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In turmoil, Myanmar families split over school

Maung Bo Yangon
March 4, 2022

Millions of families are torn between education, safety and loyalty to the pro-democratic movement when it comes to deciding whether to send their children back to public schools.

School teachers wearing red traditional Myanmar hats attend an anti-coup protest in Mandalay
School teachers attended an anti-coup protest in Mandalay this weekImage: STR/AP/picture alliance

Khin Maung Shwe, a 49-year-old father from Yangon, came under fire from his family after he enrolled his only daughter in a government-run school.

Schools in the Southeast Asian country were first shut down at the start of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were hit by further chaos after the military staged a coup on February 1 last year, prompting many students and teachers to boycott state-run schools as part of the Civil Disobedience Movement to protest against the military takeover.

People protesting in Yangon
Pro-democracy activists continue to protest the military coupImage: Myat Thu Kyaw/NurPhoto/picture alliance

After months of shutdown, schools reopened at the end of 2021.

"I should be very happy and proud accompanying her to school on the first day of her school life. However, my parents who live in another city berated me for sending her to a government school as soon as they learnt of the news," Khin, who asked not to use his real name for fear of reprisals, told DW. "They were also afraid that other people would find out about that."

After the coup, millions of parents across the country decided to take their children out of school.

Approximately 12 million children missed school for 18 months due to COVID-19, coup-related protests and conflict, according to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report from 2021. Some parents also feared the military personnel stationed at or nearby schools.

School attendance was between 40% and 50% as of December 2021, the UNICEF report estimated.

Myanmar state school students
State school students attend a ceremony to mark Myanmar's 75th anniversary of Union Day in Naypyitaw on February 12Image: AP/picture alliance

Students urged not to attend state schools

Some families, however, also fear being labeled as traitors by anti-coup supporters for sending their children back to state-run schools.

The National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel government formed out of democratic resistance, has urged all students and teachers not to attend schools and said that it would not recognize degrees, diplomas and certificates issued by schools under the military government.

Authorities instructed boycotting teachers to return to school, but without much success.

Khin, who also supports the anti-coup movement, almost withdrew his daughter from school due to pressure from his family.

"The country is in collapse because of the coup. But my daughter's education is a separate issue. She needs education to survive. So, I fought against my family to send my kid to school," Khin said.

But not everyone is certain about sending their children back to school just yet.

Zaw Aung (name changed), a resident from Pyay in the Bago region, did not allow his son to go back to school this year. However, he says his son would return next year because otherwise his son's life would be "ruined" if he misses another school year.

Min Kyaw Myaing, a 17-year-old student (name changed) from Mandalay, northern Myanmar, is determined not to sit for the matriculation exam at the end of March this year.

"I don't want to go to school and sit the exam. Many of my friends do not go to school either. My parents did not approve of my decision at first. But, they finally gave in," he told DW.

Myanmar sees deterioration of quality education

Children who have returned to school have discovered that the quality of education has significantly deteriorated since the coup.

"Half of the children did not show up. Seven out of 10 teachers are still boycotting. As there are fewer teachers, teaching quality is not good," says Than Than Myint (name changed), a member of a parent-teacher association of a high school in downtown Yangon.

"There are newly recruited teachers to replace boycotting teachers. These new teachers are educated but not trained well to be teachers," she told DW.

Children in conflict-affected regions where the military is fighting armed ethnic groups and the People's Defence Force of the NUG are fleeing their homes and abandoning their studies in even greater numbers.  

The NUG says it provides some online and offline learning programs. Poor internet and power cuts, however, hinder online learning.

Myanmar opposition urges recognition for government-in-exile

"Power cuts are also a big problem," Shwe Zin Aung (name changed) told DW. The 30-year-old offers free soft skills and English-language training to boycotting students via Zoom, a video conferencing software.

"At first, the class is full. Then, most of them drop out one by one as they can no longer afford internet data charges as the economic situation worsens," she added.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum