more materialistic attitude simply because of the ever-increasing range of products available. What was once purchased on annual trips abroad is now easily available here. Disposable incomes have also increased with the emergence of a growing middle class in cities and towns. Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption, once apt for only the top 1% of Myanmar society, is trickling down to the next strata as well.

Parenting methods that must evolve

Open societies that see western influences creeping and merging into their age old practices, require some openness to changing internally. Perspectives need to broaden, dogmatic beliefs need to be shaken off, and being amenable to change on numerous fronts, seems to be necessary.

By no means can one say that the new age concepts are right and the older ones incorrect, both sides remain as warm, as devoted and committed to seeing children blossom, and neither can be seen as black and white. The well-defined domains, the dividing lines have both become less demarcated, and the thin veil between generations has lifted.

Parents can now be ‘friends’ with their children, must no longer ‘dictate’, set hard, non-negotiable rules, confine children to the home and limit their range of activities. The ‘my word is law’ days are on their way out now. The warmth and care needs to manifest itself in other ways, less with discipline, more with softness and visible warmth, the tone and use of language displaying tenderness. Like spending quality time as family, doing fun activities, eating meals together with engaging conversations that are stress relieving for all.

Listening to children from an early age has become important. Often, we ignore what our children are trying to bring to our notice, forgetting that there can be issues plaguing tender minds, there may be concerns that worry them, or they may even be victims of abuse. The channels of communication must work both ways, and children need to feel confident that their perspective will be heard sympathetically without a scolding. Once this channel is open it brings confidence, strengthens bonds, and children grow up feeling more secure. Explaining to children why we want them to do something makes them understand the rationale, and are then happier obeying.

The level of involvement of parents is never in doubt, but it must never become so intense that it cages the child, leaves him incapable of handling problems and managing on his own. This is the typical Asian way of ‘protecting’ them, but can also make them excessively dependent.

Parents are always the children’s first role models and if they lead by example, practice what they preach, then the young ones will follow happily. Children tend to get confused when they feel that the rules laid down for them are different from what they see their parents doing. For instance, children may be asked to restrict the time spent on devices, be it the mobile phone or watching television, but they see one or both parents constantly on their phones, even if it is for work. If parents can impose a ‘no phone time’ on themselves, it will prompt the child to do the same. This type of positive enforcement is far more effective.

The balancing act

Mature parenting involves balancing the western and Asian influences, preserving cultural traditions and adapting to prevailing changing norms, since there is wisdom in both, despite the contrasts. We can choose all the practices that fall along the middle path. The challenge lies in the sifting and not allowing the intergenerational conflict come to the fore. The Asian value system holds immense appeal, since we feel it is the path that leads to peace and contentment rather than having discontented materialistic lives. We come across thousands of people who are perennially unhappy, with something always missing from their lives, and some cravings always keeping them dissatisfied. To value what we have, to count our blessings and looking below us for the material, is one useful habit to inculcate in ourselves and our children. In contrast, for spiritual elevation, we need to look up at those who have scaled higher, and this will help us evolve and improve, and this pursuit does not create unhappiness.

The younger generation also seeks instant gratification, quick results, and immediate resolution, everything treated in the same way as the click of a button on their devices. This is something parents alone can change, by not agreeing to all the children’s demands, by playing the waiting game, and allowing a wee bit of a sense of deprivation come to the young ones, only so that they value what they receive, everything not being their right, but a favor. This reduces their sense of entitlement, and prepares them for times ahead, when everything they want is not within their parents ability to give, and external factors are involved.

For this, Myanmar has an advantage over other countries, because empathy, sharing with others begin early, the monastery experiences of children during vacations make them calm and content, and the tenets of Buddhism become deeply ingrained in this largely Buddhist nation.

Parenting is a lifelong challenge, and external influences make it tougher. But parental love, devotion and commitment is far stronger in Asia, and this helps both generations. The older ones need to display wisdom with open minds, patience and mature perspectives, and the younger ones need to reciprocate and never forget where they belong, even as they pursue international education and emulate Western ways.

