A school textbook exploring the fictional lives of adolescents and sexually active couples has caused a real-world storm. Conservative politicians and monks argue that sex education undermines Burmese culture.
A new school textbook, which features a fictional same-sex couple and young students who find themselves attracted to the opposite sex, has sparked outrage in Myanmar.
The opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Buddhist monks and conservative parents protested the distribution of the book, calling it immoral and a threat to Burmese culture.
The critics demand that the Ministry of Education revise the book’s content, including the country’s Grade 10 “life skills” course curriculum, which includes optional sex education.
In May, the USDP issued a statement arguing that sex education demoralizes Myanmar society and that the LGBT couple featured in the textbook would make students more accepting of same-sex relationships.
“It would not be okay if same-sex case studies are in the textbook as it hasn’t been culturally accepted in our country,” Maung Thynn, a retired Mandalay University rector from Meikhtila Township and a USDP member of parliament, told DW.
While Myanmar has opened up more to the LGBT+ community in recent years, same-sex relations are illegal under a British colonial-era law known as Section 377, which makes same sex punishable with up to 10 years in prison. Human rights groups have said the colonial legislation, although rarely enforced, has systematized homophobia and discrimination in Myanmar.
The subject of sex is still considered a taboo topic in the largely conservative Buddhist-majority country.
“It should be ok if doctors are sharing sex education information with students, but not the teachers. It would be awkward if teachers are teaching it to their students because [it is insensitive to] Myanmar culture,” Thynn said. “We don’t even dare to use the word “condom” in front of our parents and teachers,” he added.
The USDP member’s request to reject the new curriculum content has been rejected by parliament. The education ministry, however, said it would consider revising the life skills curriculum by altering the language used in the course.
For Yin Yin Hnoung, a 26-year-old doctor in Mandalay, the debate “started with the translation of the term ‘sex education’ into the Myanmar language.” He explained that the literal translation of the term made many people think the topic was “all about having sex.”
“Since then, they don’t want to accept sex education as a textbook topic. They consider the term sex education rude in Burmese society and culture,” Hnoung told DW.
Lack of awareness about reproductive health
Young people make up more than half of Myanmar’s population, with ages 5-14 years compromising the largest age bracket.
According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Myanmar, many young people in the country still have a limited understanding of sexual and reproductive health. Myanmar also has one of Asia’s highest rates of adult HIV.
“Many young girls don’t even know about their individual reproductive health,” Thazin Myint, 21, a recent Yangon University graduate, told DW. Myint, a member of the University Muslim Students Network, said that many people belonging to Myanmar’s minority communities are unaware about sexual and reproductive health.
“Elders are not even willing to talk about it [sexual health] in their family in the Muslim community here,” she said.
Thuta Kyaw, a 20-year-old university student at Yangon’s Dagon University and a student union member, told DW thats his group allows young people to gain health awareness as “the university curriculum does not offer an even sex education.” Some teachers choose to exclude sex education in their life skills teachings.
Possible political motives
Sex education has been a controversial subject in the Southeast Asian country for decades. The topic was first introduced in 1998 as part of a UNICEF-supported extracurricular program along with information on HIV, nutrition, and hygiene. In 2016, the government integrated sex education into the life skills subject in schools.
“Those lessons have been in the curriculum for a long time, but only this time they receive criticism. The criticism may be political,” said U Ko Lay Win, the director general of Myanmar’s education ministry.
Win told DW that the recent criticism could be an attempt by the opposition parties to turn the public against Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy party as Myanmar heads to the general election in November.
Nevertheless, “we will revise the words and case studies that received criticism from the people who do not like the lessons,” he said.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement on May 1 extended by another two weeks the closure of all preschools and nurseries across the country to protect children from COVID-19, a senior official said.
Daw San San Aye, director general of Department of Social Welfare, said all voluntary preschools, private pre schools, private residential nurseries are ordered to remain close until May 15.
The ministry’s original closure order covered the period from March 16 to April 30.
