Myanmar’s Government Excludes Influential Education Group from Reform Talks

Myanmar is in the midst of a massive upheaval. Following the 2011 dissolution of the military junta that had controlled the country since 1962, the country has begun a process of democratization and reform. But now, just after the Ministry of Education hosted a forum on reforming an educational system in desperate need of change, the government is facing criticism for excluding the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a prominent civil group attached to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party. “In their latest action, they have denied us participation. We don’t think their process is inclusive enough,” said NNER member Sai Khaing Myo Tun.

burma seah1 coverThein Lwin, speaking for the NLD education bloc, said 150 members of the NNER were initially invited to attend the forum, but then the government abruptly revoked their invitations. “We had already prepared to go, and they cancelled,” said Lwin. “It is difficult to work together with the government because this is not the first time they have changed their minds. It’s difficult to believe them, to trust them.”

The Ministry of Education is currently in a two-year process of reviewing the public school system, identifying major priorities and recommending new policies. Ministry officials in charge of the Comprehensive Education Sector Review maintain that their process is inclusive and that they are collaborating with civil groups, NGOs, and community organizations.

In this latest process of education reform, civil groups like the NNER are calling for autonomous universities, higher teacher pay, and lessons involving ethnic minorities and multilingual education.

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Child Soldiers Released from Service in Myanmar

BurmaMyanmar’s military has recently released 96 child soldiers from service. Since the government of Myanmar agreed to end the use of child soldiers in 2012, five release events have taken place to discharge a total of 272 children and young adults from military service.  No one knows how many more children remain in official and unofficial armed forces.

Following five years of negotiating with the United Nations, the Burmese government signed a Joint Action Plan in June 2012. This agreement stated that underage children would no longer be recruited, and existing child soldiers would all be released and rehabilitated within 18 months. December 2013 was the deadline for the plan’s completion, yet the situation is far from resolved. Recruitment of children continues and a large number of children remain in service.

Bertrand Bainvel of UNICEF described this release as “a strong commitment by the Myanmar government and the Tatmadaw to end a practice that steals the lives, hopes, and dreams of children…What has happened cannot be undone. However, research has clearly demonstrated that when children experience extreme forms of trauma – whether sexual abuse, physical or psychological violence, or experience in combat – they can and often do become full, productive members of communities.”

Recruiters convince young children to join the armed forces through coercion and false promises. They largely  prey upon vulnerable children, such as orphans and street children, who will not be missed. They search for these recruits in crowded urban areas like bus stations, market places, and railway stations where they can more easily go unnoticed.

One child soldier described how he was recruited and expressed his hopes for his release, stating “when I get back outside, I will attend the school again. After I failed the matriculation exam I didn’t dare to go back home so I was riding a boat…when a man approached me and asked me whether I want a job. I said I will do any job I can get so I followed him to a battallion in Mandalay.”

Once recruited, children as young as eleven are sent to basic training for several months before being given an official assignment. Once assigned, they suffer from starvation, harassment and beatings by adult soldiers. Even though they are only children, theye also expected to fight like adults using weapons like guns and landmines.

As a result of these experiences, freed child soldiers commonly suffer from mental and physical trauma. They require support and encouragement from their families and communities in order to succeed at reintegrating into civilian life. There are concerns that Myanmar’s child soldiers do not have adequate access to  rehabilitation services and supports they need to recover. Without psychosocial support these children have trouble recovering from their trauma. Without education and vocational training they have limited job opportunities.

“I’ve been in the army since I was 14. Now my uncle has come to take me home. I have never thought that I will get to see the outside world. Now, I’m going back to the village,” explained another recently released child soldier.

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Classes Resume in Philippines Following Super Typhoon

Philippines FloodingTwo months after Super Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Philippines, formal classes have resumed for the region’s school children. Teachers and students alike were delighted to return to classes and regain a sense of normalcy following the disaster.

According to Rhonalyn Grabillo, a thirteen year old student, “I am happy to go back to school. Education is important because it teaches us to read, write and respect others.” A classmate, Michel Lerios, explained “going to school is important because you make friends and it helps you to find a job.”

International organizations have partnered with the Philippine Department of Education to get schools open again. They have provided tents and other temporary structures to be used as classrooms during the reconstruction period. Additionally, students have been given new notebooks, paper, pencils and recreational supplies to help them resume their education.

Teachers, parents and students will also be receiving psychosocial support to help them deal with the hardships they have endured over the past two months. Special training and support will help teachers and parents deal with their traumatic experiences. It will also teach them how to provide children with a sense of safety and normalcy in order to begin the process of healing.

