THE Myanmar Education Research Bureau recently issued a landmark
publication: An Account of the Myamar Literacy Promotion Movement.
The authors begin with a consideration of literacy in Myanmar
during pre-colonial times and cite praise from foreign visitors
about the contribution made by Buddhist monastery schools.
For example, J.R. Andrus (in Burmese Economic Life, Stanford
University Press, Stanford, California, 1946, pp. 36-37), wrote:
“The Buddhist monastic school helped to give Burma a rate
of literacy considerably above those of other Far Eastern countries.
In 1931, 56 per cent of the males over the age of five and 16.5
per cent of the females were literate – approximately four
times as high as those reported for India at the same time. If
Burmans alone are considered the literacy rate is 71.7 per cent
for males and 21 per cent for females.”
In 1931, Mr J.S.Furnivall wrote: “A hundred years ago
the First English Commissioner reported that almost everyone could
read and write and, even if this report may have been touched
with exaggeration, it is certain that the proportion of people
who could read and write was for higher than in England.”
The British colonial education system destroyed the centuries
old monastery education indirectly, and thus impeded the growth
of literacy among the masses, especially among people in rural
areas. They did this by creating three kinds of schools –
Vernacular Schools for the rural masses, Anglo-Vernacular Schools
designed to produce clerks for trading firms with a smattering
of English and knowledge of accounts, and English Schools run
by missionaries who made it mandatory for students to study Christianity
with their school work.
The Japanese invasion of Burma during World War Two had unexpected
benefits. For one thing, it destroyed completely the British imposed
education system of Vernacular, Anglo-Vernacular and English schools
and substituted only one language – Burmese, as the sole
medium of instruction.
With the attainment of Independence on January 4, 1948, the
Government announced its Education Policy and Parliament passed
the Mass Education Act, which came into force in March 1949. A
Mass Education Council was formed and Mass Education Councils
were opened throughout the country, beginning with 20 centres
in 1949-50 costing K200,000 and increasing to 332 centres in 1954-55,
involving spending of K5 million.
A literacy campaign was initiated in 1965 with trials conducted
During this period 6551 villages mobilised 48,398 volunteer teachers
and made 164,491 individuals fully literate and 151,682 almost
The campaign was formally launched in 1969, with townships in
Meiktila district having the honour of being chosen for this historic
mission. Since that time the campaign has been gradually extended
to cover other areas. The strategy adopted by the campaign may
be characterized as: A mass movement with community participation,
using local resources on a voluntary basis in designated areas
throughout the year until the whole campaign area becomes literate.
These achievements, made possible by voluntary mass participation
and contributions by students from universities, colleges, institutes
and local literate people, were given recognition by UNESCO which
awarded Myanmar with two literacy prizes: The Mohamed Reza Pahlevi
Prize in 1971 for the voluntary participation of students and
youths and the Noma Prize in 1983 for post literacy literature
The details of this endeavour are chronicled in An Account of
the Myanmar Literacy Promotion Movement published by the Myanmar
Education Bureau. It is a noteworthy achievement and deserves
a close study by anyone interested in the history of Myanmar education.
The Myanmar Naing Ngan Education Committee began launching literacy
campaigns in 1996. The committee’s strategy for realising
its goal of literacy for all, by linking it with targets for the
universalisation of primary education and life Education, is outlined
in the 30-year Educational Promotion Plan.
Literacy campaigns have been launched by Township Literacy Committees
under their respective District and States/Divisions Fon-Formal
Education Committees. One notable modification is that greater
attention is being accorded to remote and border areas than in
the past, when national groups had no access to learning facilities.
The achievements obtained so far are the result of tireless
efforts made by local volunteers and such organisations as the
Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the Myanmar
National Committee for Women’s Affairs (MNCWA), and the
Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association (MMCWA), as well
as the Departments of Progress of Border Areas and National Races
and Development Affairs, and the Department of Basic Education.
According to the latest statistics, the literacy rate for the
country is 93.3 percent, which places it among the top leading
nations in Asia. In addition, Community Learning Centres are being
formed by local committees with technical assistance from the
Myanmar Education Research Bureau to maintain the skills of the
newly literate and and enhance post-literacy activities.
At this rate, Myanmar may well realise the goal of ‘Literacy
for All’ before 2015, the target year set by the United
Nations and UNESCO.