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'All history is propaganda'

‘We don’t need no education,’ goes the song. In Burma, they take it literally. The country has reasonable rates of literacy but appalling academic standards. I met up with a group of young people from Shan State and they told me their experiences of Burmese classrooms. They were following a nine-month blitz of a course to develop their critical faculties and computing skills at the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY) in Thailand. Most will then go on to be active in their communities back in Burma, as educators and motivators for change.

The school’s location is kept secret and its students must stay under ‘house arrest’ for their own safety. They all requested anonymity. Here is what they had to say:

*Knowing nothing*

‘I was an economics major at university, but I knew nothing. They taught the first year’s syllabus in 10 days. Our classes were in English, but I didn’t know the meaning of what was being said. So we just learned by heart or copied. There was only one teacher teaching the economics major. We had to take turns to attend tuition and push to get into the lecture room.’

‘At exam times we just copied [cheated]. It all depends on where you get a seat. If it’s far away from the teacher, then you’re lucky – you can copy a lot. Sometimes they didn’t lock the door of the room and the students came and wrote down notes on the desk beforehand. Most of the teachers knew what we were up to – they had done the same in their time. If, unfortunately, you didn’t have a “lucky seat” and you failed the exam, you went to the teacher’s home. You have to give him some money and he says: “Give me your table number.” If he says that, then you will be ok. If you take private tuition from the teacher, you get all the questions before the exams.’

*The bogey of politics*

‘We don’t have any chance for political education in Burma. They don’t teach critical thinking. We just have to copy things from the textbook. They show us the textbook and we write it down. Teachers are frightened to touch anything political.’

‘I finished high school in 2004, but I didn’t know anything about Than Shwe. Who is this Than Shwe? Also, who are the SPDC? I knew nothing about them.’

*Don’t speak the language*

‘Our ethnic history was completely suppressed. Their history books were written how they wanted them.’

‘We learnt only about Burman history, not about other ethnic people. Only a little bit in war history. We call our country the Union of Burma, but they only teach about the Burmans [the ethnic majority]. They didn’t allow us to wear our traditional clothes. We have no human rights, so how can we have ethnic [ie cultural] rights?’

‘The curriculum is flexible. In 2005 they had a big clash with the resistance groups along the Thai-Burma border. At that time they published new textbooks for the 4th to 8th standards about the Thai-Burma relationship. They taught the children bad things about the resistance groups and how the Thai Government was supporting the groups. My friend took “International Relations” as a major at university. But they just sat around talking about how bad the resistance groups were. What they learnt in Shan State they could not use anywhere else in Burma.’

‘In Burma, all history is propaganda. We couldn’t even speak our Shan language in school, let alone be taught it.’

*Then and now*

‘In Burma, English lessons at school went like this: ‘My name is Ay Ay. My mother is Pay Pay. My father is Oo Oo.’ So all of us had the same parents! At university no-one could write an essay. They get the teacher to write one for them and memorize it. Here things are very different and it has changed our lives.’

‘The difference is, now I am speaking with you. When I started, I could not introduce myself.’

‘When we asked questions in Burma, the teacher always replied: “Please listen, and follow me.” The first time we had to talk for ourselves here we were shaking. I now teach students to be confident and talk in front of people.’

School for Shan State Nationalities Youth