Following the February 2021 coup, rising ethnic violence and ruthless military crackdowns wreaked havoc on the education system in Myanmar, disrupting the lives of millions of students and educators. While the junta-led State Administration Council (SAC) reopened schools last year, many students and teachers remain defiant, protesting the brutalities perpetrated by the military. Only a quarter of over 12 million Burmese students returned for the last school year, and over 300,000 teachers have participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a driving force in the Burmese resistance movement. As traditional educational opportunities were severely limited and corrupted under the military dictatorship, Burmese advocates began to pioneer new ways for learning. In May 2021, Spring University Myanmar (SUM) was founded, responding to a desperate need for increased education access.
SUM aims to offer interim education and sustain the vital Civil Disobedience Movement, by providing alternative digital education and economic opportunities to students, academics and young professionals. In an interview with East-West Center Young Professionals Su Myat Noe and Olivia Zeiner-Morrish, a SUM representative reported they have offered 381 classes across ten academic departments, reaching over 10,000 students in Myanmar. In order to serve communities in rural areas without internet access, SUM implemented creative means of delivering lectures by partnering with Mizzima Radio and Federal FM and using innovative Edu-lamp box technology. Edu-lamp box—a digital learning platform without internet—is set to offer informal tailor-made courses for underprivileged rural communities. SUM is projected to deliver 139 boxes across the Kachin, Sagaing, Chin, Shan, Kayan, Karenni and Kayin States.
In addition to the difficulties in reaching rural communities, SUM faces another, greater, challenge. As the junta targets platforms for alternative education, SUM must operate underground. For the safety of all those involved, SUM organizers, students, and teachers, exercise the utmost discretion in order to protect their identities. However, this limits student engagement, making it difficult to cultivate a sense of community. Despite these tremendous challenges, SUM and its educational partners are determined to strengthen alternative education platforms for young students and educators participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement.
The continued successes of SUM and other educational advocacy groups depend on commitments from the United States. Earlier this summer, an SUM representative met with the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to share on the ground perspectives and to discuss interim education and possible opportunities for collaboration. “We need bigger commitments from the [United States],” said a representative from SUM, in an interview with East-West Center Young Professionals Su Myat Noe and Olivia Zeiner-Morrish. The representative further urged the United States and international community to collaborate with the existing organizations instead of building their own new projects.
In order to enhance collaboration, it is vital to cultivate mutual understanding. The SUM representative emphasized the significant role played by American youth, who have the power to amplify the voices of Burmese advocates and influence their local legislators. Scholarship programs such as Fulbright and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) provide important opportunities for cultural exchange and cooperation between students and advocates, laying a foundation for continued collaboration. “It is important to develop the relationship between students from Myanmar and students in the [United States],” said a representative from SUM. “We need the power of young people to push the policy agenda and build up political and social capital. This starts with people-to-people connections and mutual understanding.”
Su Myat Noe is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master’s student at The University of Oklahoma’s College of International and Area Studies. Her interests include International Development and Human Security Issues/Policies in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
Olivia Zeiner-Morrish is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from Trinity College with a B.A. in Political Science.