'There is a void at the heart of this country'

May 5, 2006

In Burma, teaching has been ravaged by a Government intent on repressing free thought and by monastic schools' rote learning. But, finds William Barnes, there are attempts to repair the damage

Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government was poised to give Burmese student dissident Naing Aung an apparently well-deserved scholarship, until it discovered his rebel group had massacred 15 fellow students in 1992.

The perpetrators, former students-turned-guerrillas, later claimed that the 15, who included prominent opponents of Burma's military regime, were in fact spies planted by that regime who had chased them to the wild hills in the north of the country. Other Burmese dissidents say it is implausible for Burma's army to place so many agents in one group. They claim the executions were more likely prompted by personal rivalries.

There is no suggestion that Naing Aung wielded a hatchet himself, but he did not expel the killers either. His Harvard application was quietly shelved in 2002. None of the members of Naing Aung's group has admitted executing innocent people, but some say they may have overreacted and that several prisoners were tortured to death.

Aung Naing (no relation), who was a member of a student "execution committee", recently broke his silence to lay the blame for the killings at the foot of the Burmese education system. "We didn't thoroughly realise what democracy and human rights meant," he says. "Our education system did not prepare us to understand those concepts."

If history's cards had fallen differently, Burma might have had an education system that was the envy of many countries. The British colonialists promoted an English-speaking elite but at independence in 1947 vernacular literacy was high and Rangoon University had a reputation for producing good economists. Ambitious education plans drawn up by the postcolonial Government were hampered by dismal economic growth, however, and after the military coup in 1962 the authorities clamped down on free speech in schools and colleges, silencing awkward questions and debate.

Under the late General Ne Win, Burma's Prime Minister from 1958 to 1960, the eccentric "Burmese Way to Socialism" agenda was promoted, which included a new narrow science-based school curriculum. All schools were nationalised and brighter pupils were discouraged from studying "inferior"

subjects such as history or economics.

Win also initiated the system of discriminating against "suspect" peoples, such as minority Indian and Chinese students, who were often barred from attending university. Today's ruling generals understand that the population needs more skills, but live in dread of often student-led anti-government uprisings. Two thirds of the government budget is spent on the military establishment; only about 4 per cent goes into education.

A few children from "reliable" families are funnelled into relatively well-run military colleges. Other universities face problems as a result of frequent closures, mainly in times of political tension, and operate on such dire budgets that most students do little more than memorise photocopied lecturers' notes.

Schoolteachers are so badly paid that most teach privately, and some resort to selling examination answers. State schools demand unofficial fees from struggling families. An increasing number of parents are forced to send their children to temple schools where methods of teaching have scarcely changed in 200 years. "Monks write, children copy" is the basic mantra. The children receive some teaching in morality, but this is not going to be much help for understanding democracy or setting up a 21st-century business.

An English teacher at a private school in Rangoon says he recently tried to get his senior class to write an essay on anything they liked. "It was a disaster, because nobody wrote anything," he says. "They complained that they preferred me to write the essay and let them memorise it."

Unicef has reported that two fifths of Burma's children never make it to school; most of those who do drop out. H. G. Wells said human history was a "race between education and catastrophe". It is a view that many living in Burma would agree with. "There is a void at the heart of this country,"

says one knowledgeable Western resident of Rangoon who does not wish to be named. He bemoans the ignorance and prejudice of much of the population, including the opposition. "It's difficult to overstate how bad things are.

I fear for this country under the military and, right now, I fear for it under any kind of democracy."

Few Burmese observers would dispute the fact that four decades of military rule have had a deleterious effect on education.

Thein Lwin, a teacher who is trying to repair some of the damage to Burma's education system, says: "The generals have no problem with rote learning and automatic obedience. A docile population is worth almost any amount of lost economic growth."

Thein Lwin was a dissident imprisoned in Rangoon's Insein Prison after spending a little too long discussing politics with his friends. After his release, Thein Lwin drifted to a small village school in the Irrawaddy delta, where he discovered his vocation. "To impart wisdom, to prepare children for life, to be a teacher is surely the greatest thing." But he was imprisoned again after the 1990 election, during which he was an organiser for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, whose landslide victory was ignored by the military Government.

On his release from prison, Thein Lwin joined the flood of Burmese heading overseas. The dubious joys of exile politics proved unattractive to someone who was so keenly aware of his country's inadequacies. "Burma is an incomplete country. If someone doesn't tackle the education crisis this country isn't going anywhere," he says.

After seeking political asylum in Germany in the early 1990s, Thein Lwin went to Newcastle, where he took a masters degree and then a doctorate at Newcastle University's Centre for International Studies in Education.

During his studies, he began work on education projects with Burmese exiles in Thailand.

Gradually he became disillusioned with the politics involved and switched to a more pragmatic, independent approach to training teachers. With the help of Mary Wootten, his British doctoral supervisor, he is now involved in a project on the northern Thailand/Burma border aimed at reforming Burma's education system from within.

Wootten and her husband Steve were preparing to retire when Thein Lwin told them of his plans. They were persuaded to write the core of the teacher-training programme, which was translated into Burmese. The school is run in northern Thailand during the three-month summer holiday. News of the school is circulated by word of mouth around schools in Burma and, because the course is free and teachers obtain some kind of certificate at the end, it is very popular.

Thein Lwin and his associates try to select teachers who show signs of leadership. The idea is that they will hold meetings back in Burma to pass on what they have learnt. They try to ensure that a teacher comes from every area and major city of the country. Some even come from schools in refugee camps.

So far the authorities have turned a blind eye to the scheme. Wootten, who also teaches on the course with her husband, says the experience has been an eye-opener: "It's disconcerting to me how incurious many of the Burmese are. They don't know stuff and they simply accept it. It's symptomatic, I suppose, but it's worrying."

But hopefully things are going to change, because, as Wootten says, "Thein Lwin has extraordinary determination. He is a formidable character".


Thein Lwin's school

A fresh breeze sweeps in across rice fields ready for harvest as a young man wrapped in a blanket, his face pockmarked with paint, explains to a makeshift court that he removed bolts from a railway line to weight his fishing nets. The gallery erupts in cheers when Anton Chekhov's Malefactor is dragged off to prison by a soldier enthusiastically waving a plastic truncheon.

In northern Thailand, two dozen Burmese teachers are being coached in how to challenge, excite and engage children. Acting out a deceptively subtle short story is a long way away from the unthinking education system they have been used to.

Over a lunch of oily eggplant curry an amiable, lugubrious monk from Mandalay notes that his monastic school class attracts 200 children. "Burma is Buddhist and Buddhism is democratic, but the democratic principle is missing. We don't do any critical thinking. Personal morality is crumbling and society is falling apart," he says.


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