The damage done to the country’s educational infrastructure is estimated to total more than $52 million. Schools and classrooms were destroyed and damaged leaving children with no space to attend classes. Entire communities were displaced, families lost their homes, and many lost their lives. Yet despite the devastating losses endured, education continues to be a priority.

“No matter how strong was the tragedy we have gone through, our children need to be back in school. Education is the only inheritance we can give them. I want Michel and my other children to study. I don’t want them to go through the hard times I went through,” stated Marites Larios.

Super Typhoon Yolanda was one of the most destructive and powerful typhoons ever recorded. It caused extreme devastation, killing thousands and displacing nearly four million people of which 1.8 million were children. UNICEF estimated that 13.2 million people were affected by this natural disaster in total.

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Cambodia to Teach Anti-corruption in Schools

Children of Roteang Village SchoolThe Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, declared that the state will incorporate anti-corruption curricula into the national school system. This decision came in time for International Anti-Corruption Day. It is also a response to Cambodia’s reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. According to Transparency International’s annual corruption index, Cambodia ranked 160 out of 177 countries evaluated, making it the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia as perceived by investors and the private sector.

Cambodia‘s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport is working together with the country’s Anti-Corruption Unit to develop lessons that will teach students about corruption. Once completed, a committee will convene to review these lesson plans before they are incorporated into the national school system’s curricula in 2014.

This educational initiative is part of the Cambodian government’s ongoing battle to stop corruption in the country. Most recently, 25 government officials were sent to a 20-day course this month at the China Academy of Discipline Inspection and Supervision to learn strategies for avoiding and preventing corruption. There have been several attempts to improve anti-corruption strategies over the past few years, most notably the 2010 creation of the Anti-Corruption Unit. Although this development offered hope for improvement, according to Global Witness the Anti-Corruption Unit cannot stop corruption among high government officials because it is not run independent of the government.

Hun Sen has revisited the issue of corruption as he begins his new term as Prime Minister (from 2013-2018). He considers corruption to be a a factor in a variety of social, economic and political issues that continue to affect Cambodia’s development. For this reason, he announced “I would like to reiterate the firm commitment of the fifth term government in stamping out corruption, which is a major obstacle to economic development and poverty reduction.”

The question is whether new attempts to address corruption will be any more effective than those that have been tried in recent history.

The executive director of Transparency International Cambodie, Preab Kol stated “the government needs to enforce the anti-corruption law without exception. It needs to enhance its auditive and investigating systems to increase accountability. Third, raise awareness in the public to put pressure on and report crimes of corruption. If there is just political rhetoric and threats without any concrete measures, there is no hope for any improvement.”

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Laos To Develop Sex Education Curriculum To Reduce Teen Pregnancies

Pak Ou, LaosSomchit Inthamith, Lao Deputy Minister of Planning and Investment, has called for Laos to address high levels of teen pregnancy through sex education.  This would be a joint health and education initiative aimed at encouraging girls to complete their schooling by teaching them about the choices they have and the precautions they can take.

The Lao Social Indicator Survey of 2011-2012 reported an adolescent birth rate of 94 out of every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. Teenage girls lack the physical and emotional maturity to handle pregnancy and childbirth which is why medical complications represent the largest cause of death for Lao girls between the ages of 15 and 19.

Girls living in both rural and mountainous areas of the country are over-represented in this statistic. These girls often have little opportunity to gain an education and instead ending up married as teenagers. For these young girls, it is considered normal to begin a family at the age of 14 or 15.

Tod is a rural girl who was married and pregnant at the age of 15. Her story demonstrates how dangerous  early marriages and pregnancies can be for girls like her. When she went into labor she followed her culture’s customs and went into the forest to give birth on her own. She was lucky and survived the ordeal, but her premature baby did not. Lao girls in similar remote regions of the country commonly have no access to medical care or the knowledge they need to take care of their bodies and their babies properly.

The UNFPA recently released a report entitled Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenge of Adolescent Pregnancy which discussed the prevalence of teenage pregnancy in the developing world. Girls from an impoverished, rural, or poorly educated backgrounds are at especially high risk of teenage pregnancy. With few options in life and little access to sexual health information and services, these girls are more likely to become pregnant than wealthier, urban, and educated girls.

UN Population Fund (UNFPA) representative for Laos, Esther Muia, stated “very often, teenage pregnancy forces girls to leave school and a girl without an education is a girl who lacks the skills to find a job, build a future for herself and her family, and to contribute to her nation’s development.”

