[The Acton Forum] Can international organisations contribute to Myanmar’s educational development?

Meriel Suhyeon Lee
Bachelor of International Relations,

Australian National University
15 August 2015

Myanmar is now in an important stage of political and economic transition. It has experienced a movement from the military dictatorship towards democratic Myanmar in terms of politics, and there have been significant engagements in international economic system. In this stage, the international community has focused on such transitions in the country. From other states, international organizations to Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), various actors in the international society have engaged in various developmental fields in Myanmar. Education, meanwhile, is regarded as one of the essential field in which developing countries should concentrate, as it creates human capital and ultimately contributes to economic growth. Focusing mainly on the education sector with international organizations specialized in or dealing with educational development sector, this essay argues that although the international organizations have contributed to educational development in Myanmar in various ways, challenges still remained as the country is facing unique internal dynamics related to domestic political issues.

This essay first explores current basic educational situation in Myanmar in order to discuss how the international organizations contributed to educational development in the country. It then probes some challenges in terms of educational development facing Myanmar. Secondly, the essay explains how the international organizations dealing with educational development sector have contributed to the improvement of Myanmar’s educational system. Lastly, it explores some limitations that the international organizations are confronted with.

Overall, Myanmar has common problems in basic educational field that most of the developing countries may also face. Although primary education is compulsory in Myanmar, the net enrolment rate for primary school was 84.6% from 2010 to 2011.[1] However, it is reported that retention rates are quite low in spite of the relatively high initial enrolment rate.[2] According to the international figure, the overall completion rate who initially enrolled is 45%, which is quite low, with the high rate of dropout at the end of first grade as 19 %.[3] However, the figures show a difference according to the variables. Primary school enrolment rate in rural areas has been lower than that in urban area[4]. Moreover, after the initial enrolment, the rate of students remaining through to the final year was quite low in rural areas. While 76% of 10 to 15 aged children in urban areas were enrolled, the enrolled children in the same age group in rural areas were only 52%.[5]

Considering that most of the rural area citizens may be poorer than those who living in urban area, Myanmar seems to have a common problem in which other developing countries may also have—poverty. As most developing countries do, Myanmar also has problems in equality in terms of access to the basic education. Rural areas often lack the infrastructures and qualified teachers.[6] Financial pressures can be another problem for the poor households, and the parents want their children to stay at home and take care of siblings while they work, or use their children as supplementary workforce.[7] Children’s education has been more undervalued by their parents from the poor household in rural area in particular, as the parents have not been educated or benefited from it.[8]

However, although the situation of Myanmar’s educational system seems to have similar characteristics with other developing countries, educational system in Myanmar has a fundamental difference. Myanmar has unique and distinct problems in educational development that are related to the domestic politics—ethnic divisions and military influence. This unique condition seems to have been a major obstacle to developing the basic educational system in Myanmar. First, educational condition of Myanmar is varied depending on ethnicity or ethnic states. It is an important factor in evaluating the educational situation in Myanmar, as it distinctively shows that the situation is not only depending on the economic conditions of household but also depending on ethnicity. For example, while net enrolment rate for primary school in Kachin state is 94.8 %, enrolment rate of East Shan State is 61.2% and that of Chin State is 59%.[9]

Furthermore, another important fact is that most people in ethnic minority groups or states are living in remote area apart from the big cities. While the majority of Burmans who account for 68% of Myanmar citizens are living in developed cities, most ethnic minority groups—such as Shan, Karen, Rakhine and Mon— are living in rural area.[10] Moreover, the number of schools in the border regions is ranging from one school in five villages to one school in 25 villages.[11] Thus, Myanmar’s basic educational situation is not as similar as other developed country, and therefore needs further consideration in terms of educational development.

Second, in political aspect, education sector has been undervalued under the military authoritarian regime.[12] In respect of finance, in particular, a lack of funds for education has been a great challenge in the development of Myanmar’s educational system.[13] The proportion of allocated budget on education is still quite low.[14] While 20.8% was allocated in the name of supporting military, only 4.4% was allocated in education in 2013-14.[15] It is insufficient amount comparing with other neighbour countries in ASEAN, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, which allocate around 20% of their national budget for improving the educational systems.[16] Such deficit has negatively affected to the educational condition in Myanmar as it causes low salary for school teachers and physical hardships of school conditions.[17]

Furthermore, the lack of funds for education has structurally increased private household expenditure, as further amount should be necessary.[18] Parents are expected to take part in financing the educational system by paying cash in the name of donations and supplement of teacher salaries, which are apart from text books, uniforms, and basic needs in school.[19] As a result, the lack of funds has definitely led to the hardship in educational development, as it has generated further problems in Myanmar’s educational environment. After a few decades of the military dictatorship, challenges facing Myanmar’s educational development are not limited to funding.[20] It also includes the human resources development, especially in regards to the improvement of capacity of school teachers and physical improvements in infrastructures.[21] Consequently, the situation of Myanmar’s basic educational system has been worsen under the military dictatorship and has still been influenced by the military in terms of priority.

