PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Van Sui Chin, a teenage girl living in the Czech town of Stara Boleslav, just outside the capital Prague, is an exceptional student. At the middle school where she studies, the 15-year-old consistently comes at the top of her class in almost every subject. She has received several academic awards, and for two consecutive years has been chosen to travel to Italy on excursions with two other very gifted students.
But Van Sui Chin is not Czech. Her family is from Hakha, the capital of Myanmar’s impoverished Chin State.
The story of how she ended up in the Czech Republic is a familiar one. In the mid-2000s, her father, Ngun Peng Siakhel, was arrested and sentenced to a week in prison for allowing an unregistered visitor to stay in his home overnight. He was released on bail, but decided then and there that he had had enough of Myanmar’s restrictive and repressive rules.
Deciding that it was time to leave the country for the sake of his family’s future, he traveled to Malaysia. Three years later, when she was six years old, Van Sui Chin and her mother and younger sister were smuggled out of the country to join him.
In 2010, after three years of living in Kuala Lumpur as refugees, the family was resettled in the Czech Republic. Despite the many hardships they had experienced in their young lives, Van Sui Chin and her sister, Sarah Mang Cin Tial, soon distinguished themselves as top students.
Their story is one shared by hundreds of thousands of families in Myanmar. Driven out of their homeland by poverty, oppressive laws, human rights abuses and discrimination against ethnic minorities, they have been forced to make new lives in foreign countries.
This vast diaspora—the product of half a century of brutal military misrule—has seen millions of Myanmar nationals flee to neighboring countries such as Thailand and India, as well as to other countries around the region and the world.
Among them, there may be thousands or tens of thousands of students like Van Sui Chin who have benefited from a better education than they could ever dream of receiving at home. This is great for them, but a tragedy for our country, because it means that we have lost so much of our enormous potential to the neglect and misguided policies of the past.
Soon after President U Thein Sein assumed power in 2011 and began introducing reforms, he invited Myanmar citizens living abroad to return and help rebuild the country. Many, including political exiles and well-educated professionals, did come back to see for themselves how much had changed. Most were unimpressed.
The most common complaint I’ve heard from many of these returnees is that the government continues to exclude them from the reform process. Instead of sugar-coated words, they say, they want to be able to play a clear role in shaping the country’s future.
Unfortunately, it seems that old mindsets among the former military rulers die hard. Rather than embrace well-educated returnees, the authorities prefer to keep them at arm’s length.
This is, no doubt, a legacy of the days when students were seen by the ruling generals as adversaries. Since 1962, when the armed forces first seized power, students have been at the forefront of efforts to restore civilian rule. After 1988, when a nationwide, student-led pro-democracy uprising nearly toppled the former dictatorship, this animosity became even more intense, resulting in the closure of colleges and universities across the country. They were reopened only after new campuses were built far from the city centers.
It seems that at least some in the current government—which consists largely of former generals, including some who were directly or indirectly involved in cracking down on student demonstrations—still regard students and the university-educated with suspicion. This is a shame, because the country desperately needs all the help it can get from its best-qualified citizens.
If U Thein Sein is indeed a reformist, he must do more to eliminate such thinking within his government. And the best place to begin is by seeking out and seriously listening to some much-needed input on education reform.
Despite calls from academics for bottom-up reforms, the Ministry of Education continues to believe that it must remain firmly in control of any future changes to the education system. But this top-down approach is at odds with what the country really needs—a reform process that includes a variety of stakeholders working together to achieve a greater degree of autonomy in the country’s institutions of learning.
One group that is actively pursuing such changes is the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), which brings together leading voices on education, including teachers unions, ethnic education groups, independent educational organizations, the 88 Generation Students group, the opposition National League for Democracy’s education network, and Buddhist monks and Christian churches.
The NNER has conducted dozens of seminars across the country since it was formed in 2012, and in June of last year, it held a national conference attended by 1,200 participants. That gathering produced a report with recommendations on how to create an inclusive education system that was submitted to Parliament and a committee overseeing the government’s Comprehensive Education Sector Review.
Despite meeting with Education Ministry officials three times last year, however, the NNER says that the government has so far shown little interest in its ideas on reform.
The problem, according to two active members of the NNER—Dr. Arkar Moe Thu, chairman of the Dagon University Teachers’ Association, and Jimmy Rezar Boi, a director of Mustard Seed Myanmar—is that the two sides have fundamentally different ideologies. While the NNER’s philosophy is to cultivate free thinking, the ministry believes its goal is to produce “right-thinking” students.
“When they talk about ‘right thinking,’ we need to ask how they decide what’s right and what’s wrong,” Jimmy Rezar Boi told me when I met with him and Dr. Arkar Moe Thu recently.
“What we want is an education system that allows academics, teachers and students to think freely on their own and allows them to choose what they want. That is their right,” he added.
When opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the Czech Republic late last year, she met some Myanmar nationals here, including Van Sui Chin and her sister. The democracy icon told them to study hard so they could contribute to the development of their homeland in the future.
But until the government learns to stop seeing students as a threat, and instead recognizes them as individuals whose minds are the nation’s greatest treasure, Myanmar’s future may not be much better than its past.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English-language edition of The Irrawaddy.
This article first appeared in the May 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.