Written by Su-Ann Oh, Melanie Walker, and Hayso Thako.

The bilateral ceasefire signed between the KNU and the Burmese government in 2012 has brought about the cessation of armed conflict in Karen State, Myanmar, albeit with intermittent skirmishes. Nevertheless, the struggle between the Karen National Union (KNU) (and other Karen armed organizations) and the Burmese government over sovereignty in Karen State continues in a myriad of ways. This article examines this conflict over power and authority in the sphere of education and demonstrates that it is being staged in two arenas, at the central government level and in schools.

On the whole, the 2012 ceasefire has brought more security and stability to the region, which has enabled the Burmese state to expand its reach into previously inaccessible regions to offer their brand of social services. However, this has been both a blessing and a bane.

Education in Karen State: multiple systems under plural authorities

Karen State is governed by multiple authorities including the Burmese state and non-state armed groups. Of the latter group, the 70-year-old Karen National Union (KNU) is the largest and administers large, albeit fragmented, segments of the regions bordering Thailand. It comprises departments in military and justice, and has established social service systems including health, education and social welfare. Its education wing, the Karen Education Department (KED), administers schools in Karen State and has spent the past few decades developing a curriculum that reflects KNU ideology regarding the Karen armed struggle, ethnicity, language and nationhood.

The multiplicity of governance systems is reflected in the education system(s). For all intents and purposes, there are three types of schools: community schools under varying levels of KED administration, Burmese government schools and ‘mixed’ schools. Community schools are not officially registered or recognised by the Burmese government. The KED provides policy, curriculum and teacher training. Government schools use the Burmese Ministry of Education (MOE) curriculum and are administered and funded by the Burmese MOE. The teachers are certified by Burmese institutions and appointed by the MOE at the central level. Lastly, ‘mixed’ schools are mostly former community schools that have recently been registered by the Burmese government and/or have been sent a teacher trained in accordance with the regulations of the MOE. Their funds are provided by various sources, they employ community and Burmese government teachers, and/or they use a mix of the KED and Burmese MOE curriculum. ‘Mixed’ schools have come about because of the expansion of Burmese state education into previously Karen community schools. Some of these schools had been using the KED curriculum, while others the Burmese MOE curriculum. In general, schools have opted to use the KED curriculum because of their desire to safeguard Karen identity and culture.

The battle for legitimacy in and sovereignty over education at the central level

In supporting the more than 1500 (mostly primary) schools in Karen State, the KED claims legitimacy as their representative, even for those administered by the Burmese government. According to a 2016 report by World Education, about 20 percent use only the KED curriculum, 36 percent use both the KED and the Burmese MOE curricula, and 44 percent use the Burmese MOE curriculum. Nevertheless, the number transitioning their status into government schools is increasing as more schools are being registered by the government and/or are receiving teachers from the MOE.

The KED’s legitimacy is disputed by the central state government which considers the Burmese MOE the rightful administrator of education. The KNU, the parent organisation of the KED, is viewed by many Burmese government officials, civil servants and the army as a ‘rebel’ group whose administration over schools, health services and so on, cannot be recognized as a legitimate governance body.

This misgiving extends to the content of the KED curriculum, particularly its ethnic and nationalist components. For example, the State Minister for Border and Security Affairs has made official complaints about the fact that the KED exists and that schools in Karen State use Karen as the language of instruction and engage in ethnic and political Karen rituals (author interview with Karen Education Department (KED) representative, Mae Sot, Thailand, 12 October 2016.). The objection to this is grounded in the turbulent history of ethnically-motivated rebellion and the Burmese government’s abiding objective to establish governance and its own notions of nationhood across its territory. It has not helped that social issues such as education have been de-prioritised in the post-ceasefire dialogues between the government and non-state armed groups, hindering the KED’s ability to further its agenda on education at the central level. In addition, the progress of the KED’s consultations with the Burmese MOE fluctuates in accordance with the highs and lows of the central peace negotiations.

