Burma's lost generation


Former Burmese students continue their protests, in Bangkok

By regional analyst Joe Havely:

For much of the past decade, Burma's universities and high schools have been silent. An entire generation has missed out on education, and those who do have training are leaving the country. These are Burma's lost generation.Burma was once one of the most economically promising countries in Asia. But years of economic mismanagement have made it one of the poorest in the world.

The student 'threat' Burma's military leaders have long been suspicious of campus politics. After seizing power in 1962, the army blew up the student's union building at Rangoon University. "The government has never understood the students" says Kyi Kyi May, head of the BBC Burmese Service. "Even the smallest protests were seen as a threat." After the military crackdown in 1988, many students who took part in the protests were forced to flee the country. As universities were closed, those who had their education cut short were forced to work as trishaw drivers, road sweepers or even prostitutes.

Some were educated at home or in the private schools that sprang up for those that could afford them. But subjects like medicine, law and accountancy are difficult to teach outside established universities.

Strict control
Today the man in charge of Burma's education system is Lt-General Khin Nyunt - the head of military intelligence and the strongman of the Burmese government. The government fears that student gatherings may rekindle the flames of political opposition and he has strict control of what is taught.

"There's no freedom to chose courses," says Aye Min, a former Burmese university lecturer. "Everything must be submitted to the government-controlled senate for approval."It is a different story for the rulers' children.They have access to education abroad and are guaranteed jobs in the many business interests run by the generals.

Standards plummet

Although the government says it values education, under military rule, 40% of Burma's national budget is devoted to military spending - a mere 5% goes on education. Wages have been so low that those with the skills to teach are unwilling to work. The poorly-trained teachers that do work are made to teach according to strict guidelines and are responsible for preventing their students from engaging in unauthorised political activities.

Aye Min says teaching quality has suffered: "When the universities are open there is a feeling that they have to make up for lost time. So they've cut the length of time it takes to get a BA or BSc from four years to just four months." The cumulative effect is that standards plummet: new teachers are not trained, skills and knowledge do not get passed down, and an educational rot sets in.

Brain drain
Added to this is the steady departure of Burma's trained professionals -doctors, surgeons, engineers and lawyers - frustrated at the lack of opportunity. Many young professionals protested alongside the students in 1988. At the time, it was difficult for people to emigrate.But since then, says Kyi Kyi May, the government has freed up the system: "The government decided that if they're not happy, they should let them go. That leaves fewer people to speak out against them."

While the generals live in luxury, for those that remain life is hard. Kyi Kyi May has spoken to many people in Rangoon who say they often have to live without electricity or running water.
"Deprived of these necessities people are more worried about this than democracy" she says.
Without an educated society many observers fear that an efficient civilian government and civil service cannot emerge.
John Jackson of the human rights organisation Burma Action Group says the junta's policy is to "deliberately encourage a brain drain." He says that by preventing the emergence of an alternative, the generals believe they can hold on to power.
Burma has the potential to be a rich country. It has oil, gas and other mineral reserves, and the country used to be one of the world's major rice exporters. But in the grip of Burma's generals, exploitation of the country's resources is channelled to the ruling elite, and they are keen to keep it this way. After all says Kyi Kyi May, "the military didn't take power just to give it back again."
  • Sound of gunfire
  • Euphoria in Rangoon
  • Lost Generation
  • After ten years
  • Multinational & ..
  • Waiting for Democracy
  • Photos
  • Archive photos
  • Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
  • Profile
  • Biography