Education International stands in solidarity with Burmese educators fighting for democracy

published 1 July 2021 updated 10 August 2021

Education International’s leaders expressed their support for democracy in Burma and highlighted how the experience of educators around the world is relevant to Burmese teachers fighting for democracy today.

In an online solidarity event for teachers in Burma on June 29th, Education International’s General Secretary David Edwards expressed the solidarity of the international education union movement with “the brave men and women of Myanmar who have been fighting for democracy these last several months under a very repressive regime”.

25 lessons on education and democracy

Edwards mentioned the book “On Education and Democracy: 25 lessons from the Teaching Profession” launched during the 8th Education International World Congress in Bangkok in July 2019. This book “brings together our lessons as educators fighting for democracy,” he said.

Fred van Leeuwen, Education International’s General Secretary Emeritus, explained that “we looked at the most important lessons that we had learnt as a teaching profession and teacher movement, mainly over the past 25 years, however some examples go back to the Second World War.” There are many stories missing, however.

With co-author Education International’s President Susan Hopgood, they decided to put these 25 lessons together at the occasion of Education International’s 25th anniversary in 2018.

Global education union movement is deeply concerned about the state of democracy

So why did they decide to start on this book?

Firstly, we were deeply concerned about the state of democracy worldwide, van Leeuwen said.

Secondly, he argued that “we thought it was very important that we remind ourselves of the important role education and teachers have to play in promoting and preserving democratic systems around the world”.

Giving hope to teachers

And thirdly, they wanted to give hope to teachers, to colleagues around the world about their ability to fight threats to democracy, such as violations of human and trade union rights, challenges with privatisation and commercialisation of education, as well as climate change.

“Educators make a difference, bring about change, no matter how different the circumstances in which they operate are,” van Leeuwen insisted.

Hopgood also stressed that “education is critical to the achievement and the maintenance of democracy,” and “it is really important that we all have a better understanding of our shared histories, fights and campaigns to ensure that democracy in all its forms exists in all our countries”.

Opportunities for educators to think about colleagues’ struggles for democracy in other countries

For her, the book helps provide, “not only what we call our lessons or principles which are what we believe are necessary for democracy and education, but also opportunities for educators to understand the fights that colleagues have undertaken in countries around the world and to think about those and what it means for them educating their own students”.

She welcomed the fact that this creates a discussion amongst teachers whether they are in countries where they think democracy is safe and secure, or whether they are in countries like Burma “where democracy has disappeared just like that - overnight, and you are fighting to get it back”.

Both authors agreed that the book’s most useful lesson for Burmese educators is the lesson number 1: “Educate for democracy”, which lays out our common values and the importance of education in transmitting those values.

Educators must not be the obedient servants of the State

According to van Leeuwen, lesson number 3 – “Do not be the obedient servant of the State” - can also be applied to Burma.

He insisted that, if governments do not respect human rights, the teaching profession has the responsibility to make that known, talk about it with students and defy dictatorship.

He recalled that during World War II, Polish and Norwegian teachers refused to carry out the instructions they had received from the Nazi occupation authorities to indoctrinate their students. In Poland, they even set up a parallel school system where they secretly educated children, despite it being illegal.

Van Leeuwen went on to point out that no two situations are identical. The Myanmar situation is not the same as Poland and Norway, “so ultimately the teaching profession in Myanmar will come up with their own solutions.”

Burmese students should be supported, like was the case in Australia, to refuse to write letters in which they commit themselves to support the military regime, not the National Unity Government. “Give them protection when abroad,” he also urged.

Ensuring the safety of Burmese students abroad

“All the points you are discussing here are very important to us,” Dr. Sai Khaing Myo Tun, Deputy Minister of Education of the National Unity Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, said, adding that “we need to have encouragement for our teachers.”

He also called on educators, their unions and education institutions to mobilise in countries where Burmese students are studying to ensure the safety of those students.

He also agreed that democracy should be taught throughout the curriculum to share democratic values with students.

Burmese teachers fighting for quality education for all

While explaining that they are against privatisation of education, Burmese teachers taking the floor explained that public schools have been used by authoritarian regimes to inculcate undemocratic values.

They also said they are in favour of a rights-centered approach to students and want to ensure quality equitable education for all children in Burma.

In his concluding remarks, Edwards said that “as a teacher, you cannot teach for democracy without being an engaged, active citizen and trade union member.”