Teenage pregnancy poses severe risks to the health of teenage girls, as well as to her future education and income potential. These early births also negatively impact the lives of the children and ultimately their communities as well. There is hope, however, in the knowledge that girls who remain in school and get an education will have a lower risk of teenage pregnancy.

“By empowering girls, protecting their rights and helping them prevent pregnancy, we can make it possible for girls to realize their potential to become equal partners in development,” stated Somchit Inthamith when arguing to add sexual education to Lao school curricula.

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New Report Shows the High Cost of Keeping Children Out of School

Gabou (Mali) - Enfants de bergerA new report released by the Washington, DC-based Results for Development Institute (R4D) has shown that it is more expensive to keep children out of school than to educate them. The study, entitled Hidden Burden: The Economic Cost of Out-of-School Children in 20 Countries, shows that out-of-school children significantly affect developing countries’ economic growth.

The right of a child to education is a basic human right, but across the globe 57 million children of primary age are out of school, most of whom live in Africa and Southeast Asia. In addition to the losses the children themselves suffer from not attending school, R4D’s report shows that countries are also hurting their future economic potential by not educating their children.

By studying developing countries’ labor markets and using data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics R4D has evaluated the losses from under-educated children who will not contribute as much to their country’s GDP. In addition, they totaled how much potential future earnings the children themselves will lose by having fewer employment options available to them.

The conclusion, according to R4D’s Milan Thomas, is that on average “the cost of out-of-school children dwarfs the spending required to achieve universal primary education by a ratio of five to one.”

For several Sub-Saharan African countries, in fact, the cost of not educating children is higher than a full year’s economic growth.

In the case of Nigeria, Thomas explains, where 10 million children do not attend school, in ten years when those children enter the labor force the country will suffer a full one percent loss of its GDP, equivalent to almost $3 billion.

In publishing this research, R4D hopes to inspire governments and policy makers to push harder for universal primary education.

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Burma Struggles With Its Language of Instruction Policy

Kindergarten Child in MyanmarBurma is an amazingly diverse country, with eight major ethnic groups, over 100 subgroups, and dozens of spoken languages. However, Burmese is the only language of instruction allowed in schools, and that policy leaves many students and parents frustrated, and has educators pushing for reform.

The government’s language of instruction policy is controversial, and is indicative of decades long fighting between the ethnic Burmese-majority government and ethnic minority rebel groups. Children who speak a language other than Burmese at home often feel frustrated when they begin school.

Min Yarzar Mon, a now 24-year-old student, wishes he could have received basic education in his native language, Mon. “When I was really young, it was hard for me to speak Burmese because all my family and my cousins were Mon,” he says.

20-year-old Thida Win, of Chinese descent, echoes the sentiment. “I think they should teach in ethnic languages too,” she says. “If we only learn in Burmese, we will forget our cultural languages.”

The benefits of mother-tongue instruction are well documented. Several other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea have successfully begun native-tongue teaching programs.

Educators, parents, and stakeholders that hope for a similar change in Burma now look to the country’s Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR). CESR is the Burmese government’s reform of the public school system, which began in February 2012 and to which 20 international development partners are contributing. Experts say the program has potential to make major changes in the school system, including updating curriculum and increasing school budgets, and perhaps even opening up the language of instruction.

Julian Watson, an educational consultant working on the CESR, says that though allowing other languages to be taught in schools is beneficial, it is rarely easy.

“It is massively costly in terms of materials and everything else,” he says. “You might have eight languages being spoken in a school. Are you going to teach in eight languages? Can you afford to teach in eight languages?”

However, Watson says, the benefits of mother-tongue learning outweigh the drawbacks, and the practical problems and decisions that arise from making the switch “are not a reason not to do it.”

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Disabled Children in Burma Experience Barriers to Education

Cyclone Nargis reflections: Two of the children of Ma Mya OoIn Burma, children with disabilities have few opportunities to gain an education. Public schools often prohibit children with mental disabilities, blindness or deafness from enrolling, leaving them with few if any options. While specialized schools do exist , there are only 15 in the entire country and they struggle with too few teachers and limited resources. Under these circumstances, disabled Burmese children often grow up without an education and become dependent on their families, impoverished and unemployed.

Many barriers stand in the way of disabled children accessing education in Burma. Not only are public schools unwilling or ill-equipped to handle their special needs, but their families also have trouble seeing the value of providing them with an education.

