Students take a matriculation exam at a school run by the National Unity Government in Thanintharyi Region on October 13 last year. (Mar Naw | Frontier)

‘We can’t afford to treat them equally’: Non-CDM students enter the revolutionary fold

Myanmar students trying to leave regime-run schools for those managed by the resistance risk fines and grade demotions for having foregone the Civil Disobedience Movement.


On April 10, the resistance-run education board in Sagaing Region’s Ye-U Township announced a controversial decision. The board would start imposing cash fines on students who had been studying in junta-run schools, or in private schools regulated by the regime, and who now wished to enrol in schools set up by local members of the resistance.

Fines would be levied at K300,000 (about US$70 at the market rate) for elementary school students and K500,000 for middle and high school students. Families with more than one school-age child only have to pay the highest fine for one of them, although this is still well above the average monthly income. The money is to be channelled into resistance-run schools in Ye-U, where anti-junta armed groups have taken over much of the countryside.

The students also have to sit assessment tests in order to enter the resistance-run schools. These schools are accredited by the National Unity Government, a parallel administration established by lawmakers deposed in the February 2021 military coup, and are staffed by former state school teachers who quit their government jobs to join the Civil Disobedience Movement against the military takeover. The movement also saw school and university students boycott the state education system in solidarity with the teachers.

The Ye-U announcement and similar policies in other townships have triggered a fierce public debate, hinging on a dilemma faced by many parents since the coup. For them, regime schools may have offered more security and stability for their children, particularly as the military conducts air strikes on resistance-administered schools and other parallel governance institutions, and has also clamped down on online education initiatives affiliated with the NUG.

“I believe that parents have the right to make free choices about their children’s education. Non-CDM students should not be fined if they return,” said a former middle school teacher in Pakokku town in Magway Region.

The former teacher’s use of “return” hints at local resentment at those who had tried to escape the post-coup armed conflict, which has wracked Sagaing and Magway regions. Ko Thingyan Phyo, a member of the Ye-U board of education, explained that local parents with sufficient funds had sent their children to study in regime-run and private schools in other parts of the country. However, he said many of them had recently summoned their kids home and tried to send them to local CDM schools so they could avoid conscription into the military, even though this only legally applies to people aged 18-35. The junta announced in February that it would begin enforcing nationwide conscription, but the regime’s reach is limited in resistance strongholds such as Ye-U.

Thingyan Phyo said that imposing fines on returnees was only fair on those who had stayed in the township amid the brutal conflict, which has seen the military commit massacres and burn villages alongside the air strikes. “We cannot accept these students without pre-conditions. Sagaing has suffered greatly due to the military’s actions. Some school children have lost their lives because of the military council’s attacks. Think of that,” he told Frontier.

He claimed the imposition of fines was supported by the majority of local people and by all CDM teachers as well as the students.

“We made the statement based on the situation we are experiencing,” he said, adding that the township would readily change its stance to accord with any future policy decisions by the NUG’s Ministry of Education. A central policy on admitting “non-CDM” students is still in development, lending discretion to individual township education boards.

One Ye-U resident said that after the coup she sent her son to stay with relatives in Mandalay and enrolled him in a regime-run school in the city. “I made this decision not because I supported the military council, but because I believed it was the best choice for my son’s education,” she told Frontier.

“Now that NUG schools in my area are functioning properly, I want my son back here. I’m not bringing him back due to the conscription law,” she said, adding that she would pay the required fine and didn’t wish to comment on it.

Meanwhile, the father of a student in a resistance-run middle school in the township argued that the parents of non-CDM students entering the NUG system “should face consequences”, such as having to contribute funds to the system or not having the classes previously attended by the students recognised. If not, he asked, how could parents of CDM students feel satisfied?

“We are contributing to the revolution in our own way. We support the statement issued by the township board of education,” he said.

Classroom damaged at a school targeted by an airstrike in Sagaing’s Tabayin Township on September 16, 2022. (AFP)

Differing approaches

According to statistics released by the NUG education ministry in April, some 118,800 CDM teachers are working nationwide in elementary, middle and high schools established by resistance groups. Over 630,000 students were said to be attending these schools, while over 53,400 study online.

Before the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, about nine million students attended schools across Myanmar. At the start of the new academic year this month, the junta announced that 6.2 million students had enrolled in its schools, indicating that several million are now outside the state system.

In Ye-U Township, Thingyan Phyo said there were 15,400 students in NUG schools, instructed by over 600 CDM teachers and 800 volunteers. He claimed only three high schools administered by the junta remain in the township.

