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Investing in Burma’s Youth Will Pave Path to Democracy

Burma is suffering from a substantial knowledge and leadership gap that is hindering its efforts to become a successful democracy.

Article by Jieun Pyun October 29, 2020 //   5 minute read

Burma is suffering from a substantial knowledge and leadership gap that is hindering its efforts to become a successful democracy.

The country’s education system is one of the worst in the world in terms of attendance, according to UNICEF, but that wasn’t always the case. Decades ago, Burma was home to one of Asia’s great university systems -- before military dictators seized power, destroyed universities and branded students and faculty as enemies of the state, killing and imprisoning thousands.

This history puts Burma at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to embracing democracy because its young leaders haven’t been taught the practical skills and principles to be successful. The George W. Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Program is trying to help close this educational gap and graduated our fourth class of 23 scholars last week.

Representing a cross-section of the country’s rich ethnic and religious backgrounds, the Bush Institute scholars have spent the past six months learning about and discussing subjects like political philosophy, policy, human rights, democratization, civil-military relations, free market economics, and how ongoing ethnic conflicts are harming Burma’s fragile democracy. All these topics had been prohibited in Burma for decades.

Since its inception in 2014, the program has trained 79 men and women from across Burma, including former political prisoners, civil society activists, members of parliament, journalists, educators, health practitioners, and other emerging leaders. All show remarkable optimism and a resilience that inspires others.

Together, the scholars work to overcome their differences and unite under a shared vision of a more prosperous and democratic Burma. And with the knowledge and experiences they gain from the program, participants are contributing to the country’s educational reform process when they return home.

The challenges are substantial. Education was highly restricted under the military dictatorship which ruled Burma for decades. Academic freedom was considered a threat to the regime. Government spending on education was sharply reduced and country’s prominent universities were forcibly closed to avoid the possibility of student-led political movements.

The country’s flagship university and the center of civil discontent, Yangon University, was closed for most of the 1990s, resulting significant gap in county’s higher education. Where universities remained open, the military dismantled student unions, sent intelligent officers to classrooms to supervise lessons, and shuttered political science departments.

Yangon and all the universities in Burma are now in desperate need of reform. 

Primary education isn’t much better: One in five children between the ages of 6 and 10 aren’t attending school, either because they never enrolled or because they dropped out. Economic hardships force many young children to give up on education to work in farms, tea shops, and factories to provide income to their families.

The country’s ongoing ethnic conflicts are also disrupting the path to learning for many children. In 2018, the 184,000 Burmese children most at risk of missing out on an education were between ages 3 and 17 and living in the conflict-affected areas of Kachin, Rakhine and northern Shan States.

Because of these attacks on education, Burma lacks educational infrastructure, and an entire generation of students and teachers lost the right to a quality education. Today, the country is suffering the consequences of neglecting and suppressing education.  But many Bush Institute scholars are trying to help.

In Yangon, Phyoe Phyoe Aung and James at the Wings Institute are educating youth leaders through a reconciliation exchange program, contributing to the country’s peace-building process.

In Mandalay, Tayzar San at the Yone Kyi Yar Knowledge Propagation Society is serving the community with a free public library and providing capacity-building training. A Karen ethnic, Ei Ei Phyu at RISE (Rural Indigenous Sustainable Education) is promoting indigenous people’s right to access a culturally appropriate and quality education in their mother tongues.

Democratization is a long and difficult journey and well-prepared youth lay a firm foundation for democracy to take root. They are the generation who will complete the democratization process and nurture and sustain democracy.

New Liberty and Leadership Program graduates are working to open schools for street children, advising parents on child nutrition, and educating first-time voters ahead of Burma’s upcoming election in November. Together, they and others in their generation are bringing the country a step closer to its full potential as a free democracy.

Watch's Jiuen Pyun's interview with VOA Burma.