Myanmar is a multi-ethnic state with about 135 ethnic groups and offers a wealth of cultural characteristics, scenic beauty or architectural achievements. In the following, we will give you a small but striking excerpt of all this. Knowing full well that a country, its peculiarities and the diversity of its people can never be presented in its entirety.
In keeping with our commitment, at the end of the page we will discuss Myanmar’s educational system.
Myanmar looks back on a turbulent history. In the 19th century the country fell under British rule after several wars and became part of British India on January 1, 1886. The independence achieved in 1948 was followed by only a short phase of democracy. In 1962, the military took power and almost completely sealed Myanmar off from the world until the early 2000s. In addition, the country has been plagued by internal violent conflicts since the 1950s until today. As a result, Myanmar has a high number of internally displaced persons and large parts of the state have known only brief phases of peace for decades. The once rich and prosperous country is now one of the poorest countries in the world. Over 25% of the population lives below the poverty line. The economic focus of Myanmar today is the trade in natural resources. These include above all precious stones, natural gas and oil. One of the closest economic partners is China. With the opening of the country, tourism has also been gaining in importance since 2012. The shadow economy is an unverified value. As part of the Golden Triangle, Myanmar occupies a leading position worldwide in the production of opium poppies, opiates and amphetamines. Corruption is also significant in this context. Transparency International ranked Myanmar 130th in 2019 out of 180 countries surveyed.
Myanmar has a deeply rooted culture of hospitality and openness – most people who visit Myanmar are impressed by the warm, hospitable and helpful nature of the locals. In hardly any other country in Southeast Asia Buddhism is as deeply rooted as in Myanmar and religion plays an important and fundamental role. Monks and nuns, of whom there are hundreds of thousands, take a revered place in society and there are countless pagodas and monasteries throughout the country. For many visitors the most impressive is certainly the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It is considered the landmark of the country and its gilded stupa towers majestically over the capital.
Theravada Buddhism is the most widespread religion in Myanmar. Outside of the main ethnic Burmese population areas, particularly in parts of Kachin, Karen and Chin states, Christianity is devoutly observed. American missionaries played a large part in converting previously animist locals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and elements of animism remain part of these cultures.
Islam and Hinduism are also practiced in Myanmar, and temples can be found around the country – most notably in Yangon.
Myanmar Tea Houses
The colorful hustle and bustle in the tea houses is as much a part of Myanmar’s street scene as the countless pagodas. The guests sit on small colorful chairs, waiters call the orders of the guests directly into the kitchen and whoever wants to place an order or pay for it draws attention with a kiss-like smacking. The Burmese love soccer and Lethwei (Burmese boxing). And so it is only too understandable that somewhere in every teahouse there is a television set and a sports program is on.
Tea is the national drink of Myanmar and green tea is served free of charge in restaurants and cafes at any time of day. Snacks are offered unsolicited, but you only pay for what you consume. Tea stores are very busy, especially in the morning. You briefly meet your neighbor, get the latest news and start your day with a green tea, similar to the Italian’s espresso in the corner bar. Once you have experienced the colorful hustle and bustle of a teahouse, you will never forget it. It is the complete opposite of the orderly ritual of a Japanese tea house or the cultivated and distinguished procedure of the British teetime. And how many tourists have enjoyed sitting in a teahouse and being captivated by active on goings-on.
The floating gardens of Inle Lake
Stunning Lake Inle, with a length of 22 kilometers and a width of eleven kilometers, is the second largest lake in the country. It is located at an altitude of 900 meters and is surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the Shan Mountains.
The Intha, also known as one-legged rowers, have lived on the shores of the lake for centuries. They are famous for their fishing technique where, standing on one leg, they skillfully navigate their fishing boat across the lake Inlesee. If you go out on the lake today, you will see many of these fishermen – many of them are now posing directly for the tourists – which gives some people a bigger income than fishing!
The lake is also famous for its so-called floating gardens. These are beds floating on the lake. They are made of silt and the roots of the lush water hyacinths and are anchored to the ground with bamboo poles. Tomatoes are the main crop grown here – a large part of all tomatoes consumed in the capital comes directly from here! An educational center for sustainable tomato cultivation is currently being built on the lake – because the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers is increasingly damaging the water quality of the lake.
After a few hours stay in Myanmar, you will notice that many Burmese use a kind of make-up called Thanaka. This yellowish-white paste is applied to the face of women and, to a lesser extent, men. Thanaka may be the beauty recipe of many Burmese women – its application promises radiant skin and protection from the sun. At markets you can buy Thanaka either finished as a paste or you buy large wood sticks, whose bark you grate on a stone with water to form a paste. Pieces of bark from trees that are widespread in the region, such as the Indian wood apple tree, are used for production.
