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How can education be used to guarantee non-recurrence of interreligious violence in Myanmar?

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

Megan Binnie

BA Philosophy, Second Year, KCL

Transitional Justice

14th July 2019

In Rakhine State, on the Western border of Myanmar (formerly Burma), a grassroots workshop is held on the theme of peacebuilding. The attitudes of participants vary, each one affected differently by interreligious and intercommunal conflict in the region. When asked to illustrate their idea of peace, someone draws a picture of three men holding hands. One wears a saffron robe, one clerical clothing, and the other a taqiyah and thobe. What is striking about this image, is that it represents religious solidarity between three faiths (Buddhism, Christianity and Islam) that currently find themselves at odds with one another daily in the region.

Conflict in Myanmar, which is home to over 100 ethnic groups, has been ongoing since independence from the British Empire in 1948. After decades of autocratic military rule, the country has initiated largescale political reform with the aim of establishing a representative democracy, transforming tension and violence into peace. Due to inter-religious, inter-communal tensions being so deeply entrenched in the societal structure of the country however, the situation is fragile. The Christian minority of the Karen people residing in Karin State, are being persecuted by their own Government with the use of ‘scorched earth’ tactics. Additionally, tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in the Rakhine State have been realized in conflict. Declaration of Buddhism as the State’s official religion in 1961 has fueled the development of Buddhist Nationalist Groups, who are calling for the boycott of Muslim shops, attacks on Muslim communities and expulsion of Muslims from Myanmar.

It seems that an extensive lack of trust in Government authorities is leading people to identify with their religious or ethnic group, as opposed to an all-inclusive national identity as citizens of the same country. The idea that Buddhism is under threat by the growing Muslim population and is too weak to confront it, only becomes more prevalent as islamophobia spreads. Fear, uncertainty, and protectiveness of one’s own culture is underpinned by prejudice and ignorance of other cultures, exacerbated by the development of misinformed religious narratives. The ignorance and destructiveness of disparate worldviews will only grow in significance with each new generation, breeding nothing but misunderstanding, separation, and hostility. Those who’ve suffered directly as a result of the conflict must receive a suitable response satisfying their right to know and right to justice, perhaps in the form of a truth commission or investigative panel. However, guaranteeing non-recurrence of this conflict is the key to genuine peace in Myanmar, so taking a preventative approach is necessary if any sustainable change is to be made - my suggestion is that the education system be targeted as a point of reform.

Lack of access to education among the poor is a significant issue in Myanmar, meaning young people receive schooling wherever is appropriate and affordable to receive it. A Global Monitoring report by UNESCO in 2011 identified the underlying problem with Myanmar’s education system - it uses “schools as a vehicle for social division.”[1] While 13% of the population practice a non-Buddhist faith, references to any religions besides Buddhism are removed from educational material altogether. State schools operate a strict Burmese-language curriculum alienating students from ethnic minority backgrounds, who are forced to pursue alternative education in a language they understand. Monasteries are increasingly relied on for development of basic literacy and numeracy skills yet receive insufficient funding and resources to operate. Government attempts to assimilate them into the State school system have failed miserably.[2] In forcibly promoting ideological and political messages that emphasize Burmese nationalism and militarism through the use of school textbooks, the State has done nothing but disrespect and undermine the diversity and identities of all non-Burman, non-Buddhist groups in Myanmar.[3] Not only that, but they’ve ensured that the majority of the population have a very limited and inaccurate understanding of what their ethnic minority neighbors are experiencing in terms of State oppression.

The National Education Law (2014) offered some hope in attempting to establish a set of positive values and objectives for a national education curriculum. This was a small and inadequate step in the right direction. Deploying teachers to non-state schools with an improved salary is not a solution – a clear strategy for effective institutional reform is required if diversity, peace and security are to be respected and provided for. In 2017, the Thabyay Education Foundation made some practical suggestions, including legal recognition of ethnic education providers with an accessible transfer path to State schools, for which students can receive support.[4] But a movement offering great inspiration is the Buddhist Youth Empowerment Programme (2008), which aims to develop the leadership skills of young people, provide tools and knowledge for community organizing and facilitate networking. It has expanded and successfully trained youth in community development skills such as leadership, peacebuilding and environmental awareness.[5] In designing a new State school system or standardizing the curriculum across State and ethnic education providers, such training should be incorporated to encourage ideas of social cohesion, ethical conduct and religious acceptance. To fairly represent the diversity of ethnic groups within the country, all languages must be accounted for making this education accessible to all. An adult course of the same nature should also be developed, to aid rehabilitation efforts for those involved in past atrocities. Additionally, history books should be rewritten to fully disclose the horrors of Myanmar’s past, demonstrating the risks and realities associated with religious violence and encouraging honest critical dialogue.

Unless a strong effort is made to transform the value systems of Myanmar’s citizens to one which is embracing of their differences, there is no guarantee or even hope of non-recurrence. Focus of the peace process should be on reform of the education system in Myanmar, because this will encourage awareness, understanding and acceptance through childhood and adulthood. It is only by using education to shape attitudes and behavior, that long-lasting change can be implemented. Perhaps the image of a Buddhist, Christian and Muslim holding hands in solidarity isn’t as unusual as originally thought, but rather a positive, attainable ideal that Myanmar should be striving for.

[1] Ashley South and Marie Lall, "Language, Education And The Peace Process In Myanmar", Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal Of International And Strategic Affairs 38, no. 1 (2016): 128-153, doi:10.1353/csa.2016.0009.

[2] Nick Cheesman, "School, State And Sangha In Burma", Comparative Education 39, no. 1 (2003): 45-63, doi:10.1080/03050060302565.

[3] Ashley South and Marie Lall, "Language, Education And The Peace Process In Myanmar", Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal Of International And Strategic Affairs 38, no. 1 (2016): 128-153, doi:10.1353/csa.2016.0009.

[4] Grace Michel and Saw Myo Min Thu, Making Education Policy A Force For Peace, ebook (Thabyay Education Foundation, 2017), http://www.thabyay.org/uploads/2/6/7/4/26749033/education_for_peace_policy_white_paper_g_edited.pdf.

[5] "Myanmar", Spirit In Education Movement, accessed 7 July 2019, http://www.sem-edu.org/myanmar/.


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