The Private Tuition Culture in Myanmar

Kyaw Soe, an innocent six-year old, put his head down on his study table and fell asleep without eating any dinner at 8 pm, exhausted. His day begins at 7 am when he goes to school, and immediately after, he has sporting activities, followed by tuitions, two hours a day, 5 days a week. Phyu Phyu, an 11-year old student of grade 7, looks tired with puffy eyes and dark circles under them, as she enters school every morning. Her weekly schedule, besides school and weekend Chinese school lessons, includes 20 hours of private tuitions.

These are just two out of tens of thousands of young school-going children, burdened not just with the rigors of school learning, but additional private tuitions, most often at home, to add to school lessons and ‘prepare’ them for success. Success here simply implies good scores in the crucial matriculation or international board exams. High parental expectations are not being met by the network of government and private schools following the state-regulated education system.

Myanmar boasts of a very well-established private tutoring network which is growing and becoming more professionally run. A vast network of home tutors fills in the gaps in learning left by schools, and provide the practice needed for concepts learnt, and to bring the theoretical and the practical closer together. The tutoring industry has grown largely due to the existing schooling system having a gap in the teacher student ratio, lack of individual attention, insufficient facilities in government schools due to limited funds, and the highly competitive environment pushes parents to find all possible resources to ensure better grades for their children. Ideally, educated parents should be investing in their children’s learning, but it appears so much easier to find a teacher, who has the ‘skills’ and knows the ‘technique’ of teaching, and for the money he is paid, has higher patience levels.

Private tutoring is a global phenomenon now, found in every country, even with the best education systems. Countries like Singapore and Hong Kong also have thousands of private tutors and scores of tuition centers that children rush to, straight after school. However, there are always students who do cope on their own, with parental help and support, and may not use any private tutors throughout their school years.

The benefits of tutoring that make it a boon

It is indeed a boon for a student to gain access to a teacher who has the knowledge to answer his questions, clear his doubts and feed his inquisitive mind with the right information, and help him reach a higher plane of learning. It improves his self-confidence, makes him more comfortable in challenging environments, and at ease in his school classroom. Better grades make parents happy too, and the prospect of a bright future looms ahead.

The tutoring concept has presented a tremendous business opportunity to numerous budding entrepreneurs who are professionalizing this new industry, resolving issues and offering solutions for some of the problems faced by parents and students. Online tutoring services are a time saver, and so convenient for both tutor and student, both not having to waste time commuting and being able to focus in a comfortable environment. Tutoring agencies like, and are actually tutor-matching platforms, where student requirements are matched with the best possible tutor, at acceptable rates and convenient timings.

This makes tutoring a system of parallel schooling where what is left out by the school, is completed by private tutors. The industry provides a source of livelihood to all those who wish to have flexible work hours and operate from home. Weaker students learn better because the same concepts are taught twice, and the individual attention of the tutor leaves little room for doubt. The practice questions given are customized to the child’s level of understanding. The end result is better understanding, improved performance and a greater interest in learning.

The invisible damage

TheState Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been consistently critical of the tuition culture prevalent in Myanmar, and she is not alone. At a superficial level, it seems beneficial to have teaching assistance at your beck and call, that takes on the responsibility of helping children with their homework, filling in the gaps left out at school, making up for lack of attention in class, and reminding the child what he needs to know and what all he needs to complete. The tutor prepares a schedule, finds assignments, focusses on weak areas, pushes up the child’s grades, even if it means doing most of the work for the child. The grade at the end of the exam then, is that of the tutor, not the student. But few think this way, and both parents and students remain happy.

If we think about the impact of private tutoring, in one-on-one sessions or in groups, it dilutes the responsibility of school teachers and students alike. The classroom teacher will only go so deep, and only teach at a level understood by the average student, not fuel the thirst of the brilliant few. The same is true for students, they need not always be attentive in school, and can even waste classroom time, fully aware that a tutor is waiting at home to teach them the same topic in greater detail and in a manner he understands. School times then become fun times. The select few who do not have access to private tuitions, will be more attentive, listen carefully, ask questions to resolve doubts, because they have no one besides the school teacher to turn for clearing concepts, and these questions are not always well received, because some teachers feel they disrupt the pace of their teaching.

It is sad that grades remain the indicator of brilliance and hold the key to success. Talents for the arts or other activities beyond academics have little place in a child’s life. The purpose of education is to help children build all round personalities which have a balanced set of achievements based on their interests, and not what they are forced to learn and achieve. Many conscientious students seem to be studying to please their parents, to achieve the goals set by the family, and for this then, they need tutoring beyond school.

