Sunday, 14 February 2016

Education is the key factor to move Burma forward

Burma which is officially known as the Republic of Union of Myanmar will be covered in a television documentary produced by a team of Estonian public Broadcasting (director Tarvo Mölder, cinematographer Margus Malm and editor Indrek Treufeldt).

According to western media Burma has been widely known as a military-ruled authoritarian country. Nearly 50 years the country has borne international isolation. There Buddhism has a special status. Still it is a country of ethnic and religious conflicts. Officially the government recognises more than 130 distinct ethnic groups and also eight so-called ‘major national ethnic races’.  Recent general elections have brought some hope for democratic parties but a flawed constitution could be an obstacle for urgent reforms.

The TV crew started its visit from Mandalay, a city considered as a cultural capital of Burma. From Mandalay they went to Hsipaw and Namlan which both are in Shan State. It is a state with distinctive ethnicity and culture. There was a chance to travel to some remote and isolated areas with small settlements and villages. Finally the crew arrived in Yangon which is the former capital of Burma with more than 4 million inhabitants. 

The documentary examines problems and challenges concerning the educational system in Burma. There is a comparison on two different schools as typical examples of recent advances in the country. The development aid component is vital in both cases. Estonian volunteers have been working for the Rural Development Fund, an institution that helps to develop primary and also secondary education in Burma. Also Estonians contributed to find some innovative teaching methods in the biggest monastic school in the world.

One of the schools observed during the visit was a primary school Zarm Kar, in a small village of Shan State. It is a village of 200 people and 50 households. At present there is no electricity, no telephone lines or mobile network coverage. The school was opened recently as an initiative by Sai Naw Kham. He is the person who leads the Rural Development Foundation. As he explains besides logistical obstacles (bad roads and poor infrastructure in general) there are also economic and psychological constraints. In many cases children have to work on fields to help families to get their basic income. The community leader Lon Num said in the interview that after the school was built, families found new ways to cooperate and finally let children to go to school. Still the problem is that only a few children can continue their education in secondary schools. The Rural Development Foundation started to build special dormitories for villagers in towns where secondary education is available. Still there is a long way to go.

The second school observed closely during the journalistic visit was the Phaung Daw Oo Monastic Education High School. It is situated in Nanshe, in the suburb of North East Mandalay, one of the biggest cities in Burma. The school was founded by a young monk U Nayaka who currently is the headmaster of the school. His idea was to educate poor children, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. U Nayaka considers that the traditional Burmese teaching methods (first of all primitive repetition, monological teaching principles) do not enable to develop necessary creativity and critical thinking skills the country needs. Now all the teachers of the school use competitive debate as a tool to teach critical thinking to help to present different sides of an argument. Those are vital preconditions for emerging free and democratic public sphere in the country.

Young students (Htet Nainglin, Phone Mit Ko) described their experiences with different students projects, which are new for a country like Burma. The warden of the girls’ dormitory (Har Khaw Dee) explained what does it mean to bring together children of different background (ethnicities and religion). Traditionally monastic system has been dominated by men. Now there is an opportunity provided also for girls. There is interesting to see how traditional (Buddhist tradition first of all) and innovative pedagogical approaches come together in the biggest monastic school in the world with more than 8 thousand students where English is widely spoken which is not typical for Burma.

Both schools were also visited by the representatives of NGO Mondo (Johanna Helin and Triinu Ossinovski). For the TV crew it enabled to get valuable background information on perspectives and challenges of international development aid cooperation.

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