“The extension of the closure is to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak as the disease can spread in mass gatherings,” Daw San San Aye told TheMyanmarTimes. “The children and the elderly are high risk persons who are more susceptible to infection.”
“We will inform them when preschools and nurseries should reopen,” she added.
Records from the Department of Social Welfare showed there are 137 preschools and one residential nursery operated by the department.
Myanmar has reported 151 Corona positive cases and 6 deaths in the country till now. 28 people have recovered from the infection after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 23. Till the end of April 7700 people have been tested for Corona in the country.
There are 1955 voluntary preschools, 944 private preschools, and eight private residential nurseries across the country, which are under the control and instructions of the department.
The government has not yet eased measures to fight COVID-19, including restrictions in movement and mass gatherings, even after preventing an outbreak of the disease during the just concluded Thingyan Festival, which is the most celebrated event in the country to usher the Myanmar New Year.
The Yangon regional government has released the announcement that an existing 10pm-4am curfew imposed in all 45 townships of Yangon Region will remain effective until June 18.
Likewise, Mandalay, the second most populous region in the country, as well as other states and regions such as Kayin, Chin, Sagaing, and Shan, have also imposed curfews within their territories.
The health ministry has kept in place the ban on gatherings of five and above imposed on April 16 following an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases.
So far, Myanmar has 151 COVID-19 cases with six deaths and 28 recoveries, according to the health ministry data.
Let’s learn Burmese with http://burmeselesson.com, with this introduction to Burmese greetings, practice to speak Burmese and learn your first words! See you soon for more videos about Burmese language.
In Myanmar once also known as Burma decades of political conflict have reduced a once-proud education system to one that is lagging sadly. The quality of school teachers may be excellent, however aging materials sadly let them down.
Following an optional pre-school period, children enter primary school for 5 compulsory years. To proceed further they must successfully write a comprehensive examination in basic academic subjects. Many disadvantaged ones in poorer areas simply fail to succeed.
The first phase of secondary education takes place at middle schools. where students pass through grades 6 to 8 before they write their standard eight examinations. The educational system is generally corrupt, with seats in better schools often reserved for children of those with government connections.
High school students entering at grade 9 may choose either an arts or science stream. All study Myanmar, English and mathematics. Arts students also study geography, history and economics, while science students concentrate on chemistry, physics and biology instead. At the end of this period students at government schools may sit for their university entrance examinations. However those at private English schools may not.
Vocational training, which is largely in the hands of the private sector has become popular among young people wanting to enter the hospitality, tourism, beauty, fashion, nursing or engineering sectors. It acts as a bridge to better jobs for those with little or no work experience.
Myanmar is well endowed with universities where the widest range of courses may be followed. However academic freedom remains constrained, and students may not speak freely, or write and publish freely either.
The oldest tertiary institution is Yangon (Rangoon) University founded in 1878. It has been at the center of civil discontent throughout its history. Notwithstanding this, women’s halls of residence are strictly limited which filters out many promising female students from the countryside.
Foreign language study is booming in Myanmar as political change fuels young people’s hopes of opportunities at home and abroad of which their parents never dreamed. Myanmar’s linguistic spree is part of a broader re-emergence of a historic cosmopolitanism in a country at Asia’s heart that has seen millennia of immigration but was sealed off from the wider world. Some students are relishing the opportunities for study overseas that renewed international engagement is bringing, with many sanctions rolled back since the political transition began. Others are preparing for the world to come to them, as international excitement grows over the commercial prospects in a resource-rich country.
The British International School – a new international school, teaching to UK standards, will open its doors to students in August 2014. Located in Yangon- Insein Road near Inya Lake, the school will accept 100 to 150 students in its first year and is aimed primarily at the children of a large number of expatriates who have recently entered the country as it pursues its political and economic reforms. “For multi-national corporations, the shortage of high-quality international schools is already proving to be an important barrier to their investment in Myanmar. The school will follow the English national curriculum. The school will cater both to the expat community and to local residents seeking an international education for their children.
