A History of Education in Myanmar (Part-1)

Myanmar people has valued education since the Bagan era. In the olden times education meant the ability to read and write. “Literacy” is a feature of a person’s dignity in Myanmar society. There was a common belief that only a literate person could read and learn the teachings of Buddhism, teach the others and know well about the native sciences and Dhamma. Before the colonial period, monasteries had been learning centers for Burmese people. Even monarchs sought the support of Sangha society to reinforce their political principles with religious beliefs. Hence, in Myanmar where Theravada Buddhism has been flourishing, Sangha has been a strong and powerful social institution until nowadays.

In olden days, Burmese parents raised a boy with them at home and sent to a monastery around the age of 8. Monk teachers taught him not only reading and writing, but civilization and disciplines. Therefore, the longer the boy stayed in a monastery, the more disciplined he would become. Monasteries taught basic linguistics and Myanmar traditional mathematics. There was no other option except this for either good or bad boys. There is an old saying “Send the bad to a monastery,” and monasteries corrected bad boys also. Although they tried to run away, they never escaped as the parents got them and sent back. Around the age of 12, they were in novitiate. If they continued to stay there, they had to learn advanced Myanmar and Pali languages. Thus, colonial officers in 19th century recorded that Myanmar men’s literacy rate was four times higher and that of Myanmar women three times higher than Indians.

  • Western Education (Secular Education)

Strengths of the western education was known to Myanmar since before losing independence. King Min Don sent scholars to Calcutta (now Kolkata). By the time the British occupied the entire country, Bamar, Mon and Rakhine possessed the highest literacy population. There had been Christian Missionary schools for nearly three decades in Arakan, Tenasserim and Bago regions which were first annexed by the British. However, the colonialists could not sufficiently take responsibility for education and so they decided to shift it to monastery schools. If not, it would be hard for coming generations to acquire education. They would also encourage successful Christian missionary schools and in the mean time they planned to introduce secular education. When the colonial government opened lay schools, they could not compete with monastery schools in the beginning. In the colonialist’s opinion, monastery schools and Buddhism seemed so inseparable that they could not be integrated into a government-controlled single education policy. But they could not be left separate. When a lay school education policy was set in place by early 20th century, government schools outnumbered monastery schools. They could be categorized depending on the medium of instruction. Firstly, schools which used Myanmar (National Language) as medium of instruction were known as vernacular schools. They were subsidized by the government but not under the department of education and administered by the district councils, instead. Secondly, schools taught in both English and Myanmar known as Anglo-vernacular schools. They also ran with the government’s subsidies, but due to inefficient support and lack of future prospects, the admission rates fell with times. Thirdly, there were mission schools in old terms including state schools, Christian missionary and private schools. The second and third categories were far more popular as they provided better job opportunities. In fact, as the economy developed and the colonial rule was well-grounded after 1870, there was a huge need of clerical staff and ancillary subordinates. Some were imported from India. For Myanmar they opened such lay schools to provide low-cost education.

British officers coming to India and Myanmar to exercise colonial administration were more or less influenced by liberal ideology of the British economist Adam Smith. They believed that humanism based on Christianity and intellectualism would bring improvements both in physical and spiritual civilization of human beings. R.H. Macaulay, Governor of India once said such a change would result in a total disappearance of idolatry in India. The colonialists believed the conquest of lower-Burma after the second Anglo-Burman war as blessing of God for a spread of human cultures and Christianity, and it was said a blind faith or credulity of the colonies to be rid of.

This liberal ideology described a policy of non-interference by the State in education as endorsed by the Indian Education Commission in 1882. It was to exercise a Vernacular system in primary education and Anglo-vernacular system in secondary. After graduating the secondary education, students were qualified to sit for a university entrance and when they passed it, they could go to universities either in India or in Burma. Education seemed only for children of government officials and elites in cities. Therefore, most of Myanmar people were not grateful to the British for such an education. Only a few converted to Christianity because of the western education. Teaching of English classics looked like a prescription error. Teaching of sciences and sociology was inefficient. To better comprehend colonial administration and improve ethical code of conduct, civic education was later included in curricula.

Until 1870 western education had not been a success in Burma. Monastery school education had played a major role till then. In 1873 there were 801 monastery schools compared to 112 state schools. However, in 1870 with the opening of Suez Canal, Burma’s trade quickly developed, and there was a greater demand of clerical staff who had a good command of English in businesses and administration. Education system was changed to meet the needs. Monastery school education was good for teaching of ethics and disciplines, but not really matched with worldly education. Teaching of English in monastery schools was suggested, but the staff from the department of education objected this on the grounds that teachers’ English pronunciation might be incorrect. At the same time, it was hard to get local teachers who could teach English, mathematics and history. As school principals were either English or Indians, it was difficult for them to teach local students. It could be said high school education did not progress until the early 20th century. Therefore, a balance was made between their bureaucracy and education system by which one could get a well-paid job in a government department even after completing middle school education, in other words, passing Grade 7. Low budget for education was also blamed. In fact, it was apparent that the colonialists aimed to produce ancillary subordinates needed in their colonies and to train Burmese youth to adapt a changing administrative system and social life. In ethnic minorities areas of Karen, Kachin and Chin, Christian missionaries were involved both in educational and religious activities. They invented a writing for illiterate ethnics and translated the Bible in ethnic languages and brought about a social change. A church-centered Christian elite class was born as a result.

Than Hwan Phyo


Aye Kyaw. 1993. The Voice of Young Burma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Southeast Asia


Kaung, U. 1963. A Survey of the History of Education in Burma Before the British Conquest and After. Journal of Burma Research Society 46 – 2: 1 – 124.

Khin Maung Kyi et al. 2000. A Vision and Strategy: Economic Development of Burma: Stockholm, Sweden: Olof Palme Institutional Center.