For all its benefits, it hurts to see education becoming commercialized, driven by the profit motive more than the commitment to imparting knowledge. Private tuitions may be doing the work of schools, to make up for lower quality of education no doubt, but it comes with its own baggage of damage. Neither the tutors nor the system encourages children to think, observe and analyze. It fosters a system of spoon feeding throughout school years, and even students in higher grades do not need to draft their learning schedules, search for additional resources, plan preparation for exams, or find ways to improve.

Deep thinking individuals notice that children no longer have the inclination or the time to sit and think, observe the world around them, ponder about what appeals and what seems incorrect to them, or find time to pursue passions. Of course, private tuitions and academic rigors cannot be blamed alone, the devices that define their existence, are also responsible.

Knowledge sharing begins at home

Companies and organizations now have a knowledge sharing culture for their employees, but the system of imparting what we know to our children, seems to be disappearing. Lesser number of parents invest the time and effort needed to share with their offspring all that they know. Reprimands and sermons apart, more time is spent on devices and social media than with children. Educational experts believe that 50% of learning and education must happen at home, the ideal and most conducive environment to absorb what there is to know. Unfortunately, parents feel that if they spend a substantial amount of school fees and hire tutors, they are absolved of the responsibility of teaching their kids anything at all. A parent who cares, is the best person to know what his child’s learning needs are, and if he can put aside his own ambitions and aspirations,  his unfilled dreams, he can see his child’s capability and potential and steer him towards excellence in the child’s preferred field.

Knowledge sharing has become an integral part of organizations and involves exchange and passing on skills, experiences and all that employees know, which in turn improves productivity. If only parents would remain committed to passing on everything they know, to their children, condensing their lifetime of learning into interesting stories, children would imbibe this wisdom. This would of course entail spending more family time, giving up on certain activities and being always engaged and involved in childrens’ learning – something not many parents seem to be doing now.

The way forward

The need to revamp the education system is not being ignored by the government, which is taking small steps to solve the big problem of capability building, the starting point being schools. Even as economic betterment sets in at the micro level and bigger budgetary allocations flow into the educational sector, the results will be evident in a few years. If teachers’ salaries increase to acceptable levels at par with other sectors, more qualified individuals will be tempted to join. Accountability of teachers and the knowledge they impart in classrooms will benefit the students directly. The government acknowledges the need to increase the number of teachers and recruit quality teaching personnel and feels that this would actually help cut down on the need for private tuitions.

Teachers deserve more since the future of a nation, that is, the millions of future citizens, come to them to learn and molding their personalities to bring out their best, is a gigantic task. This determines the level of peace and well-being, the crime-free and corruption-free culture of society.


Myanmar- The Big Rural Urban Divide

The beautifully vibrant city of Yangon is the epitome of urban living in Myanmar. The country’s commercial capital, Yangon is home to over 5 million people, forming a big chunk of Myanmar’s population. The city juxtaposed against vast expanses of arable land and dry areas, with shanties and hutments in hamlets in the country side, brings out the stark contrast in life and living in Myanmar.

Like many other countries, a prominent rural-urban divide is visible in Myanmar. Inequalities are evident in all developing economies with higher dependence on agrarian activities, and till this dependence on agriculture reduces with alternative sources of employment coming up, the pace of development remains slow and the division between the haves and the have-nots unlikely to reduce. The gap between rural and urban development can be partly attributed to an urban bias and governmental policies which focus more on developing cities and urban areas. This is true of other countries like India, and neighboring Thailand which has seen urbanization centered around the Bangkok Metropolitan Region.

Myanmar today, is a country on the threshold of rapid development. According to the Asian Development Bank, the country’s GDP growth reached 7.5% in the fiscal year 2013-14. With foreign investment pouring in, and favorable government regulations, growth rates are expected to be even higher in the current fiscal year. The outside world is upbeat about the developmental prospects of Myanmar with its rich reserves of natural resources, an untapped market for consumer goods, and a strategic location.

But the ground reality reveals a country struggling with poverty with approximately twenty-three percent of its population living below the poverty line, overdependence on agriculture for subsistence and small-scale farmers forming the economy’s backbone, not to mention the acute dearth of skilled labor.