Meanwhile, international organizations, from regional interstate organizations to Asian Development Bank (ADB) to the United Nations- affiliated organizations, have assisted the educational development in Myanmar. Their works are also diverse, from direct funding and technical assistances for the government to local level of supports. Firstly, international organizations have contributed to the educational development through direct funding or by implementing the outside funding—which contribute to resolving the existing financial difficulty in the educational development of Myanmar. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) have continued to implement educational development programmes in Myanmar, which are funded by various countries and international organizations. For example, $27.5 million in 2012-2015 for Quality Basic Education Program and $2.5 million in 2014-2015 in the name of ‘Strengthening Teacher Education in Myanmar Project’ were implemented by UNICEF and UNESCO respectively, which are funded by Australia, the European Union, DFID (UK Aid), Denmark, and Norway.[22]

Secondly, there have been technical assistances from international organizations that are designed to strengthen government capacity to plan and promote educational development. According to recent ADB news, ADB supports $570,000 in education sector, by providing technical assistance in strengthening the process of planning and reforming post-primary education in Myanmar.[23] ADB also has worked with the Ministry of Education of Myanmar and other development organizations to monitor and assist education program.[24] For example, ADB has assisted capacity building of the Myanmar government, contributing in Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), in which the government established for educational development.[25] Also, UNESCO has worked for education sector policy reform in Myanmar by providing assistance to government in reinforcing institutional and organizational capacity for education policy formulation, planning and management, in the name of “strengthening in legal and policy frameworks for educational reconstruction and development of Myanmar”.[26] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Myanmar has aimed to ‘achieve universal primary education’ as one of the 8 Millennium Development Goals.[27] The UNDP has worked in Myanmar as an assistant of strengthening capacity of local governments and civil society as well as provider of livelihood support, especially in border area and ceasefire areas.[28]

However, in spite of such efforts, limitations seem to remain due to the internal dynamic in Myanmar, which are followed by the challenges facing the country. Firstly, it would be difficult for the international organizations to handle sensitive domestic political issues—ethnic language issues in education. In terms of language in education, in particular, ethnic states have requested mother-tongue based education in government schools for their communities.[29] For example, there have been requests from Mon Regions Democracy Party and PwoSgaw Karen Democratic Party, which won 16 and 9 seats in the 2010 elections respectively, to the government for permission to provide education in minority languages in public schools for their ethnic populations.[30] However, there have been several problems in such situations.[31] Education based on minority ethnic languages would require extra resources to some extent, such as training their own ethnic-based teachers in school, from their own resources.[32] In addition, from the government’s perspective, those who are educated by their own language and therefore unable to speak the national language can also be seen as a significant problem in relation to state integrity.[33] As language issue, especially in basic education, is important and sensitive for ethnic minority states, it would be a tough challenge for the international organizations to deal with.

Secondly, also related to the political issue, there is a great difficulty for weak minority ethnic groups who have had political conflicts with the government or had experienced instability. Political leaders from the groups which have been struggled against the central government have insisted independent curriculums based on their own funds and languages, which are far from national standard.[34] It leads to serious problems as any qualifications obtained within a certain ethnic region would not be recognized by other regions, countries and even their own nation, Myanmar.[35]

Furthermore, in some cases, even providing aids has been difficult.[36] Myanmar is one of the countries that has a large number of internally and externally displaced people in South East Asia, especially near border areas—as a result of ethnic political issues.[37] It is estimated that Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are around 540,000.[38] While the supports from the international organizations could reach to some conflict areas, such as Kachin and Rakhine areas,[39] providing basic needs for education and health for externally displaced people has been hardly possible.[40] As a result, it seems hard to expect the international organizations to overcome such challenges that are quite depending on domestic politics and the related ethnic issues. Thus, the degree of support from the international organizations may be limited, so there seem to have exclusions to some extent.

