From Old Burma to New Myanmar: Some Impressions on the Educational Landscape

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Marcela Correa | 11/02/2022

In mid-March 2016, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — whose 15 years under house arrest made her one of the world’s best known and most respected political prisoners — became leader of Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since 1962. Gaining a glimpse of the “Old Burma” before the inevitable tide of change sweeps over the country was the impetus for our recent three-week vacation.

This former British colony the size of Texas, sandwiched between Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, surprised us with its richly diverse population that reflects native ethnicities, immigrants from neighboring countries, and the influence of Western colonization. In this deeply religious society, the most noticeable American influence we observed was the presence of the Baptist Church, which was introduced by the American missionary Adoniram Judson and has grown to rank currently as the 7th largest national baptist population in the world (a surprising factoid in a society where nearly everyone seems a devout practitioner of Buddhism).

It is impossible not to fall under the spell of enchantment of Myanmar. The busy street markets, the engulfing smells, traditional longyis in a rainbow of colors, and ubiquitous religious chants followed us everywhere. The welcoming curiosity towards foreigners was palpable. Locals smiled and waved at us, offered guidance refusing to take a tip and someone even snapped a photo of us from his cell phone, momentarily reversing the usual role of tourists and natives.

Unfortunately, despite the locals’ charm and our keen interest in learning more about the people in this fascinating country, we were not able to engage in deep conversation, with a few exceptions. Despite more than a century of British dominance, until independence in 1948, we encountered very few locals with fluency in English or other Western languages.

This anecdotal fact mirrors incredibly poor education statistics at all levels. Myanmar’s public expenditure on education as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) has been one of the lowest in the world in recent decades--the CIA World Factbook situated it as second-to-last from a list of 173 countries with an expenditure of 0.8 percent in 2011 while UNICEF cited the expenditure at 1.5 percent in 2012. As a reference, in 2011 the United States’ expenditure on education as a percent of GDP was 5.2%, which, compounded with the fact that United States’ GDP is nearly 70 times larger than Myanmar’s, makes the public expenditure on education an amazing 450 times larger. While the country has nearly 100 percent gross primary education enrollment rate, for secondary school that indicator drops to 51 percent, resulting in an under-educated population.

Today’s education indicators are allegedly a result of the military government’s perception of students as a threat to their power. Following the military coup d’état in 1962, all schools were nationalized. The military junta dedicated an average of 1.3 percent of the national budget to education throughout its years in power. In 1988, college students joined forces with protesting Buddhist monks to push for socioeconomic and political reforms. The military responded with violent repression and the closing of all universities for two years. The 1988 protests were followed by a series of student strikes, clashes with the ruling military government, and further closures of colleges and universities in the 1990s. Post-secondary institutions finally reopened in 1999 under major modifications, which included the shortening of the bachelor degree from four years to only three, and the partitioning and relocation of these institutions away from the major urban centers. By most accounts, the latter as well as the promotion of distance learning were aimed at reducing gathering points for students, thereby weakening their role in the political life of the country. Teaching positions were awarded based on political loyalty rather than professional ability and undergraduate education was eventually eliminated at the country’s preeminent, Yangon University. The quality of education plummeted, casting a long shadow on the country’s capacity for human capital development.

We were heartened to learn that the country has been steadily increasing the education budget (at nearly 7% of the national budget for the 2015/2016 fiscal year) as it has made its slow transition to democracy; but our experience indicates this is far from becoming evident. During a three-day trek of the Shan State countryside in central Myanmar, we saw school aged children working and loitering in rural villages or accompanying their family members as they worked in agriculture. We visited Mawlamyine University’s North Campus located in the country’s fourth largest city and the state of its infrastructure was abysmal (as seen in the photo below). We could only observe the exterior because we were quickly intercepted by a man who did not identify himself but told us that foreigners are not allowed inside universities and asked us to leave the grounds. According to the World Bank’s 2015 Investment Climate Assessment, Myanmar businesses cite the lack of skilled labor as the fourth top constraint for business growth. This is not surprising given how long schools—both vocational and public—were underfunded or suspended.

Although our experience was brief and focused on leisure, we were able to observe tremendous growth in some sectors—real estate, tourism and telecommunications stand out—but we cannot say the same for the education sector. Myanmar’s education system faces challenges across all levels—from elementary to university—and facets—infrastructure, faculty development, access, etc. The new government will need substantial support from the international community to leverage their renewed investment in education. While there are donor and NGO funded projects in support of basic and secondary education, funding from the United States Agency for International Development is notably absent. We hope that the new Myanmar government adheres to its stated commitment to invest in education and that the United States and other donors prioritize education within their missions. We dream of a return trip filled with sights of school children, improved academic institutions, and insightful conversation with the locals.



The CIA World Factbook:

Myanmar (Burma) - Lonely Planet 12th Ed (2014). ISBN 978-1-74220-575-5.

Thein, Myat, Economic development of Myanmar. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2004). ISBN 978-981-230-211-3.


“Myanmar’s Education System Geared for Growth,” Economic News Update section of Oxford Business Group. 29 April 2014.

Buncombe, Andrew. “Why Burma is Going Back to School,”  Independent, 16 February 2013.

 “Education in Burma” section of Oxford Burma Alliance website.

Myanmar: Investment Climate Assessment. World Bank Group. January 2015.

USAID Burma.


About the Authors (Originally Written in 2016)

Marcela Correa is an entrepreneur and real estate investor. She is the owner of MAPRO Builders, a general contracting company in Washington, DC. Previously, Marcela focused on international economic development; for ten years she designed and implemented economic growth projects in developing countries. Marcela earned an M.S. in International Development from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown in 2004 and an A.B. in Sociology from Harvard in 2000.

Julián Candia earned his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of La Plata (Argentina). He is a Staff Scientist at the Center for Human Immunology, Autoimmunity and Inflammation at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, MD) and author of over 40 peer-reviewed articles and 2 book chapters on computational and theoretical modeling and data-driven research. For more on his research, check out Other interests include hiking, traveling, avidly listening to blues and jazz, and learning to play the piano.