I’ve been reading a book about Burma, now known as Myanmar. It has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons due to their treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority. This is a traditionally closed and isolated society that has recently been experimenting with a stepped approach towards joining the rest of the world.
The increased media attention has resulted in the jailing of two local journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo by the authorities. Their report featuring testimony from perpetrators of the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys, witnesses and families of the victims. The report was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May, adding to several accolades received by the pair for their journalism.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the president of the country, but the real power still resides with the generals who have had a strong grip on power for decades. The country has slipped further and further down the United Nations Education Index and in a recent report the country languishes at position 168.
During British colonial rule improvements took place with expansion of the colonial and private education system, primarily in the form of all-girls schools. From 1921 to 1931, there was a 33 per cent increase in employment of women in public administration, law, medicine, education and journalism sectors.
When Burma gained independence in 1948, the government sought to create a literate and educated population, and Burma was believed to be on its way to become the first Asian Tiger. This all came to an end because of the 1962 coup d’etat resulting in the isolation of Burma. All schools were nationalised, and educational standards began to fall.
The decline in education was further exacerbated because of the 1988 student protests. All universities were closed for two years. Parents, especially those who were better educated, resorted to using private tutors to enhance the education of their children.
The wilful destruction of the education system is one of the most tragic events in the country. A poorly educated mother of three girls complained ‘What can my daughters do without knowledge? Without learning there is nowhere to go. You ask kids today what they want to do, and they haven’t got a clue.’
After the 1988 protests and the reopening of the universities the generals decided to weed out disloyal civil servants. Everyone employed as a member of the government staff had to sit an exam.
Some of the questions were pretty obvious as to what the answer should be:
• Do you support the government of the country?
• Do you support what is said on foreign radio stations?
• Do you want the situation to return to what it was in 1988?
Some of the other questions were a bit trickier:
• For whose benefit is the military working and what is it doing?
• What would be the most suitable political system for the country?
The general population viewed this as a plan to abolish the power of thinking. Children are not encouraged to question their teachers. It has come to the stage where children see something that is not true, and they dare not say that it is not true.
A lesson in how to destroy a country.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org