The Rural Scenario

According to World Bank estimates based on UN World Urbanization Prospects, in 2012, Myanmar’s rural population forms 67% of the total population of 57 million that resides in its 40,000 odd villages.  Regional disparities are clearly evident and poverty in rural areas is a big concern. According to a UNDP report, rural poor account for 84% of the total poor population.  Rural poverty is the result of a series of factors like small or no farms, poor output which is sold at low prices, limited availability of non agrarian jobs, and lack of credit facilities. Majority of the farmers own less than ten acres of land and this fragmentation of holdings prevents higher yields at lower costs. 37% of the villagers do not own any land or livestock, and live and work in quite the same way as their forefathers did. The use of bullock carts for plowing fields, bamboo houses without access to electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, are some of the features of rural life that need to be urgently addressed.

Life in the rural areas of Myanmar today is medieval and slow-paced. The people lead simple lives, with no mechanization, their homes spartan and basic. Even electricity and water sources at home are available to a very select few. Communication, infrastructural facilities and healthcare all need to be improved and enhanced to extend their reach to remote and border areas of the country.

There has been an exodus of young men and women from villages to neighboring Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia for more lucrative work prospects. Their remittances have served as a boon and savior to families back home. Typically, the development process sees such migration to cities and towns nearby, but since industrialization and work opportunities have been limited within the country, the demand for semi-skilled and domestic labor has lured them beyond Myanmar borders. A larger number of women have joined the work force in neighboring Asian countries. It is only recently that rural women have begun migrating to garment factories coming up in and around Yangon.

The Urban Scene

At present, Myanmar’s urban population is roughly 30% of the total, with only 13% living in big cities. According to the McKinsey report on Myanmar, this percentage could increase sharply to 25% by the year 2030, with around ten million people migrating to large cities. Urban activity in Myanmar is concentrated primarily in Yangon and Mandalay.

Urbanization is the first step towards industrialization of an economy as the labor looks for work beyond farms in factories and companies. It offers employment opportunities almost absent in villages, a better standard of life and access to basic amenities like better housing, education and health care. Cities have better roads and transport facilities, besides higher availability of goods and services, despite being more densely populated. This makes life in cities more appealing and attractive. The attire and food habits of city folk are similar to their rural counterparts, but the urban poor are worse off in some ways, since they do not have access to agricultural produce that the rural poor can consume even as they cope with a higher cost of living.

The Rural-Urban Divide

Myanmar’s rural urban divide is conspicuous in every aspect of the common man’s life, be it access to education and healthcare, infrastructure, power, communication, or even general living standards. Since occupational fields in rural and urban domains are so diverse, there is a distinct contrast in earning capacities. It inevitably translates into economic inequality, lop-sided development and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

