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University students protest against a 'military slave education' in the jade mining town of Hpakant, in Myanmar's Kachin state, on May 5, 2021.

HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

Eain, the daughter of jade miners in northern Myanmar, was looking forward to starting seventh grade when schools reopen in June, after a year of cancelled classes due to the pandemic.

But in response to a Feb. 1 military coup, Eain is among a rapidly growing segment of Myanmar’s almost 10 million school-aged youth who are refusing to participate in what they have termed a “military slave education.”

“I want to go to school when our revolution wins,” 14-year-old Eain said, using a popular term for the anti-coup protests. “I am afraid to be out of school for a long time if the military remains in power, but I must do my part to strive for democracy.”

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The Globe and Mail is not identifying Eain by her full name for her security, as is the similar case with several others in this article.

Myanmar was under an oppressive military regime from 1962 to 2011, during which it used heavy censorship and propaganda as means of control. A five-year transitional period was followed by five years under the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The country experienced a significant, though flawed, political opening, as well as the beginnings of educational reform.

The coup has shattered this limited progress, as the junta reinstitutes authoritarian policies and cracks down on pro-democracy protests. More than 5,000 people have been arrested and 800 civilians killed since Feb. 1, most for resisting non-violently.

Fighting with ethnic armed organizations has reignited on the country’s borders with China and Thailand, while civilian defence forces have emerged in recent weeks, clashing with troops in areas that had, until the coup, been peaceful.

The education strikes are part of a broader civil disobedience movement that seeks to deny the junta legitimacy and weaken its economic and infrastructural base. The movement has hobbled services such banking, health care and transportation, and striking public-sector workers have faced losing their jobs and threats of arrest. But as the military ramps up its violence and authoritarian tactics, the movement has only grown.

Like the vast majority of young people who have joined the education strikes, Eain will not be able to learn online, as the military has blocked mobile data and broadband internet across the country. Eain plans to spend the next school year doing housework and reading old textbooks.

Despite the sacrifice, her mother has encouraged her decision to boycott school, hoping the strikes will help prevent the return of the corrupt educational system that existed under the former junta. “[My generation] has no creativity,” the 46-year-old said. “If you answered creatively, you wouldn’t win the teacher’s favour. The students who paid the teachers were always in the top 10.”

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She is also keeping her daughter home to protect her. Since the coup, at least 43 children have been shot dead, and as of March 19, soldiers and police had occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses.

University students are also striking en masse, despite thinly veiled warnings from the military-run media that those promoting the education strikes were “committing sabotage acts.”

A 23-year-old engineering student in the southern city of Dawei told The Globe and Mail that, although three of his fellow student union members have been arrested, he has not wavered in his decision to skip his final year.

“[The people of Myanmar] have experienced military slave education in the past,” he said. “A university student’s future can be full of opportunity, but those opportunities are [now] gone.”

Educators have also presented a strong front of resistance. As of March, the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation estimated that 75 per cent of Education Ministry staff had stopped reporting to work.

A striking high-school teacher in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, told The Globe he has fled the city for his hometown because of fear of arrest. “The township education office called me several times, but I turned off my phone,” he said. “I don’t feel safe or secure. I have to be extra careful.”

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But having gone through an education system under which students passed exams by memorizing the answers, he refuses to perpetuate it. “One year is a big loss for the students, but we have no choice – this is for our future,” he said. “Instead of teaching under a slave education system, investing one year for a better education is better for the future of all students and the next generation.”

Reuters reported on May 11 that at least 47 teachers have been arrested, with charges outstanding for 150 more, and that the regime had suspended the contracts of more than 11,000 higher-education staff who refused to return to their posts.

An education administrator from the central Ayeyarwady region, whose contract was suspended at the end of April, told The Globe he refused to participate in an education system that was “useless,” even though he could be arrested. “I have calculated all the possible risks. … I stand firm in my beliefs,” he said.

“If the students go to school at this time, they won’t get a quality education … I studied in a formal education setting [under the former junta], but when I think back to the education I received, I’m not satisfied. I don’t even know what I learned.”

Some educators are doing what they can to provide informal instruction outside the military-run system. A primary-school teacher in the Sagaing region, in the northwest, who has refused to turn up for work and has not been paid since March, is offering her students free tutoring at her home.

“If they want to learn, they can come to me and I will teach them secretly. There are explosions around here often, so most people don’t want to go out for now,” she said, referring to clashes that have erupted between civilian defence forces and the junta. “I told [the students] to come to me if it’s safe.”

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The National Unity Government (NUG), formed in April by elected officials ousted by the junta, ethnic leaders and activists, is running a parallel government in absentia and has endorsed the education strikes.

Deputy Education Minister Ja Htoi Pan told The Globe the NUG supports any activities that weaken the junta’s administrative mechanism. “I would really like to acknowledge their efforts and their heroism,” she said of the striking teachers and students.

She added that her ministry aims to roll out interim education plans within the next month and that the system she envisions will be in line with the NUG’s aim to promote a federal democracy that decentralizes control and offers a degree of autonomy to the country’s ethnically diverse states and regions.

“I am a Kachin ethnic woman, and from a young age I feel that I have faced disadvantages and discrimination. I grew up not being able to learn about our own history and narratives in school,” she said. “I would like to commit myself to implementing a better education system and policies for the future federal union.”

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