U Ba Win: A Turnaround to Burmese Education

by Khet Mar    /  August 15, 2011  / 2 Comments

Burmese Education

Cetana alumni scholars gather in Rangoon for supper and an evening of networking.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962 and has frequently made international headlines for human rights violations. But last November elections were held in accordance with the country’s new constitution, and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. However, given that the new constitution was written by the military junta and that Aung San Suu Kyi is still forbidden to engage in politics, many believe that the new Burmese government is simply the military junta in a new skin.

In particular, the education system in Burma is in a state of crisis. After Burma declared its independence from Britain in 1948 it used the education system put in place by the British, which relied heavily on mission schools. However after the 1962 coup d’etat that resulted in military rule, all schools in Burma were nationalized. English was not taught again in Burma until 1982, which hampered the country’s development internationally. Today, with only 1.3% of Burma’s GDP being spent on education, teachers are underpaid, schools are falling apart, and a university diploma in Burma is increasingly devalued.

Despite all of this, U Ba Win, a native of Burma, is still hopeful about the future of the Burmese education system. A specialist in early-college education, Ba Win worked as the Dean of Students at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a school that pioneered early-college liberal arts education. He later became Provost and then Dean of the college in 2004. Ba Win has also worked with several non-profit organizations including Crossroads International to provide educational programs in Burma , and has brought countless Burmese students to the United States to attend college.

In July of 2011, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s writer-in-residence Khet Mar, also a native of Burma, and editorial intern Olivia Stransky, talked with Ba Win via Skype about his work with grassroots education programs in Burma.

Khet Mar: Would you mind explaining to us what are you working on now?

Currently I and some colleagues are expanding two programs that have been around in Burma for close to 15 years, both of which I helped start. One of them is called the Pre-Collegiate Program. It provides an extra year—almost a year and a half— for students who have finished the matriculation exam in Burma. The goal is for them to become fluent in English and have a sense of how American colleges function—with seminar-style teaching as opposed to lecture halls. This program is run by an American couple, Dorothy and Jim Guyot, who were in Burma in the early 1960s doing dissertation research for Yale.

Dorothy has a course that is practically identical to freshman seminars in U.S. colleges. Our thought is to help expand on that with courses like introduction to world religions, philosophy, all the things you would find in a freshman curriculum in the United States.

The second program is called the Cetana Educational Foundation.


Students participate in classes held at the Cetana English Proficiency Center in Rangoon

Khet Mar: Inside Burma also?

Yes, the people who founded it are the son and daughters of Frederick and Bertha Dickason, an old missionary couple. Fred was a biologist and one of the founding faculty members of Judson College in Rangoon in the early 1920s. After the Second World War he didn’t teach anymore, but his children were born in Burma. When Fred and his wife Bertha died, the Dickason children, who are actually older than me, decided to start the Cetana foundation. About thirteen years ago it began by offering English language classes.

To give the reader a little sense of the history of education in Burma, we were a British colony, and in the first fifteen years after independence a lot of people in Burma, mainly educated people, spoke English. Then in 1964 the government nationalized all private education. This meant that the missionary schools, Catholic schools, Methodist schools–which is the school I attended, as did Aung San Suu Kyi— all these schools ceased to operate. The second thing they did was to stop teaching English, except in the upper grades. It stayed that way for a couple of decades.

Khet Mar, when did you leave Burma?

Khet Mar: 2009.

So you left fairly recently. What was your English education like?

Khet Mar: The average education. We had to study English in the university, but it was just to pass the examination. If we wanted to actually speak English we had to go to private classes which not too many people can afford.

So even by 2009 things had relaxed quite a bit. When Cetana began operating in Burma around 1987 or so, there were not tuition schools that were able to teach English. There was not much English at all, even though the demand for English was very high. That was around the time when larger numbers of non-governmental organizations from western Europe began to appear in Burma. They needed local staff, people to help them with their work , and there were simply not enough Burmese people who understood English.

So Cetana filled a very important niche to help mid-career people learn English so they could begin to plug in with these NGOs and do some work that benefited the Burmese people. Then Cetana went on to do what you would call professional development courses. That’s what they’ve been doing up to now.

Olivia: What are the Cetana Foundation’s goals for the future?