With the support of Ministry of Education, the ‘eLibrary Myanmar’ project will for the first time provide local academics and students online access to a comprehensive and multidisciplinary collection of scholarly resources. The project is funded by the Open Society Foundations’ Higher Education Support programme and is implemented by EIFL, an international not-for-profit organisation working with libraries around the world to enable sustainable access to digital information. Burmese academics and students will have direct access to a comprehensive range of high quality digital resources, including journals, books and reference materials. In order to maximize awareness and use among academics and students, the team will roll out a series of training so students will be equipped to make the best use of the available content. The project is to improve the quality of education and research, and in time social and economic development.
“Bringing iconic universities, such as the University of Yangon and the University of Mandalay, to life, will not only mean helping their communities gain access to the most current thinking, inspiring scholarship and novel resources,” said Oleksandr Shtokvych, Senior Manager at the Open Society Foundations’.
It will also mean including their students and scholars as active participants in the production of new knowledge and critical thinking, and bringing the unique and rich legacy and current developments in Myanmar into the limelight of international scholarship.
Myanmar has opened itself to the world at seemingly lightning speed. During the past year, rapid changes have resulted in the suspension of economic sanctions and the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. president. President Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly and brokered cease-fires with many of the nation’s ethnic insurgencies. After years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to the parliament, which is playing an active role in the country’s governance.
Myanmar currently must contend with a dual challenge of excessive centralization and the processes of decentralization that is currently underway – particularly in the education sector. At the present time, 13 different ministries oversee higher education, the Ministry of Education overseeing the majority. The Ministry has 10 different departments for overseeing the country’s education system, but for higher education it has two specific units, one for northern Myanmar – centered in Mandalay and one for southern Myanmar – operating out of Yangon.
While the system may seem highly centralized, it also is quite fragmented as there are 12 other ministries that oversee and operate universities; each of these universities has a dedicated and strictly regulated curriculum that is more focused on a specific functional or technical expertise and less focused on providing a general liberal arts education. Indeed, some disciplines or techniques are completely absent (e.g. political science) or very underdeveloped (e.g. journalism studies, sociology and social science methodologies). The universities in the fields of defence, forestry and agriculture tend to be better staffed, equipped and funded than most other universities. The geographic distribution of these universities reflects considerations of equity and access rather than the availability of infrastructure, faculty, etc. In addition, many
universities have been scattered across the country to constrain large scale student mobilization and participation in political demonstrations against the government. Interestingly, each of the major states in Myanmar has at least three universities within its locality.
This leads to further fragmentation as the cost of operating these various units is fairly high and the availability of adequate resources is very limited. As a result, many universities suffer from inadequate budgets as well as a shortage of qualified faculty and administrative personnel. Students, faculty and universities themselves suffer from a lack of autonomy and choice. All decisions regarding a student’s choice of field of study or university are derived from performance on the national achievement test, administered upon completion of secondary school and depending on geographic location. Similarly, access to international fellowships and exchange opportunities have been strictly regulated from the central ministries.
It seems that the capacity in the country to absorb training and new approaches to education and research may be limited at this time. This is due in part to the highly centralized, top-down nature of the educational system but also due to a certain amount of “assessment and training fatigue” created by the intense interest in Myanmar from outsiders. There is little coordination among foreign assistance, although there is some effort to become more coherent through various coordinating bodies organizing international donors and NGOs. A law is currently under consideration to allow the establishment of private institutions with degree granting authority. This seems to be intended primarily for foreign entities wishing to establish a base in Myanmar, and will likely include minimal financial investment pre-requisites. Basic infrastructure – from electric power, to internet access, to educational research and learning facilities – is uneven and undependable. We can expect significant improvements in online access within the next 12-24 months through foreign investment, but at this time access to international resources and information is very limited.
