Development, Education | Southeast Asia

22 February 2021

Recent reforms have allowed universities in Myanmar to engage with foreign scholars, improve teaching, and build autonomy, but the recent coup puts all this momentum at risk, Charlotte Galloway writes.

In the wake of the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February, experts have been offering commentary on the motivations of the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – and the possible economic consequences of their decision to overthrow the government.

Indeed, the withdrawal of major international joint ventures and the suspension of large scale investment infrastructure projects have shaken the Myanmar economy over the last few weeks, and the immediate and future impact on its fragile and developing economy is all too obvious.

Less widely discussed though is the coup’s disruptive influence on industries that support social progress as well as economic growth, such as education.

Myanmar’s education system has been a key reform area since the 2015 elections, and turning Myanmar’s higher education system into one that provides graduates with workforce skills and develops research capabilities to support government policy has been a high priority.

This is essential for the country’s future growth, independence, and stability, and five years ago the government released a National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) 1 (2016-21). This plan detailed a complete overhaul of the education system, from pre-school to higher education.

It included major changes to teacher training and new curricula that could be benchmarked across the broader region and align with international pedagogies. The NESP 2 (2021-2030) is currently being drafted, and international donor funding has supported extensive and wide-ranging foreign input into the sector, from the European Union, United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Japan, and others. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is also playing a major role in coordinating school reform.

More on this: The value of collaboration in education

In the higher education sector, scholarships, exchanges, and study tours have facilitated the training of Myanmar’s academics in recent years. Often funded through international government projects, graduates from overseas programs are already returning to Myanmar to be part of the next generation of teachers and educational leaders.

International support networks have developed, memorandums of understanding with partner universities established, and research collaboration is underway. In 2020, a select group of universities were even granted autonomy and have been writing their own charters with assistance from international partners.

This step is crucial in seeing Myanmar’s higher education sector improve. Currently, teaching and learning in the country performs very poorly on world education rankings. While academic staff in Myanmar face a system of unchanging curricula, minimal facilities, rare international contact, and where academic freedom has been associated with activism by former military regimes, this is very unlikely to change.

Importantly for higher education, the most recent coup has placed foreign engagement on hold at a critical juncture. COVID-19 has already slowed the progress of reform, but the coup may cause it to stall entirely.

Since the November elections, the government was effectively in caretaker mode until the expected swearing in of the newly elected politicians on 1 February. NESP 2 drafting was under review when the coup occurred and any expectations that these important policy initiatives could keep moving forward have been quashed.

This is one reason why many universities are participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement, with the expectation being that the new regime will not progress any further move towards academic autonomy and independence.

Researchers will likely find difficulty negotiating the new Foreign Relations Act, the environment for Australian academics attempting to maintain research links with colleagues in Myanmar will be challenging at best, and funding for Myanmar projects will inevitably dry up in the short term, as it has before.

More on this: Beware a new age of isolation for Myanmar

Australia has long supported educational reform in Myanmar. Hopefully it will continue to do so, but it’s likely to scale back programs in the short term. It’s not yet clear if visas will be forthcoming for those wanting to undertake in-country research or engage with academic colleagues through teaching at Myanmar’s universities once COVID-19 travel restrictions are over for instance – a goal complicated by the fact Myanmar also has laws to protect itself from foreign interference.

Myanmar’s rapid progress in the last decade has been like watching the genie let out of the bottle – what were once dreams have been becoming reality for many in the education sector, but the coup has struck at the heart of a nation’s aspirations.

Yet, that Myanmar could turn on a penny was no surprise. The inherent power given to the military under the constitution is a resolute block to real democratic reform, and over the last two years tensions have been rising as the gulf between those who have benefited from development and those who haven’t has widened. There are of course many other complex issues that contributed to the coup, including ethnic divides.

Recent reforms have allowed universities to engage with foreign scholars, something that was very difficult and closely monitored under the old regime, and there is genuine enthusiasm for participating in the international higher education landscape and strong demand for collaboration across all disciplines. Even with the coup as a roadblock, this enthusiasm will remain.

On top of this, access to better education across all levels is a key part of addressing inequity, and can only be achieved through open and free academic exchange, making the sector more crucial than ever into the future.

That Myanmar has many issues to resolve is without question, but for all these reasons, the international response to the coup must allow for ongoing support to develop Myanmar’s most crucial sectors, such as education, where benefits extend far beyond power politics.

Negotiating selective sanctions while maintaining engagement in other areas is a difficult diplomatic task, but if Myanmar is to continue to develop and resist a return to isolationism, the higher education sector must be treated with the importance it deserves in this process.

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2 Responses

  1. Dagmar Hellmann says:

    Dear Charlotte,
    thank you so much for your evaluation. We have also been discussing whether and how to continue academic cooperation under the circumstances among our colleagues, because we have an Erasmus programme and other plans. It is difficult, but we came also to the conclusion that to keep up contacts to our colleagues in Myanmar is most important. We still hope for a peaceful solution, but our hopes are fading day by day. It is getting more difficult to get in touch with our colleagues day by day…

    • Charlotte Galloway says:

      Thanks Dagmar – the Erasmus programme was set to make a significant contribution to HE capacity building, but like many projects, all on hold.. I’ll keep in touch

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