They want to begin to operate around the country. Right now they only exist in Rangoon, but they’ve just opened a little branch in the northeast in a town called Kying Tong. What we would like to help them to do is expand into other towns like Myitkyina, Sittwe, and a town called Kanpelet in the southern Chin hills. We’re interested in doing that because right now virtually all the educational opportunities are concentrated in Rangoon. There are some in Mandalay but not many. So the people who get to benefit from the educational programs are the people who either live in Rangoon, which would be mostly the ethnically Burmese people, or people from other parts of the country who happen to live in Rangoon . If you don’t have the resources or the connections to live in Rangoon, you’re out of luck.


In the computer lab at the Cetana English Proficiency Center in Rangoon, students can work at their own pace with various software programs designed to enhance and increase their English-language skills

Olivia: What kinds of challenges do Burmese students face today?

Well, English is taught, but it’s poor English. English is taught by people who barely speak English themselves. When the quality of language instruction is poor, even successful graduates of Burmese high schools find themselves way short of being able to participate in a program like Pre-Collegiate.

Presently, Pre-Collegiate has about 15 students. All but one are ethnically Burmese. This can’t go on. We will always have ethnic strife as long as the ethnic people are shut out of any meaningful access to good education. They need to acquire the skills to develop in their own places. When the only educational opportunities are in Rangoon, there will always be barely suppressed anger in provincial capitals.

The irony is that in all of America, other than Bard and Indiana State University, people couldn’t care less about what’s happening in Burma. Bard and Indiana State have been deeply involved. Indiana State has been active because of Ken Rogers, who used to be the head of the U.S. information agency in Rangoon. After he retired he went to work at Indiana State, and got them to take Burmese students. There are a few thousand Burmese students there now.

Olivia: Donald Manzullo, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said that the 2010 elections in Burma were “nothing more than a well choreographed maneuver by the ruling elite to transform themselves into a more internationally acceptable civilian dictatorship.” Considering this, why is now the time to create such a program in Burma?

The Burmese government seems to be paying attention to education right now. The new Minister of Education is a guy who got his Ph.D. in chemistry in Japan. The Vice Prime Minister is a Chin doctor. He made some extraordinary statements to the press about how we’re really behind. It’s a startling admission. It seems like they’re on the verge of worrying about post-high school education. The situation we have right now is one where education gets about 2% of the national budget. Health care gets about 2.5% of the budget. Burma has been condemned by the UN for spending less than 5% of its budget on healthcare and education while the military consumes around 45% to 60% of our national resources.

As a result, anyone with any money or connections at all would start applying to colleges and universities all over the world. So we have kids going to the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia to get an education. They’re not going to come back afterwards, so what will happen, what has been happening, is a massive drain of the brightest people. It will make much more sense to have a program in Rangoon that’s good so you don’t have to leave your own country to get an education.

Olivia: What is the government’s attitude toward the kinds of private educational programs you’re involved with?

Here’s the interesting thing, they have no official permits to exist, but the government is aware that they are there. I and my colleagues can help them open other branches. We would be providing these programs with resources to help them do things which we can’t do ourselves.

Olivia: Is there any place for the voice of students in Burmese politics today? Do they want a voice?

Yes they do and it’s complicated. If I were a parent of a teenager, even if I hated the regime I would tell my child to keep their head low and avoid the politically active kids. If he or she does not stay low, sooner or later he or she will be picked up.

You don’t have to throw grenades to end up in prison. You can stand on a street corner with a sign saying “Why are prices so high?” and get picked up. You’ll be lucky if they only beat you up in an effort to scare you out of doing it again. They can throw you away, 3, 5, 7, or 10 years. As a young person the choices are so bleak. About 10-20 years ago when I was in Rangoon a friend related that when she told her son to study he turned to her and said “For what? To go to one of these lousy universities? You’re telling me to study so I can go to the next level of nothing?” It’s that kind of bleakness that the next generation faces in Burma. People are marrying at astonishingly younger ages. A lot of kids are getting married at 15 or 16. During the years when the universities were shut down what else was there to do but to elope and get married? It’s the same today.

About the Author

Khet Mar is a staff writer at Sampsonia Way. A former writer-in-residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, Khet Mar is a journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist from Burma. She is the author of one novel, Wild Snowy Night, as well as several collections of short stories, essays and poems. Her work has been translated into English and Japanese, been broadcast on radio, and made into a film. In the fall of 2007, Mar was a visiting fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

View all articles by Khet Mar

2 Comments on "U Ba Win: A Turnaround to Burmese Education"

  1. Aung Phyo Paing February 25, 2012 at 12:25 am ·

    It’s much good. I like and love this interview. And I wanna know that the program to open Bard College in Myanmar is a real thing or not. Thank!

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