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Bishops seek return of schools nationalized by Myanmar military

Myanmar was once considered the best-educated nation in Southeast Asia because of Christian schools

Bishops seek return of schools nationalized by Myanmar military

A school girl walks home at a village in Hlegu township on the outskirts of Yangon in this 2014 file image. (Photo by Soe Than Win/AFP)

John Zaw, Mandalay

August 30, 2017

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The Catholic Church is seeking to play a greater role in revitalizing Myanmar's long neglected education system but it continues to be frustrated by a lack of government action in returning church-run schools that were nationalized decades ago.

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon has called for the return of more than 80 former-Catholic schools that were nationalized by the former military junta in 1965.

Cardinal Bo said the schools "were taken at gunpoint" and he has campaigned with other Christian leaders over the issue.

During the 1950s, Myanmar was considered by many to be the best-educated nation in Southeast Asia due to the quality education provided by Christian schools.

Rosemary, project director at the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in Loikaw, Kayah State, said she attended a church-run school during the 1950s and received a quality education.

"I pay gratitude to missionaries and appreciate their effort as we received a good education," Rosemary, a former schoolteacher, told

Today there are only two church-run secondary schools and four primary schools in the country, according to the Education Commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar.

However, the Catholic Church currently runs about 300 boarding houses in parishes across the country. Village children stay in the boarding houses and attend state-run schools. They are given supplementary lessons in their boarding houses.

Yaing Sung, a Catholic farmer from Hkai Kyawm village, near the large town of Lashio, said she sends her four children to a church-run boarding house so that they can attend a state-run school.

"We are struggling for our daily survival but we know the importance of education, so we encourage our children to pursue an education," Yaing Sung, a mother of six, told


Mismanaged and grossly underfunded

Under the military, the country's education system was mismanaged and grossly underfunded. Despite some increases in the past decade, state spending remains under the 3.6 percent GDP average as spent by other ASEAN members.

Cardinal Bo has pushed the issue of having the nationalized Catholic schools returned to the church since Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party took office in April 2016, formally ending decades of military dictatorship.

Yet the government still effectively shares power with the military and parliament has not addressed the country's education system.

Bishop Philip Lazap Za Hawng of Lashio, whose diocese covers northern Shan State, said the church wants to play a positive role in the country's education system and help rebuild the country. He said that the government has yet to respond to demands for schools to be returned.

"Our main concern is the education of the young and so have been trying to do that by accepting as many children from remote areas as we can through our boarding houses so they can have access to at least a state education," Bishop Hawng told

The bishop says schools run by Buddhist monks in Myanmar get a lot of encouragement from the government as well as private funding.

He cited the example of a monastic school, on the outskirts of Lashio city that provides free education, food, lodging and school kits to children. In the Buddhist majority country, monastic schools have played a role in filling a gap in education services for needy students and children in remote ethnic areas.

The bishop said the church would like to have such government encouragement to allow church-run schools as freely as those run by Buddhists and assistance in acquiring land to build schools.

Lucrecia Naw Kyu Khin, the bishops' conference's program manager, said the church needs to start running schools instead of awaiting the return of nationalized-schools.

"I hope that the government may return nationalized schools but it will take some years. And the church would need to have a concrete plan on how we will run it after we receive them," Kyu Khin told

Education is a key sector that the Myanmar church has committed to as part of its nation building program that also includes integral human development (physical, spiritual, intellectual, political, financial, social) interreligious dialogue, women's empowerment and environmental justice, as the country transitions to democracy.

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