BANGKOK, June 21, 2010 (IPS) - Once again, parents in military-ruled Burma are counting the cost of a primary education for their children in public schools. It is an annual ritual that comes with the beginning of a new school year, which coincides with the onset of the monsoon rains in June.
Although the South-east Asian nation has laws affirming that primary school education is free and compulsory, the economic headaches parents have to cope with at this time of the year suggest otherwise, according to a parent from Rangoon, the former capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It is a burden that has persisted even after the junta appeared to reprimand public schools taxing parents to make private payments to keep their children enrolled in the state-supported education system, the parent added.
"Many public schools expect parents who have primary school children to pay for building maintenance, school furniture and school books," confirmed Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), a non-governmental group based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. "The first month of the school year is the most expensive for these parents. They have to make the annual payment then."
He estimated that such financial demands for a promised "free" education often is as high as 100,000 kyat (about 100 U.S. dollars) for the year. "That is a big amount for a family to bear," he told IPS. That amount already makes up about 50 percent of the monthly wage of a mid-ranking civil servant in Burma, which ranges close to 200 U.S. dollars per month.
But that is not the only financial worry for an education in Burma, officially known as Myanmar. A parent with a child advancing into the secondary school in the state-supported education system could expect to be hit by a demand of 200,000 kyat (200 U.S. dollars) at the beginning of the school year.
"The higher you go up in the school system, the more you pay," explained Aung Myo Min. "The demands are for the same expenses as primary schools – buildings, books, furniture. Sometimes it is for more."
While such a price for a basic education is what parents in cities like Rangoon and Mandalay grapple with, it is far worse in the more remote regions of the country that are home to Burma’s rich mix of ethnic minorities, such as the Karen and the Shan.
The decades-long conflict between the Burmese military and separatist ethnic rebels has seen resources to educate ethnic minority children take a beating, say Burmese women’s rights activists living in exile in Thailand.
"The schools in villages have few qualified teaching staff and parents have to pay more to transport children to better schools," said Lway Aye Nang, secretary-general of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), a women’s rights group based in Chiang Mai. "Secondary school students require tuition, which means more expenses for the parents."
Consequently, groups like WLB are worried that girls are made to pay a heavier price when the decision over schooling costs is made at homes. "In both the cities and in rural areas, there is a greater likelihood that parents may keep theirs boys in school and take the girls out," she told IPS. "Family members do not support daughters going to school if there is limited funding."
Little wonder why women’s rights activists are wondering aloud if Burma will be able to meet the education and the gender equality targets set by international leaders at a United Nations summit in 2000. That year the global body launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight time-bound targets to be achieved by 2015.
Besides goals like slashing the number of people living in absolute poverty and combating killer diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, world leaders also agreed to achieve universal primary education as well as gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2015.
U.N. agencies working in Burma are more sanguine that the country’s MDG education targets could be met. "The net enrolment rate in primary education in Myanmar is 84 percent according to the latest ministry of education and UN figures," said Zafrin Chowdhury, spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund office in Burma. "Myanmar is well on track to reach the MDG gender parity; the ration is 100 boys: 98 girls."
Yet she conceded in an e-mail interview that the retention rates might check such progress. "Meeting the MDG on primary education will depend on the rates of completion, which is currently not as high as enrolment."
But education rights activists are not convinced with this picture of Burma, which has had a history of high literacy rates and known for being among the region’s prosperous countries after the end of British colonisation in 1948. Since the 1962 military coup, the country has slid in global rankings to become a least developed country.
The current junta’s commitment to education is belied by available public expenses figures in a country whose rulers have made a windfall following the export of natural gas to neighbouring Thailand. The junta has earned eight billion U.S. dollars from 2000, when gas export sales began, till 2008.
At the same time, the regime has used 40 to 60 percent of the national budget to pay for its 450,000-strong military. Yet expenses for health and education comprised only 0.4 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, of the national budget according to a 2007 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"I cannot see Burma meeting the MDG targets for education even if U.N. officials inside the country believes so," said Aung Myo Min of HREIB. "If the government is committed, there would be more money available to the schools rather than parents being taxed through donations."
Source : http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=51889