To conclude, although Myanmar has had common problems—related to poverty and demography—with its basic educational system as other developing countries also have, Myanmar has unique conditions that have deeply affected its basic educational development. Therefore, despite the international organizations’ significant contribution in the educational development in Myanmar, there are limitations related to domestic political issues. The unique condition that Myanmar has is attributed by domestic politics issue—ethnic issues and military influence. First, there have been political issues between the central government and ethnic minority groups who have their own languages and cultures. As most of the ethnic minority groups are living in rural areas and therefore have small and large political conflicts with the government, these politico-ethnic issues facing Myanmar are far serious and complex. Second, as Myanmar under the military control had undervalued education sector, there have been financial hardships in the educational development. It has also caused other problems, such as the increase of burden on the parents for their child education, physical hardships in infrastructures and human resources deficit. International organizations, especially specialized in development sector, have contributed to the educational development in Myanmar in various ways, including direct funding, technical assistance for the government and local level of engagement. However, due to the Myanmar’s domestic political problems, which are caused by the above-mentioned challenges, limitations seem to remain. Language issues based on ethnic diversity in providing education can be a challenge for the international organizations to deal with, as these issues are closely linked to additional use of resources as well as state integrity issue. Further to this, some minority ethnic groups who are locked in a political struggle against the government have demanded their own educational curriculum apart from the government standard. In addition, basic supports from the outside world have not reached to some people in Myanmar. There is a neglected class of people in the country that is clearly excluded from the help of the international organizations to some extent. As a result, although the international organizations have contributed to the development of educational system in Myanmar, there still remained several constrains mainly due to the domestic political issues.


[1] Martin Haydena and Richard Martin, “Recovery of the education system in Myanmar,” Journal of International and Comparative Education 2(2013): 49.

[2] Lorraine Pe. Symaco, Education in South-East Asia (New York: A&C Black, 2013), 180-181.

[3] Frank Hardmana, et al., “Developing pedagogical practices in Myanmar primary schools: possibilities and constraints,” Asia Pacific Journal of Education (2014): 1-2, accessed 28 Jul. 2015, doi: 10.1080/02188791.2014.906387.

[4] Haydena and Martin, “Recovery of the education system in Myanmar,” 49.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Symaco, Education in South-East Asia, 180.

[7] Han Tin, “Myanmar Education: Status, Issues and Challenges,” Journal of Southeast Asian Education 1(2000): 140.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hardmana, et al., “Developing pedagogical practices in Myanmar primary schools,”1-2.

[10] Haydena and Martin, “Recovery of the education system in Myanmar,” 48.

[11]Marie Lall, “Pushing the child centred approach in Myanmar: the role of cross national policy networks and the effects in the classroom,” Critical Studies in Education 52(2011): 222.

[12] Haydena and Martin, “Recovery of the education system in Myanmar,” 51.

[13] Ibid., 55.

[14] Ibid., 51.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lall, “Pushing the child centred approach in Myanmar,” 222.

[20] Haydena and Martin, “Recovery of the education system in Myanmar,” 55.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Development assistance in Burma, accessed in 31 July, 2015 http://dfat.gov.au/geo/burma/development-assistance/Pages/education-assistance-burma.aspx.

[23] Asian Development Bank [ADB], “ADB to Support Myanmar Education Assessment, Reforms,” Asian Development Bank, 23 October 2012, accessed in 31 July 2015, http://www.adb.org/news/adb-support-myanmar-education-assessment-reforms.

[24] ADB, “46369-001: Support for Education Sector Planning,” available at http://adb.org/projects/details?page=details&proj_id=46369-001.

[25] Ibid.

[26]United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organizations [UNESCO], UNESCO Country Programming Document for Myanmar 2013-2015 BGK, available at http://www.unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002237/223703E.pdf.

[27] United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], “Millennium Development Goals,” available at http://www.mm.undp.org/content/myanmar/en/home/mdgoverview/overview/mdg2/.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Marie Lalla and Ashley South, “Comparing Models of Non-state Ethnic Education in Myanmar: The Mon and Karen National Education Regimes,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 44(2014): 315.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 318.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Alistair D. B. Cook, “Positions of responsibility: A comparison of ASEAN and EU approaches towards Myanmar,” International Politics 47(2010): 438.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] UNICEF, UNICEF Annual Report 2014 Myanmar, available at http://www.unicef.org/about/annualreport/files/Myanmar_Annual_Report_2014.pdf.

[40] Alistair D. B. Cook, “Positions of responsibility: A comparison of ASEAN and EU approaches towards Myanmar,” International Politics 47(2010): 438.