Be that as it may, the official Burmese government narrative about the KED’s legitimacy and the existence of KED-administered schools is not held by all central level state representatives. These actors often feel the need to officially maintain this discourse but are acutely aware of the inefficiency and deficiencies of the centralised bureaucracy. Thus, some Burmese government ministers have unofficially informed local bodies not to wait for official policy, instead encouraging them to achieve objectives through unofficial and informal means (author interview with Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) representative, Mae Sot, Thailand, 22 October 2016).

In keeping with this and the difficulties experienced in working through Burmese government channels, the KED and its associated education bodies have devised alternative strategies, such as building relationships with state level authorities, local authorities, individual institutions and individuals to provide access to students in general and from the refugee camps in Thailand wishing to transfer to Burmese government educational institutions (author interview with Karen Refugee Committee (KRC) representative, Mae Sot, Thailand, 22 October 2016). They have had some success here, but ultimately, this process still requires them to work through formal national channels to obtain permission.

Schools as battlegrounds

Conflict is also occurring between the Burmese government and local school communities. For decades, schools in Karen State have had relative autonomy from the central Burmese state because of remote geography, poor infrastructure and armed conflict. On the whole, the 2012 ceasefire has brought more security and stability to the region, which has enabled the Burmese state to expand its reach into previously inaccessible regions to offer their brand of social services. However, this has been both a blessing and a bane. On one hand, it has increased the number of teachers in these schools. On the other hand, it has introduced a parallel system of management, making it difficult for non-government Karen teachers to continue their work, while also undermining community education systems (World Education, 2016; Lenkova, 2015; South and Lall, 2015; Joliffe and Spears Mears, 2016). One case study on a school showed that Karen language is still being taught but has been taken out of the official timetable, reducing its significance in what is considered important knowledge in education. The struggle for dominance over governance, local management mechanisms, language and identity is being played out in the micro-level theatre of school administration and curricula.


Since the ceasefire was signed between the KNU and the Burmese government in 2012, conflict has arisen in two arenas in the domain of education. First, where before the KED worked in education endeavours in Karen State completely separately from the central Burmese authorities, the ceasefire and the political dialogues to negotiate peace have now brought the KED and their education endeavours into the fold of the Burmese state. Consequently, notions of sovereignty, authority, legitimacy and valid knowledge in education are being contested within the framework of the central Burmese state.

The second battle over sovereignty is taking place in schools in Karen State where the Burmese MOE’s efforts to expand its provision of teachers and education, although well-intentioned, is perceived by local schools and communities as a contestation over systems of governance, curricula content and language of instruction, all of which are perceived by local communities as threats to their culture and identity. These conflicts reflect a lack of consultation and communication on the part of officials in far-off Naypyidaw, and are readily perceived by local communities as ethnic (Burmese) and state aggression against deeply held notions of identity and autonomy. For lasting peace and equitable development, the Burmese government needs to look beyond the national peace negotiations and pay more attention to local concerns and decentralising power. 

Su-Ann Oh is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) in Singapore, with a doctorate from the University of Oxford. Melanie Walker works in Myanmar and its borderlands on civil society strengthening, non-state education and civilian protection. Saw Hayso Thako is a regular contributor to Student’s Friend Magazine and visiting lecturer to New Generation Leadership School. Image credit: CC by Trocaire/Flickr.

*Authors’ note: We use the term Burma, to refer to the country known as Myanmar, as this is the term used by our respondents. Their preference for this term reflects the pro-democracy movement’s dismissal of the decision made by the military regime in 1989 to change the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. The use of the terms Karen State and Kayin State is not just a matter of political preference but also geographical difference. Karen State is the territory perceived by the KNU as belonging to the Karen which is physically larger than Kayin State as designated by the Burmese government. When referring to places in present day Burma, we shall use the current terms. The term Burmese is used as an adjective and to refer to the language.



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