Importance of Leadership and Entrepreneurship
Despite the challenges of centralization and bureaucratic rigidity noted above, Myanmar’s civil society and educational sectors also highlight the importance of individual leadership, personality and entrepreneurship. Ministries and universities exhibit considerable variation in the degree of openness to change and internationalization. In part this appears to be determined by the relative willingness and ability of the senior ministry leadership to lead and implement reforms.
In general, there is an interest in reform and greater international connections, driven in part by a desire to reclaim the historical high standing of Myanmar’s educational system in the region. A hunger for external information and technical support is evident everywhere and at all levels of institutional and civil society hierarchies.
Today, however, modernizing the higher education system in Myanmar will require more than just upgrading buildings, classrooms, and related physical infrastructure. The more pressing need is to re-establish across the spectrum of higher education organizations a new type of totally integrated living-learning academic experience that generates fertile discourse and critical academic engagement outside as well as inside the typical academic classroom.
This is a critical juncture for engaging with Myanmar. Higher education organizations can be a catalyst in bringing funders together with educators and government entities to make sure that investment is made where it can do the most good in preparing the future workforce and supporting economic development. There is no doubt that the awakening that has taken place in Myanmar is a welcome sight for those who have watched from afar while Myanmar’s universities deteriorated due to explicit neglect and political heavy-handedness. Nonetheless, while it remains quite clear that Myanmar’s universities are embarking on a path that eventually will prove rewarding and yield promising results, they too must remain focused on bringing about high priority, critically needed incremental changes and proceed ahead at a moderate versus an accelerated pace to ensure continued political support for the current reforms taking place. It is incumbent on the international education community to respect the need for such a deliberate choice and to proceed ahead accordingly.
Japan and India are among the countries at the forefront of this effort. “We are ready to help,” said Hiroto Arakawa, Vice-President the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), at the WorldEconomic Forum on East Asia in Myanmar.
JICA is signing an agreement with Myanmar to extend US$ 500 million in aid for ‘quick-fix type power projects’ in the Yangon area and education and other development programmes among the country’s ethnic groups. Japan will also provide loans to build infrastructure in a new special economic zone in Myanmar and open a vocational training centre in August.
For its part, India is helping set up the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology in Mandalay, patterned after the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology system, which has produced some of the world’s top engineers and scientists. “The first batch of students will be admitted in September this year,” said Subramanian Ramadorai, Vice-Chairman, Tata Consultancy Services, India. The school will train thousands of IT specialists in four or five years.
Since mid-2012, Australia has helped to deliver textbooks to 700,000 school children and improved access to early childhood development for 140,000 boys and girls. This has helped lift the standards of education by training 32,000 teachers and 7,400 school administrators.
Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala II, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ayala Corporation, Philippines, noted that his country is in a similar situation as Myanmar in terms of its young population. The youth must be equipped with thinking and creative skills and expertise, not rote learning, he said. Giving the example of the US$ 15 billion business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines, he urged harnessing the private sector to help develop new sectors and create jobs. “Business can help create new models with academia,” he said.
In the case of the BPO sector, the private sector formed an industry association and leveraged the combined influence of its members to persuade schools to equip students with computer skills and fluency in English, which are essential for BPO work. Today, nearly 800,000 jobs have been created in the new industry, staffed mostly by young people.
As Myanmar embarks on socio-economic transformations, education must play a critical role in promoting inclusive growth and poverty reduction. This will help Myanmar meet rapidly evolving labor market needs, rebalance and equip the economy to modernize and move into higher value-added sectors, and successfully enter regional and global markets.
The Burmese language (myanma bhasa) is the official language of Myanmar. Burmese is the native language of the Bamar and related sub-ethnic groups of the Bamar, as well as that of some ethnic minorities in Burma like the Mon. Burmese is spoken by 32 million as a first language and as a second language by 10 million, particularly ethnic minorities in Myanmar and those in neighboring countries. (Although the constitution officially recognizes the English name of the language as the Myanmar language, most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese.)