Webinar on “Education Disrupted? Legacies and Prospective Transformations in Myanmar’s Education Landscape”

The 2021 coup in Myanmar disrupted both trajectory and choices for K-12 and higher education in Myanmar.  Pro-democracy stakeholders have been working on alternative education options in the post-coup environment, while structural inequalities continue to exist in Myanmar. Three speakers shared their research, policy, and practitioner insights, discussing past, present, and future challenges, and the importance of an inclusive education system that can meet the needs of the youth in a conflict-prone society.


Monday, 10 July 2023 – The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme invited Ms Isabella Aung, Ms Hla Hla Win, and Mr Saw Kapi to reflect on the impact of the military coup on Myanmar’s education sector and the pre-existing gaps in accessing quality education for diverse communities.  The webinar, moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, Myanmar Studies Programme Coordinator, attracted the interest of 82 attendees and concluded with 22 questions from the audience.

Clockwise from top left: Mr Saw Kapi, Ms Isabella Aung, Ms Hla Hla Win and Ms Moe Thuzar (moderator). (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Higher education options pre- and post-coup

  • The post-secondary education system offered a conducive environment for learning prior to the 1962 coup in Myanmar.  Studying abroad was actively encouraged. After the 1962 military coup, the Revolutionary Council (and later the Burma Socialist Programme Party) placed tighter restrictions on the higher education sector. There were limited opportunities for overseas study (and exposure to ideas). The military regime post-1962 also proceeded to nationalise (and Burmanise) educational institutions.
  • The military regime that ruled Myanmar from 1988 to 2011, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) later the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), implemented measures that further hindered higher education pursuit. University campuses were split or relocated to remote areas with poor transport connectivity. Rural and ethnic minority communities had even more limited access to higher education opportunities, and, in the case of ethnic minorities, opportunities to learn in their own ethnic languages.
  • The transition to a quasi-democracy from 2011 onwards dismantled several previous restrictions for higher education access. Private colleges and universities re-emerged, and previously banned academic disciplines became once more available. Social media also played a role in facilitating education opportunities and connections.
  • Throughout Myanmar’s history, students have been at the forefront of opposing authoritarian rule and voicing their opinions regarding their future. However, speaking out against injustice or political issues usually led to persecution or punishment by the state.
  • Myanmar’s higher education sector was once again affected by the military’s power seizure in February 2021. The 2021 coup further disrupted higher education and learning, which was already facing challenges and disruption starting with nationwide closures in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. The State Administration Council (SAC) announced the reopening of schools and universities in May 2021, but many students refused to return to classes to study in an education system under a military dictatorship.
  • Though there are some limited opportunities to pursue virtual online diploma courses, students still face challenges such as limited internet access and security risks. Students fleeing persecution or those keen to pursue educational opportunities abroad also face the risk of arrest or denial of departure at the airport. The lack of academic credentials and the lack of international recognition for post-secondary courses taken in Myanmar present further obstacles for many bright young students in Myanmar seeking higher education opportunities abroad.
  • Without degrees or professional experience, young people also face challenges in finding meaningful employment. The lack of emphasis (or attention paid to) internship opportunities or basic job readiness skills such as writing résumés and preparing for job interviews adds to this difficulty.
  • Since the coup, students have also been reporting feelings of isolation, depression, stress, and anxiety. It is crucial to recognise and address the mental health crisis among university students in Myanmar.
  • Minority populations in Myanmar have historically faced oppression and persecution in the education sector. Minority languages and cultures have been marginalized, and access to higher education is even more challenging due to political violence and conflict.
  • Since the assimilation and normalization of minority populations have been at the expense of their traditions, higher education providers need to address the needs of minority populations and create accessible education options that consider diverse communities.