  • The power gap- The electrification ratio in Myanmar is much lower than that of its neighboring Asian countries in both rural and urban areas. Per capita electricity consumption is about one-twentieth of Thailand. Only 60% of the total power supply is reliable. The use of renewable energy sources like hydropower for approximately 70% of the total supply, makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, and a dry spell leads to major shortages.  Rural access to power is more disturbing with over 72% villages still un-electrified, according to the MOEP report on rural electrification in Myanmar. Villages see only a small number of households connected with a tangle of wires to electricity poles. With only 16-18% of the rural people having access to power, the setting sun plunges the countryside into blackness. In sharp contrast, 89% of the urban population has access to electricity, which facilitates industrial production as well. With foreign investment being allowed, the power situation is expected to improve in the next 3-5 years.
  • Water and sanitation- Access to safe drinking water in rural Myanmar was 65% in 2010 compared to 81% in urban areas. Not that there is any dearth of water resources in the country. Myanmar has abundance of water with potential annual volume of surface water being 1082 cubic km besides 495 cubic km of ground water. Unfortunately, only 5 % of the potential water supply is used and access of safe drinking water or its use for sanitation is at disturbingly low levels.  Villages get most of their water from springs, open wells and rivers, with dwindling supply during the dry season, which forces people to consume even contaminated water. Urban areas have water sources in most homes, but national figures reveal that only 10.5 % of the poor have a water source in their homes. Sanitation facilities are available to 77% of the rural residents and 84% of the urban population.  International organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross, Asian Development Bank and countries like Japan are assisting the country in improving water and sanitation works.
  • Education – The rural urban difference is evident even more in the field of education though the country has a literacy rate of 89.7%. While every village does have at least one school, in remote and border areas, the number reduces to one school for five villages. The presence of monastic schools helps bridge the gap. Enrolment into primary schools is high, with 85% of children of primary school age attending school in urban areas, compared to 76% in rural areas. However, all the enrolled children do not complete primary school education. The dropout rate is higher in rural areas due to problems of transportation and access to schools, among other reasons. Attendance in secondary schools is lower with 69% of secondary school age children attending school in urban areas, compared to only 34% in rural areas. The 156 institutes of higher education are all in cities. Training facilities for teachers and availability of school supplies in rural schools are much lesser than their urban counterparts.
  • Healthcare- Myanmar’s healthcare services leave a lot to be desired, even though the government is refurbishing the system of providing basic medical facilities, with increased government spending of 3.9% of the annual budget in 2013, up from 1.9% in 2012. Rural areas have health centers, and the Township Health System introduced in 1964, continues. Both traditional herbal medicine and modern medicine practices are followed here, and preference for the former is evident. The rural areas have limited access to healthcare since very basic health problems can be resolved in their villages, and have to rush to neighboring cities for specialist treatment at Station Hospitals or Township Hospitals with 25-50 beds depending on the population of the township. Villages have primary health care centers, which have midwives and health assistants. All these come under the Township Health Department that is responsible for providing primary and secondary healthcare. Serious illnesses and deteriorating conditions push people towards specialist hospitals in Yangon and Mandalay, after traditional herbal medicines have also been tried and failed. The rural poor often seek treatment from untrained health workers since doctors are not easily available. Insufficient salaries, lack of learning opportunities and difficult conditions are some of the deterrents that discourage doctors from serving in rural areas. A few international NGOs provide free medical aid in rural areas. Hospitals are found in cities with specialist, children and women’s hospitals established only in Yangon and Mandalay.  Of late, private medical institutes including polyclinics have mushroomed in Yangon. The facilities, equipment and supplies, are not still state-of-the-art even in these private startups.  Foreign hospitals especially those from neighboring Thailand and Singapore have also set up representative offices with the aim of promoting medical tourism in their country. The contrast is striking.
  • Telecommunications- Telecommunication is the key to growth and development of economies. The telecommunication network in Myanmar is being built with participation of foreign companies like Qatar based Ooredoo, and Norway’s Telenor. At present telecommunication services are poor compared to other countries, and have been monopolized by MPT, the state owned enterprise. As of now, there is a single telephone for 169 people, and a SIM card for mobile phones costs between USD100-200. Oredoo has released its first lot of SIM cards costing only 1500 kyats. However, service issues, poor connectivity and other teething problems need to be addressed before it can be a threat to the reigning MPT.

Till these companies start full scale operations, less than 10% of the population has access to mobile phones, and the internet penetration is less than 1% of the total population, and this too is confined to big cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Bagan. Only around 10,000 users exist beyond Yangon and Mandalay. Internet cafes are common, but again only in cities. The situation in rural Myanmar can only be imagined, with villagers and farmers having little or no access to telephones, leave alone internet. Till end 2012, most villages were without fixed line telephone services. In the last one year, with SIM card prices falling, the number of subscribers has increased, but connectivity remains poor due to lack of supporting infrastructure to cater to a larger clientele. People in rural areas who can afford handsets costing between $45-350, have started buying mobile phones, but service remains poor and it is not always possible to stay connected.

The rural urban divide is not going unnoticed and the government is keen to address this issue and efforts are on, to bridge the gap so as to improve economic efficiency. President U Thein Sein addressed the National Workshop on Rural Development Strategic Framework in November last year, and elaborated on making rural development a key focus area with emphasis on providing food security, poverty reduction and sustainable economic development.

The rural urban divide can be a potential cause of social and economic instability, since inequalities provide for an unhealthy climate for growth. With new laws being formulated, and regulations being put in place, the process of change, improvement and development is irreversible. The only way seems upwards and with it will come, rural development, which will improve the quality of life and work of the rural folk, bringing them closer to at least urban, if not, international living standards.


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.