Myanmar’s military regime has suspended thousands of academics for refusing to come to work. With the military likely to continue its clampdown on the education sector, hopes remain that Myanmar’s academics will not give in to the junta’s demands.
By Umair Jamal
Thousands of academics in Myanmar have been suspended from their jobs for refusing to come to work in defiance of an order from the country’s military junta.
Teachers and students in Myanmar have actively joined protests against the military and are now boycotting work as a protest against the junta’s rule.
During prior regimes, the military in Myanmar has viewed the education sector as a threat and tried to exert control over academia.
In the coming weeks, more arrests and suspensions of academics are likely to take place as the military clamps down on the education sector.
However, there is a hope that students and teachers will not give in to the military’s pressure and will continue to fight for their educational and political freedom.
Thousands of educators suspended for refusing to come to work
More than 11,000 employees from the education sector, including lecturers and university heads, have been suspended for defying the military’s orders to resume work after a yearlong shutdown of universities due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel upset to give up a job that I adored so much, but I feel proud to stand against injustice,” a university rector, who didn’t give her name or association due to fear of backlash, told Reuters.
“My department summoned me today. I’m not going. We shouldn’t follow the orders of the military council,” she added.
Speaking with Reuters, another professor who is currently on a fellowship in the United States said she was told by her institution in Myanmar that she had to declare opposition to the teacher and student strike in order to keep her job. She further added that her college had told her every scholar who declares support for the strikes will be held accountable.
Besides university academics, school teachers across the country are also refusing to come back to work. The Myanmar military plans to open schools on June 1 for the start of the normal academic year in Myanmar. According to teachers’ unions in Myanmar, roughly 10,000 teachers are refusing to go back to work.
One teacher who is boycotting the military’s call to open schools on June 1 told the Bangkok Post, “I will keep on joining the civil disobedience movement until we win against the junta.”
“How can we go to school under the military government that has killed hundreds of people and continued firing [at protesters]?” said one high school student.
The military’s attacks on education date back decades
There is a long history of military oppression against academics and universities in Myanmar. The era of General Ne Win, which started in 1962, saw the start of a 50-year “war on students” in which military-led reforms put crippling restraints on Myanmar’s university system that lasted well into the 2000s. As part of these reforms, the military regime banned any form of political activism, amended curricula and banned academics who were critical of the military’s actions.
The study of political science was replaced with a program focused on the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” Other programs to hire foreign faculty to teach in Myanmar universities collapsed and international academics stopped coming to the country. Universities across the country were stripped of their autonomy and teachers were not allowed to teach anything beyond what the military had approved.
The military’s interference in higher education led to widespread student protests in 1988. The military responded with force, leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead.
During the early 1990s, the military government started a process to move university campuses to remote areas, away from cities, in order to better handle student protests. Campuses were divided and eventually closed down entirely.
Universities were allowed to function again under the country’s democratic transition in 2011 but with little or no autonomy. It was not until September 2020 that the Education Ministry decided to offer some institutional autonomy to 16 universities to improve the quality of education in the country. Under the new rules, the Education Ministry would not interfere in university management, including the syllabi that they choose to design according to local needs.
But February’s military coup means that that the institutional autonomy given to universities by the now-ousted elected government may not be relevant anymore.
Myanmar’s education sector faces repression but hope continues
The participation of students and academics in protests against the military shows that some in the education sector are committed to fighting political repression and regaining academic freedom. It also shows that the military’s efforts to control the education sector, particularly by banning political activism on campuses, has not succeeded even after decades of repression.
The coming weeks are going to be tough for Myanmar’s academics and universities as the military is poised to take back the little space that academia gained during the last few years of civilian rule. The military’s push to control and undermine the education sector may have succeeded to some extent but it is unlikely to eradicate the voices of students and academics as they demand autonomy.
“We started the civil disobedience movement since the military coup. We do not want a dictatorship. We already experienced how bad the dictatorship was and how our education system fell back,” Hnin Yee, an English teacher from Dawei township, told University World News. She added that her goal is to end the military’s rule and win back her academic freedom. “We want justice. The education system just started changing and we don’t want to lose it,” she added.