360ed initiative and K12 education

  • The National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s National Education Strategic Plan (2016) provided the framework for reforming the country’s education to move away from rote learning, and adopt student-centred teaching models and elevate critical and independent thinking. The transformative potential of digital education thus seemed an appropriate next step for democratising access to education. The political opening of the past decade (2011-2021) offered Myanmar social and tech entrepreneurs (such as 360ed) an opportunity to participate in Myanmar’s budding education reforms.
  • Digitising education access would help overcome the challenge of access to physical textbooks in remote areas, as well as alleviating to some extent the shortage of teachers and trainers in remote areas.
  • To make a difference in the education sector and to overcome those obstacles, 360ed aimed to utilise the rising mobile penetration and transform the educational landscape with many young digital natives. When the COVID-19 pandemic started causing lockdowns globally, 360ed had around 100, 000 subscribers/members in Myanmar.
  • In 2019, 360ed signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Education under the NLD government to digitize textbooks and create engaging learning experiences. The COVID-19  lockdown thus helped to boost the digitalisation of education in Myanmar in 2019-20.
  • Although 360ed managed to adapt to remote learning arrangements during the pandemic, the 2021 coup disrupted its ability to continue providing impactful services and products. The 360ed Myanmar office moved to Thailand for staff safety and other concerns. However, it has continued to develop and provide impact projects for Myanmar students and learners, including elementary science and English learning apps, sustainable agricultural learning apps for farmers in Myanmar,  and sexual and reproductive rights literacy for youths.  360ed has also expanded language options (adding Jingpho and Rakhine) in its educational apps to reach wider audiences in and across Myanmar.

Learning opportunities on nation-building and federal aspirations

  • Alongside the K-12 and tertiary learning, there are several ethnic education entities along the Thai-Myanmar border. Short-term courses on governance and public administration for government administrators at the local and federal levels can significantly assist policy implementation and relations between local communities and administrators.
  • For example, a significant number of township administrators in Myanmar’s various states and regions are appointed from the General Administration Department (GAD), and are former military officials. As such, they mainly followed a centralised “central command” approach to administration, which was not helpful for policy implementation during the reforms attempted during Myanmar’s decade of opening.
  • Learning from this decade of reform and peace negotiations, and following the advent of the Federal Democracy Charter in 2021, the Salween Institute for Public Policy and Thabyay Education Network Foundation – which are independent research and education entities – established the School of Government and Public Administration to focus on training public administrators and leaders in a federal democratic setting.
  • The programme currently trains around 50 to 55 future public administrators at the local level each year and is expanding to include in-service public administrators from ethnic resistance organisations.
  • The role of education in nation-building is also crucial in forging a national identity and navigating the direction of the country. It is important that the country’s education system imparts an honest representation of the country’s diversity and foster inclusivity. If younger generations are unaware of the reality of diversity in Myanmar’s context, and without honest discussion and debates at both secondary and tertiary levels, younger generations will be ill-equipped to face harsh realities. In a federal state, young people and future administrators need to be aware of and conversant with different cultures and languages.
  • At present, ethnic education entities and networks are striving to fill the gaps of education disruption and inequalities which existed even before the 2021 coup.  Efforts include seeking recognition (accreditation) from international institutions for alternative education qualifications, and addressing the need for post-secondary education in ethnic areas, particularly conflict-prone areas. For example, in Kayin (formerly Karen) State, education in areas under the Karen National Union’s administrative reach serves a large number of students.
  • Despite the challenges, education continues to be important for nation-building, and ethnic education systems can play their part. To do so, however, requires interest and support from international partners. Helping widen and broaden education access opportunities for Myanmar youth will help Myanmar build a stronger foundation for a democratic future, and strengthen capacities to sustain and uphold democratic practices and principles.

The audience raised a series of thought-provoking questions to each of the speakers, inquiring further information on specific educational products offered by 360ed, the taboos and sensitivities surrounding sexual reproductive health education for underage students within the Myanmar context, the challenges to education posed by inadequate infrastructure such as limited access to electricity and the internet, particularly in the post-coup situation, the importance of depoliticizing education,  how the international community can contribute to addressing Myanmar’s educational needs, existing gaps in education for children in IDP camps, lessons or models from Thailand and other countries’ education and nation-building experiences, the significance of cultural sensitivity in alternative education, the accessibility of education in Ah Nyar (Central Myanmar) regions, the role of financing in education, and the potential positive long-term impact and benefits of education opportunities for members of the Myanmar Armed Forces.