Teachers, students suffer opposing the military regime

With Myanmar’s ‘Spring Revolution’ in its third year since the military coup of February 2021, the financial and mental stresses experienced by teachers, students and education staff have been considerable. This is according to an education sector survey by Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) in exile, made up of former democratically elected members and allies, before the junta overturned the November 2020 election results by seizing power.

Until she moved to Mae Sot in Thailand, just across the border from Myanmar, Daw Sandar (not her real name), a former teacher at the University of Myeik, suffered from sleep disruption at night, as she feared being arrested for joining the peaceful Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against the military regime.

She received a termination letter from her university in May. She decided to flee to Thailand after she received a tip-off about her arrest for donating money to resistance fighters via KBZPay, the mobile wallet platform.

“I have received psychological support three times since the coup,” Daw Sandar, who volunteers for an interim higher education programme, told University World News. Over the last three months she has been suffering from hormonal imbalance and rheumatoid arthritis, she said.

In May, the Interim Educational Research Group under the NUG’s Ministry of Education released a survey on those who have taken part in the CDM, including boycotting classes or refusing to work under the military regime, which found they were often driven to financial and emotional desperation. For some, their houses were destroyed, some have lost a family member, while others live so far away from their homes they need motivational conversations and psychotherapy.

The survey report on “the needs of CDM participants from Myanmar’s education sector” is based on interviews with eight CDM participants, including a student resistance fighter, an associate professor and a teacher resistance fighter.

Teachers have not found employment

According to the report, the majority of CDM participants who fled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot for refuge have not found employment. Some are teaching CDM students online, but they do not receive a salary. Those who volunteered to teach online learning programmes or conduct educational research, albeit unpaid, are reluctant to work in factories or in industry for an income.

They fear the public education system in Myanmar will not function if they leave teaching. Some even ask their families for their monthly expenses.

Many CDM university and school teachers are left unemployed and living in fear. However, they have been resilient. “We still participate in CDM because of our strong commitment. We help and support each other through any hardship rather than relying on NUG’s and other support. The revolution’s success is our priority,” Daw Sandar said.

While in Myanmar, she received financial support from civilian supporters on at least 10 occasions. She shared the money with the NUG’s Ministry of Education, other CDM staff, and teachers at her university, as well as detainees and resistance fighters.

Some support from NUG

Last year, on the second anniversary of the CDM, NUG’s Ministry of Education released an official statement in recognition of the CDM teachers. It said that after the success of the revolution, the time teachers have spent on civil disobedience would be counted towards their term of service, and compensated with pay when they return to schools in Myanmar.

“As the regime continues to violently put down resistance and many of its political opponents are in jail or [have] fled abroad, its implementation waits to be seen,” Daw Sandar said, but she added at least the news from the NUG consoled her.

“The majority of teachers, students and staff who were forced to flee are left unemployed. They live in depression. People with a revolutionary spirit should help them financially and psychologically,” Nyein Nyein Aung, a CDM secondary teacher from Hmawbi Post-primary School, told University World News. While in Myanmar, she received no financial support.

She fled to Mae Sot about nine months ago, borrowing MMK1.5 million (US$714) from a friend to cover her travel expenses.

In Thailand, the NUG provides 8 kg of rice, cooking oil, canned fish, beans, onions and garlic to each CDM participant a month. Nyein Nyein Aung receives these provisions delivered to her doorstep by volunteers in Mae Sot. She arrived in Mae Sot nine months ago, and started receiving regular provisions five months ago but says it is not enough for her to survive.

Nyein Nyein Aung served at a polling station when Myanmar’s general elections were held on 8 November 2020. The teachers counted the votes in front of representatives from competing political parties. She knew the election results were honest, but the military took power, accusing the civilian government of ‘electoral fraud’.

She felt it was an insult to teachers and decided to join the CDM saying she could not tolerate unfairness. She has also been charged under Myanmar’s section 505(a) which punishes those who encourage members of the civil service to join the CDM.

With a passion for filmmaking, she now devotes her energy to documenting the plight of CDM participants living in Mae Sot. She has produced four documentary films. Her first documentary entitled For Justice won third prize from the rights group Asia Justice and Rights. This included a US$500 cash prize. She used the money to pay off the travel loan to her friend.

Students live in fear

Former students also live with no income and have to deal with depression and fear.

Nyi Nyi, a drone pilot at Federal Wings which operates combat drones, was attending a private English language school to study abroad when the military seized power.

When he was in kindergarten, his family endured seven years of separation for going against military rule. He could not tolerate injustice, he said. “People have endured oppression, home loss and family separation. I felt it more, because my family suffered separation in my childhood for rebelling against military rule. I should revolt against this bad rule,” Nyi Nyi told University World News.

When Nyi Nyi got into the jungle, he did all he could to continue his English studies online but was unsuccessful. “There were times when the connection was poor. I struggle to be both mentally sound and physically fit,” he added. “Since I play my part in drone operations, I cannot return to learning.”

Nyi Nyi still harbours a dream of becoming an architectural engineer. At his leisure, he reads the English-language books he brought from home.

D Fri, who had participated in the CDM while he was a first-year university student, is also a drone pilot at Federal Wings. “I could not spare time for online studies. Since I have been serving in Federal Wings, I have learnt techniques related to drones,” he said.

During the first half of this year, Federal Wings completed 281 drone operations. Despite the financial and emotional stress, the done operators encourage themselves with the thought that their commitment will yield good returns.

Interim education system

The NUG study also highlighted the difficulties of the interim education system supported by NUG. It says the quality of online and on-ground needs to be improved. The majority of interim education teachers are volunteers who have not completed courses specially designed for teaching. Some have passed the school matriculation exam, and some have just graduated from a college.

With insufficient qualified teachers and a lack of textbooks, students have to learn piecemeal, with teachers selecting key topics extracted from textbooks, rather than covering the entire curriculum.

“Even after the revolution succeeds, our country still needs a lot of work to achieve a good education system. We have a long way to go before we can establish a federal education system,” Daw Sandar told University World News.

She said it was a matter of concern that autonomy is given to colleges officially recognised by the NUG’s Ministry of Education – such as Myanmar Nway-Oo University, Spring University Myanmar, Spring Normal University, Minority Affairs Institute, the University of Medicine, Taunggyi, and Magway Law School – but the Interim University Council which oversees these independent universities is unable to support the efforts of CDM teachers.

As the revolution has lasted longer, she believes the higher education sector needs monitoring and evaluation. “Only if the foundation is strong, will the structure be sound,” Daw Sandar said. Nonetheless, she points to the growing number of NUG educational programmes in ethnic areas such as Chin, Kachin and Karenni states. “This is a good change and I welcome it,” she added.