Myanmar students begin a new school year on Thursday, with classrooms becoming the country’s last polarized battlefield: the board is desperate to project normalcy and opponents want teachers and students to stay away .
Public school teachers, dressed in green and white uniforms ordered by the education ministry, were featured in the first mass protests against last year’s military coup.
Sixteen months later, the board is trying to tempt the still-striking educators to return, saying those who have not committed serious crimes could treat their absence simply as “unpaid leave”.
Going back to school, however, carries risks.
The army has struggled to crush resistance in areas of Myanmar and low-level officials who are believed to be cooperating with the junta are regularly the target of killings.
“Many of my students have joined the People’s Defense Forces (PDF)” that have emerged to fight the army, said Wah Wah Lwin, 35, a high school teacher in the Northwest region of Sagaing.
Wah Wah Lwin said she had been forced to leave her village after refusing to join the teachers’ strike last year and was accused of being an informant.
Now, while teaching about 40 students at a makeshift school near a monastery, members of a pro-junta militia stand guard outside, providing protection in the absence of regular security forces.
“We are still concerned that PDFs … are threatening teachers who are not on strike,” he said.
The charity Save the Children said there were at least 260 attacks on schools between May 2021 and April this year, with “explosions in and around school buildings” accounting for nearly three-quarters of the incidents.
In the capital, Naypyidaw, on Thursday, parents arrived on foot or on a scooter to drop off their children at the crowded school gate.
The director, who declined to give his name, said there had been a 30 per cent increase in tuition compared to last year.
“We are not too concerned about security in Naypyidaw compared to other regions,” he said, adding that “security forces” were monitoring the school.
‘I can’t keep waiting’
For Moe Aye, an educator at the Yangon Mall who was still on strike, Thursday would have marked her tenth year of teaching in schools.
“One thing I miss is wearing a white and green uniform,” he told AFP, requesting the use of a pseudonym.
Moe Aye said she is happier teaching in private, visiting the homes of parents who want to keep their children away from board-run institutions.
Other teachers who support the boycott give video classes, delivered through the Telegram messaging app.
But with Internet access in some regions regularly cut off by authorities and power outages in Yangon and other cities, online learning can be erratic and frustrating.
Many parents opposed to the board are still worried about what they will do another year outside the formal education system to their children’s prospects.
“I don’t want my children to be left behind when those who can send their children to an international school will do so,” a Yangon mother told AFP, asking for anonymity.
While he feared the recriminations of neighbors and friends, or even an attack on the school his children go to, he said he “had no choice.”
For another couple in town, whether or not to send their 12-year-old daughter to school had been the subject of much discussion.
“I don’t want to send her to school, but my husband canceled me,” the boy’s mother said, asking for anonymity.
“He said we can’t wait until we know how long this revolution will last.”