Thingyan Phyo added that about 20 non-CDM students had enrolled since the April 10 announcement.

Meanwhile, resistance bodies elsewhere have taken somewhat different approaches.

In Magway Region’s Myaing Township, an education board official did not mention a fine but said the admission of non-CDM students needed approval by resistance authorities and armed groups at the village level.

Regardless of this approval, he said levels reached in regime schools since the coup would not be recognised, and that students would have to enrol at the same level they left before the military seized power.

“We can’t afford to treat them equally because the revolution is ongoing. Equal opportunities may lead to dissatisfaction among students who were already attending our schools,” he told Frontier, speaking anonymously.

“Students are split into two groups – those aligned with the revolution and those affiliated with the military council. As a result, achieving equality between them is not currently possible. It’s not that we reject them outright. We do accept them and allow them to continue their studies,” he said.

However, a village administration in Myaing took a harder line in June last year by announcing that non-CDM students who had gone to other areas to attend regime or private schools should return to local NUG schools. According to village residents, the administration warned that if these students did not return, their families should follow them out of the area.

“From the beginning I decided to send my daughter to a military council school because I carefully considered her education, so I don’t intend to enrol her in the NUG village school,” said one local mother.

“It’s not because I support the military council. I only considered my daughter’s education. My family is not disrupting the revolution or the village, so we shouldn’t have to leave,” she told Frontier, adding that about eight children in the village had moved to other areas and were attending regime or private schools.

Another local mother said she had sent her daughter to a private school in the country’s commercial capital of Yangon, but that after last year’s announcement she had brought her back to attend the NUG school.

“We are afraid, so we have to comply with what they say,” she said, adding that local resistance officials so far had not penalised parents of non-CDM students who did not comply with the order.

While some residents may fear the wrath of these officials, the risks of summoning children home were underlined when, between May 13 and 18, NUG schools across Myaing were closed due to the risk of air strikes.

A teacher and education board official in another township of Magway, who spoke with Frontier on the condition of anonymity, said they had subjected returning non-CDM students to three months of monitoring. There’s a concern they might pose a security risk if they had been influenced by regime propaganda, but fortunately there had been no such examples so far, she said.

According to her, the township has over 15,000 students enrolled in NUG schools, with a staff of over 700 CDM teachers and 1,100 volunteers.

Unlike in Myaing, new students were permitted to take classes equivalent to those they attended in regime schools if their levels were adequate, she said. However, she pointed out that some CDM teachers had threatened to quit if non-CDM students were admitted.

An NUG-run school in Magway’s Myaing Township in 2022. (Supplied)

A policy vacuum

On April 15, five days after the controversial announcement by the Ye-U education board, NUG deputy education minister Ja Htoi Pan announced on Facebook that the parallel government was finalising “a comprehensive policy” on CDM and non-CDM students. She said this had followed discussions within the National Unity Consultative Council, a body coordinating resistance policy.

“On the ground, efforts are focused on managing the re-admission of recently enrolled students”, while the ministry is “working to facilitate their transition pending the formal policy release,” Ja Htoi Pan said in the Facebook post.

Noting that township boards had been devising their own strategies, she wrote that the policy had been delayed due to “the complexity of the situation”.

The NUG’s education ministry did not respond to Frontier’s request for comment.

A middle school CDM teacher in Magway’s Yesagyo Township said areas entering a “transitional period” from military to NUG control urgently needed policy guidance and support.

Meanwhile, many CDM teachers are receiving an extremely modest salary from the NUG, while others receive none at all.

“So far people and parents of students in their villages have been supporting the teachers as much as they can,” said the Myaing education board official. “These modest grants enable the teachers to educate the children, providing them with the opportunity to continue their studies with a revolutionary spirit.”

“There are villages that can provide support for teachers, while other villages can’t,” said Thingyan Phyo in Ye-U. “Some villages can offer more support at harvesting time but in villages torched by the military they can’t provide any support at all.”

The mother of a CDM elementary school student in Myaing said parents in her village contribute K5,000 each month per elementary student, K7,000 for middle school and K10,000 for high school pupils, all to pay for teachers’ salaries, which are around K80,000.

Additionally, parents have to buy photocopied textbooks that the government used to provide for free before the coup.

“I haven’t received any allowance from the NUG, and there’s no collection from students for teachers’ salaries in the village,” said a middle school CDM teacher in Khin-U Township in Sagaing. “But I do my best to help the children’s education… I understand the limits of the NUG.”

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