Education Challenges in Myanmar: Trying to Reach Education in a Chaotic Environment

Written by Müge Çınar

Education in Myanmar: the background

The first educational transition occurred in 1948, from the colonial education system to a national system. The second educational transition happened after 1962, from a national education to the so-called ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ education. From 1988 to 2010, the country’s education noticeably deteriorated so that almost 40% of children never attended school, and nearly three-quarters failed to complete even primary education (Lwing, 2007).

In September 2014, the parliament and the military-backed government approved the national education law. However, students protested against the national education law, which is highly centralised and restricts academic freedom. In June 2015, an amendment to the national education law was enacted with minor changes. The teachers, scholars and students had to obey social control. In addition, the government prioritised its political agenda in the education system.

Education Budget and the System in the Country

With education spending 2.91 per cent of the GDP, the lack of an education budget (approximately three times that of the military budget) further hinders growth. As a result, compared to other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, children in Myanmar do significantly worse on standardised tests. The new country has begun reforms, such as the gradual implementation of free education through high school. Despite some progress, there is still a long way to go (Children of the Mekong).

Children in a classroom. Photo by worak. Wikimedia Commons.

Genocide of Rohingya People by Myanmar and its Effect on Children’s Education

The Rohingyas, a Myanmar ethnic group, have been denied fundamental human rights, including citizenship. They have been subjected to terrible oppression, prejudice, violence, torture, unfair prosecution, murder, and great poverty for decades. Rakhine State’s hostile environment has caused the Rohingyas to evacuate their homes and seek asylum in neighbouring nations (Shohel, 2023). This erupted the children’s fundamental right to education while asylum-seeking and travelling with much trauma.

Many villagers have fled the fighting and their burned homes during the decade-long civil conflict. Many villages seek refuge in the bush, and the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) is growing. Hundreds of villagers lost their homes and left their communities during the recent conflict in Kachin State, northern Myanmar (Lwin, 2019). Thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children were shot and burned in a matter of weeks during the violence against the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine State, western Myanmar; masses of Rohingya women and girls were raped; infant children were killed; men and boys were arbitrarily arrested; several hundred villages were destroyed in arson attacks; and more than 700,000 people were forced to flee to neighbouring countries (Washington Post, 2017).

There are around one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, including 300,000 who entered as a result of previous years’ violence (Washington Post, 2017). More than half of the Rohingya refugees are women and girls, with 60% being minors under 18 (Oxfam, 2018). According to the UNHCR (2018), 97,418 Myanmar refugees live in nine refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. 54.4% are under 18 (The Border Consortium (TBC)). This is a question of nearly half of the population how to get proper education in refugee camps. In addition, Malaysia is one of the transit countries for refugees, and Malaysia has thousands of Rohingya refugees that have no legal refugee status by the government.

Over 31,000 refugee children from southeast Myanmar’s conflict-torn Kayah State require immediate financial assistance to continue their education. Despite the continuous violence in Kayah, pupils attend community schools, including makeshift classrooms in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps (The Irrawaddy, 2022).

How Different Are Minorities Getting Education?

Although the name ‘Burma’ is derived from the Bamar people, who constitute two-thirds of the country’s population, according to official government data, Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region, with over 135 ethnic groups. The country’s geographic location has drawn settlers from various backgrounds throughout history. There are over 100 languages spoken, and minority ethnic populations are estimated to make up approximately 40-60% of the total population and occupy half of the land area (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), 2021).

The Bamar (68%), Chin (2.5%), Kachin (1.5%), Karen (7%), Kayah (1.83%), Mon (2%), Rakhine (4%) and Shan (9%) are the eight ‘official’ groups. The figures are from 2016. The sea gipsies’ of the southern islands, the “long-necked” ladies of Padaung, the Nagas on the Indian boundary, and the tattooed women of Chin State, not to mention the Pa-O, Wa, Kokang, Akha, and Lahu indigenous peoples, are all part of these broad groups. The country’s major religions are Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism.

Teaching minority languages in state schools has been prohibited in the Burmese education system since 1962, and this policy remains in place today (Lwin, 2017); even though Myanmar has an estimated population of 51 million people who speak over 100 languages and dialects, as stated above.

