- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

CHIANG MAI, Thailand Teachers in Burma renamed Myanmar by the military government currently in power once were accorded great respect as was normal throughout Asia. But now they are seeing their reputations plummet owing to a combination of economic desperation, a purge in their ranks and pressure by the junta.
A generation ago, Burmese equated teachers with the most senior religious scholars, with monks and parents, and in rare instances placed them on par with the Buddha himself. Trust in them was absolute.
But schoolteachers from Rangoon to Mandalay and beyond are finding their role as keepers of morality has eroded into that of peddlers of knowledge whose price is beyond the means of most families, say exiles monitoring the country's creaking education system.
"The image of teachers is getting worse now, ever since the regime took power after a bloody military crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement of 1988," Burmese teacher Cherry Lulu told AFP.
A former senior faculty member at Rangoon's Teacher Training College who fled to Thailand in the mid-'90s, Mrs. Lulu points to a flood of events and conditions that have reduced respect for teachers.
The ruling generals have blamed teachers for the nationwide crisis of 1988, in which student demonstrations were violently suppressed, leading to many deaths. In the aftermath, the junta sacked hundreds and perhaps thousands of teachers who refused to inform on their students, Mrs. Lulu said.
Those who admitted under interrogation to supporting pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi or a multiparty system were transferred upcountry, or to areas near the front line of armed ethnic insurgency.
To avoid this fate, several of the more than 200,000 teachers in Burma submitted to the often harsh and exploitative demands of the army, which are said to include excessive public displays of homage, and payment of large bribes for even the most basic teaching posts.
"I knew the life of Myanmar teachers very well," Mrs. Lulu said. "Now their lives are difficult and salaries are low, and they are teaching privately to make money."
Official salaries have plummeted in real terms, teachers say.
The headmaster at a standard government high school earns 12,000 kyat per month about $10 on today's black market. Teachers earn just 4,500 kyat.
"How can they survive on that amount?" Mrs. Lulu asked.
They can't, and so teachers are forced onto the slippery slope of private tutoring, which is illegal in Burma, but common in virtually every school district, particularly in Rangoon and Mandalay, teachers say.
Newly exiled teacher Wyne Win said students from poor families are the ultimate losers. Teachers have taken to leaving out key parts of the curriculum, only to teach them later in private tutorials that cost anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 kyat per month.
Bribery for good grades is prevalent. Competition for the few thousand annual student openings in Burma's frequently shut universities leads to further exploitation.
"Their efforts to afford the skyrocketing commodity prices while maintaining good relations with their military rulers are damaging the integrity of teachers," said Wyne Win, who left Burma in September.
Another problem tarnishing the image of educators is a requirement that they pay homage in public to members of the junta and officials in military attire. In the past, teachers were the recipients of such gestures, usually a bow and a clasping together of hands at the chest, from people at all levels of society.
But the tables have turned by order of the generals, and "now teachers pay respect to military leaders," Wyne Win said.
Relations between the government and the education system have been strained for decades in Burma.
The All Burma Students Union emerged in the 1930s to oppose British rule, and produced the country's independence hero, Gen. Aung San, and other national heroes.
Its headquarters, where teachers and students gathered to discuss national and political issues, was destroyed by Ne Win's military government in July 1962, and the union itself was outlawed.

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