The facial tattoos of Chin women
The Chin State is one of the most backward, but also one of the most beautiful regions of the country. For a long time, large regions were not accessible to foreigners. Today, however, it is possible to explore this still undiscovered area. The Chin people are famous for the magnificent facial tattoos of their women, which originate from a centuries-old tradition.
The background of the tattoos are controversial. There are various legends that are said to explain the painful procedure. On the one hand, the faces of the then 7-9 years young girls of the Chin people are said to have been tattooed to protect the girls from possible abduction by other tribes. On the other hand, the different motifs were apparently intended to indicate the affiliation to the respective Chin tribe. Also, the tattoos should protect against evil spirits.
The temple city Bagan
Everybody who had the opportunity to visit the temple city Bagan will never erase it from their memories. Bagan was once the capital of a huge kingdom. Between 900 and 1300 BC, the whole Burmese empire was ruled from here, which then almost had the dimensions of today’s Myanmar. Bagan was at that time one of the biggest cities of the Middle Ages, about 15 times bigger than London at that time.
Today Bagan is one of the largest archaeological cities in Asia, comparable to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. A stay here makes everyone forget the time! Spread over a huge steppe landscape, countless temples are lined up, impressive buildings, whose magic nobody can escape. You can spend days roaming the grounds and discovering new things again and again.
The Myanmar Education System
Education has traditionally always been of great importance in Myanmar society. This can be explained, among other things, by Buddhist religious practices in which ignorance is cited as a major cause of human suffering and the rebirth associated with it.
Even though the acquisition of knowledge was of a religious nature at the time and was geared towards the study of Buddhist texts and the correct practice of religion, reading and writing were an integral part of early childhood education. In many places, this provided monastic schools, where children were taught for free.
During the colonial period, secular schools were established throughout the country. The aim of these was not first and foremost to impart religious knowledge and the teachings of Buddha, but to teach secular subjects such as geography, accounting and the English language. These schools served primarily to educate people who could take over the tasks of the colonial administrative apparatus. The first missionary school was built in 1870. The British had first tried to use the monastic school system, but this failed because of the monks’ resistance.
By the beginning of the 19th century, however, Christian missionary schools had already been established throughout the country with the permission of former king. Christian religious communities still live in parts of Myanmar today, especially in the more remote rural border regions.
After Myanmar’s independence in 1948, a brief phase of parliamentary democracy was followed by a military coup in 1962, and the subsequent military dictatorship ruled the country for the next decades according to socialist principles. This also had an impact on the education system. In the 1960s, all private schools and universities were nationalized and thus under central control. On the one hand, education was a government priority: Progress in providing access to primary education for all and reducing illiteracy rates even received international recognition: In 1972, UNESCO awarded the government the Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Prize, donated by the Iranian government.
On the other hand, politicizing students were a thorn in the government’s eyes. After the student uprising of 1988, which was critical of the government and bloodily crushed, universities were closed for years. And similar to other dictatorships, leading intellectuals were locked up in prisons or had to leave the country. The consequences of this, as well as the years of isolation of the country on the educational system, are still having an impact today.
With the gradual political and economic opening of Myanmar since 2011, urgently needed educational reforms are now being tackled and funding gaps closed. In the years 2011 to 2016, public spending on the education system increased by 316%.
“Building a modern developed nation through education”: “With education to a modern developed society” is one of the guiding principles of the current government.
Myanmar’s education system is currently in a state of transition: With the National Strategic Plan for Education (2016-2021), the Burmese government has identified 9 areas that it wants to change in the long term. One of the key points is the increase in the number of school years from 11 to 12. With this alignment with international standards, it will be easier for Myanmar young adults to apply for university studies abroad. The second strategic plan (2021-2026) is currently in progress and will be presented in early 2022.
Studying in Myanmar
Studying in Myanmar is only allowed to those who pass a matriculation exam – and that is only about 40% every year. During the annual examination period, life in the cities comes to a noticeable standstill – so great is the pressure and the expectations for this exam which will determine the future. Although the education system lags behind in comparison to other Asian countries, the quality of educational institutions is steadily improving, and the effects of the reforms are being felt.
Fortunately, university costs in Myanmar are rather low compared to other countries – but still too high for many. An even greater hurdle, however, is the rising cost of living in the cities, such as Yangon. For many who do not have relatives in the city where they can stay, life there is increasingly unaffordable. But those who want to study usually have to go to one of the larger cities. This is a great challenge, especially for people from remote regions of Myanmar. One strategy of the Burmese government is to build more student accommodation – because only a few of the students enrolled can get a place here.
Unlike in many countries, Myanmar has hardly any government support or assistance programs. Even private student loans are almost impossible to get, for someone without assets – and if with horrendous interest rates.
And so, the circle closes: without money no access to education, without education no chance for a good job and better life prospects. Higher education, however, can be the key to escaping poverty and enabling individuals to lead productive lives.