A teacher and some students including novice Buddhist nuns at Aung Myae OO Monastic Education School on Sagaing Hill across the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. The ‘civilians’ have decorated their faces with thanaka, a skin protector and, among women and girls, a fashion cosmetic made from tree bark that has been used in Myanmar for at least the past two millennia. Photo by Dan Lundberg on Flickr.

The Hardship of Language in Education, Especially Ethnic Language

The language of education is not neutral since it reflects the historically determined ability of one or more groups to elevate their language to such prominence within a state. A curriculum may also contain classes that educate about local history. In certain circumstances, language is the primary divide behind ethnic conflict and civil war (Shohel, 2023). For example, Bormann, Cederman, and Vogt (2017) demonstrate that linguistic cleavages are increasingly prevalent. A centralised education sector often fails to adequately address the grievances arising from rights to identity and language (Dryden-Peterson & Mulimbi, 2016).

Child Soldiers and Child Labour

A civil war necessitates many soldiers, and both sides of the conflict use children to strengthen their forces. Although it is difficult to determine due to a lack of official estimates, tens of thousands of child soldiers are undoubtedly present in Myanmar (Children of the Mekong). These children, many orphans, are frequently enlisted or sold to armies. They are indoctrinated and pushed to battle after they join the military. Solving this problem will necessitate a reduction in ethnic tensions and enhance political stability, both of which appear unattainable.

According to UNICEF, one out of every four children aged 6 to 15 works. There are two reasons for this: schooling is still costly, and lack of finance for the education sector sometimes means that the children receive insufficient education. As a result, many rural residents prefer to send their children to work to earn money (Children of the Mekong).

Gender inequality

The military authority has been the norm rather than the exception in Myanmar for 50 years. For many decades, women were barred from holding leadership positions and were denied equal economic and educational possibilities as men. During these decades, social conventions decided that women and girls should control the household, family, and other caretaking chores while males should be leaders, owing to the country’s military and hyper-masculinity. This period’s patriarchal worldview is exemplified by the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which regularly refers to women as mothers and proclaims that specific vocations “are suitable only for men.” Myanmar was ranked second most discriminating in the 2021 Social Institutions and Gender Index2 out of nine Southeast Asian countries (UN Women & UNDP, 2022).

According to the women who responded to the survey in December 2021, “After the military takeover, all the hopes and aims are gone, and everything has been difficult. The education system is worsening, and the scarcity of jobs is increasing” Kayin resident, 55 years old (UN Women & UNDP, 2022).

Young children attend a school in Myanmar. Photo by ILO / P.Pichaiwongse on Flickr.

Children with Disabilities

According to the Ministry of Population’s 2019 survey, 12.8% of the population has one of the six disabilities: 6.3% have a visual impairment; 2.4% have a hearing impairment; 5.4% have difficulty walking; 4.4% have difficulty remembering/concentrating; 1.9% have difficulty self-care; and 1.6% have difficulty communicating (DoP, 2020, p. 93).

According to the Ministry of Education, students with disabilities attended 14.72% of all regular primary and secondary schools in 2019. In Myanmar, statistics show that education for disabled children is scarce (Tonegawa, 2022).

DoP et al., 2017: 156 estimate that 45.4% of children with impairments aged 5-9 years and 31.4% of children with disabilities aged 10-13 years have never attended school. The enrolment rate of disabled children is low compared to Myanmar’s overall net enrollment rate in formal education, which is 98.5% in formal primary education and 79.2% in formal lower secondary school. In Myanmar, school enrollment for disabled children is low (Tonegawa, 2022). This multi-sectoral review holds that Myanmar’s success in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is largely dependent.

Unqualified Higher Education Teachers and Teachers under Threat

The University scholars are expected to be positioned at the nexus of teacher training and research practice. The scarcity of research-related scholars is a crucial issue for Myanmar, with their minimal studies on their research engagement.

The teachers also, as well as students, are under threat of ongoing conflict. The 2021 coup and the civil war affected teachers’ safety. In addition, eleven though the teacher is threatened by their lives, their income is insufficient to survive.


The second anniversary of Myanmar’s February 2021 coup d’état has just passed, and the country’s terrible state of armed warfare, insurgency, turmoil, and anarchy has only worsened. With the uncertainty surrounding the postponed general elections this year, which most believe will not be free, fair, or genuine, the civil war inside Myanmar is projected to worsen in 2023. There appears to be no end in sight. All of these conditions deteriorate the access to quality education for many children.

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