Myat Thu Winn is not only a Burmese man with cerebral palsy, but he is also president of the Shwe Minn Tha Foundation, a non-profit organization in Burma that helps disabled students gain access to an education. He explains “we have to persuade them, the disabled children, because most of us dare not go into the community, most of us dare not go to school…Families of disabled people are very poor, so most families think we have no need to go to school. We are just a burden for them…And how will they go to school regularly, every day? If their residence is far away, the road is not accessible for us. There are so many problems.”

The Ministry of Education determined that of the country’s estimated 460,000 school-aged children with physical or mental disabilities only 2,250 of those were enrolled in school.  Of the few who do manage to attend and stay in school, only 2% will graduate with a high school education. These dismal statistics are the result of the highly limited options available to disabled students.

Living with a disability in Burma poses a wide array of challenges. With governmental and non-governmental resources being extremely limited, people with disabilities lack opportunities to gain valuable training for living independently or for specific vocational skills.  As a result, the disabled largely remain isolated and uneducated with few opportunities for independence and employment.

According to the mother of a disabled Burmese child, “the lives of children with intellectual disability are like boats without an oar; they can propel or steer to nowhere, they can float along the stream or flow with the tide. If they are faced with large waves, they can’t help but sink. Only if they’re tied to other boats with oars can they be steered to shore.”

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Bangladesh Schools Struggle To Survive During Flooding

Flash floodsChronic flooding in Southwestern Bangladesh has forced school closures, creating regular gaps in students’ education. The late October flooding has forced educators to find creative ways to continue teaching students, sometimes conducting lessons outside or organizing classes in homes or shelters.

According to UNICEF Bangladesh, almost a quarter of schools in the sub-areas of the Satkhira District have been submerged by water this year, affecting approximately 21,000 families. The unstable school year has contributed to “increasing dropout rates and decreasing chances of children completing the full primary school cycle.” According to Bangladeshi education experts, the serious interruptions have “serious” implications on the students’ studies and additional efforts are needed to repair damaged school buildings in order to keep schools functioning.

Secondary school teacher reportedly held classes “on the roof of the building,” until the water level became too high and classes were then held in locations accessible by boat or bridges. 17 year old Elias Hassan explains “we organize tutors to come and hold classes [in our homes or shelters], and the teachers do some too,” and “this continues every year now – we don’t have a permanent solution so we are still using small activities to make up for school not being open for the full year.”

Primary school principal, Chamal Nundi, reports a 50% decrease in student attendance during flooding times; at least half the year during the last decade. “Parents are afraid to let their children come to school because of the water, they want to watch them all the time.” Nundi also pointed out the school’s long term hazards, saying “over the years and years of water-logging, the school building structure is getting damaged. This is not a safe place for children even when the school is dry. Fewer and fewer children come back every year after the water-logging ends because of buildings visibly crumbling.”

Plan International in Bangladesh is currently working to mitigate the long term damaging effects of disasters on education by improving building infrastructure and incorporating disaster risk reduction into the school curriculum. 

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Thai Students Learn Chinese Culture Through Strengthened Bi-Lateral Relations

SainampeungPremier Li Keqiang visited the Chongfha Sin Seng School in Chaing Mai, Thailand; a 112 year old bi-lingual school that teaches traditional Chinese education in the country. The Chinese Prime Minister visited Thailand to strengthen the “familial affection” between the two countries; ties that have played a central role for China’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Chinese prime minster began his visitation at Chongfha Sin Seng School with performances that demonstrated students’ skills in classic Chinese arts, which included songs on traditional Chinese musical instruments, the erhu, yangqin and zither, and dances based in the arts of Tai Ji, martial arts and fan dancing. Classes are conducted by Chinese volunteer teachers who teach Chinese literature, history, geography and calligraphy.

Over 2,500 students from kindergarten through high school study at the facility, and less than 30% of the students are ethnic Chinese. Driven by Thailand’s blooming business ties with China, Thai parents are enrolling more and more children into the foreign academic institution. A Chinese-language teacher at the school, Chaidan Saeting said, “now Chinese is more popular than English when the parents consider having their children learn a foreign language.”

At least 80 schools across Thailand are following in Chongfha Sin Seng School’s footsteps, affirming the projected friendship which may waive visa requirements of visitors between both countries. Plans for a high-speed railway to connect the two countries for both business and tourist visitations was also announced. According to a Chinese reporting network, China is currently the largest trading partner of Thailand, with bilateral trade reaching almost 70 billion USD last year and a projected increase to 100 billion USD by 2015.

Premier Li Keqiang congratulated the school on its achievements and encouraged students to be envoys of the Chinese culture to “plant the Sino-Thai friendship deeply in the hearts of people.” 

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