Kachin Sunflower
Kachin Sunflower. Picture by the author

Validating Kachinland’s Independent Colleges- Between market and ethnic communities 

1. Jun 2023

By Bill Hannah

While the military coup of 2021 has been the catalyst for a revolutionary uprising in Myanmar’s heartlands, for many of those in the country’s ethnic areas, it was merely an extension of the brutality and authoritarianism they had known for years. The 2010s had been characterised by some observers as a democratic interlude, yet the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, still operated with impunity, particularly in ethnic minority areas.  In the northern Kachinland region, the ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw broke down in 2011, and while the economic hubs of Yangon and Mandalay played host to foreign investment and unprecedented overtures of soft power, almost 100,000 people in the Kachinland region were displaced due to fighting[i]. Simultaneously, extractive industries in jade, rare earth, and bananas ramped up their resource heavy operations under the auspices of the state, leading to environmental, land, and labour outrages.[ii] For many in Kachinland, it appeared as though the nominal civilian government were indifferent to their suffering.[iii]

Education has long been an area of friction between the state and the Kachin people. Schools have become a site for ‘Burmanization’, the cultural imposition of the dominant Bamar ethnic group onto the country’s minorities in terms of language, cultures and historical narratives[iv][v]. In common with other ethnic minority organisations with high degrees of autonomy, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) has been running its own secondary schools outside of state control[vi][vii].  However, the central government has still been able to exert its own governance as pupils matriculate and move on to university education. For many years during the ceasefire period prior to 2011, the KIO had adapted its curriculum so students could take the central exams and thus move on to State universities. Following the resumption of hot war, the KIO forged a more independent path, with more Kachin-focused curriculum as well as building its own tertiary institution, Mai Ja Yang College. Simultaneously, non-profit and independent tertiary colleges, aligned neither to the State nor the KIO, also sprung up within the region, often connected with civil society organisations.

In my fieldwork in the region, I’ve worked with and studied these independent colleges and looked at the strategies they employ for sustainability. While they generally charge fees for tuition, they also function as non-profits, putting a social mission to educate at the forefront of their operations. One key mission common to many is the aspiration to have courses and programs at a higher pedagogical and curricular quality than state universities. Myanmar’s state education has faced much criticism when it comes to its rote learning methods[viii] and so alternative colleges have used “critical thinking” as a watchword for their alternative pedagogies which aim to get students questioning and engaging more in their own learning. Avoiding Burmanisation as much as possible, some independent colleges in Kachinland favour English as their common classroom language while also making time in the curriculum to explore local Kachin cultures and languages.

However, the schools also realise that if they are to be sustainable, it is not just the content of the curriculum. At a more strategic level, then there is a need to address the socially recognised value of the school to the community. For students the decision to study somewhere comes not only from the value of knowledge but the value of the school certificate.

This dual value of education relates to the human capital and credentialist schools of thought. Theories of human capital posit that education provides students with skills and knowledge that makes them more valuable in society.[ix] Prospective employers recognise this and thus offer students who have more years of education more money. Credentialism, however, argues that what is important to graduates and employers is the credential, i.e. the status of being a graduate. In terms of social dynamics in labour markets it is this credential that gives additional rights to individuals as opposed to what they have learned in classrooms. Schools do not just process students, but are institutions that have social power to confer social status.[x][xi] 

The distinction between education as a value and education as a signifier has been embodied in a number of students in Kachinland who have enrolled simultaneously at the state university and at an independent college. The justification was that the college would provide them valued knowledge and skills, while the state would give them credentials for the labour market. In other words, they knew that graduating from a state university would allow them to apply for a wider range of jobs, but they still wanted the meaningful education that the independent colleges provided. Interestingly however, since the coup, the social value of state higher education has gone down amidst general calls to boycott state institutions.

Both theories of human capital and credentialism have their strengths and weaknesses. Human capital can help us to see the value of education as a resource to societies. On the other hand, it can lead to a somewhat mechanical view of knowledge, seeing education as a process of transferring discrete chunks of information rather than learning as an individual’s evolving relationship to the world. Human capital, by commodifying education’s value, can also be the framework in which higher education is denied to some on grounds of economic viability. Credentialism allows us to see the way that education functions as a status signifier within societies and the ways in which central power can govern at a distance (e.g., the way the central Myanmar state was at one time able to direct the curricula content of KIO schools). However, credentialism risks treating education as hollow, with the act of teaching reduced to mere ritual.

Both human capital and credentialist lens are useful for looking at the strategies of independent colleges in Kachinland and how they are sustaining themselves through both higher quality teaching and an evolving process of recognition within the community, especially among local employers. Yet these two lenses both have a blindspot to the ways in which labour markets are not static entities that education simply supplies. Land grabs and rural dispossession in Myanmar has created a large labour force with little hope of absorption into urban wage labour. It is thus unsurprising that entrepreneurialism has become a popular subject in independent colleges as graduates seek to make their own way in the market. This does not necessarily mean that humanities and the arts are no longer useful. Subjects such as social studies, skills such as critical thinking, and extended research in local communities remain vital not only in terms of building up human capital, but in building the critical thinking skills so that graduates may become leaders in exploring alternatives to current economic governance and creating new paths of resilience for livelihoods both in and outside the market.


[i]OSHA (2021) IDP Sites in Kachin State. Available from https://reliefweb.int/map/myanmar/myanmar-idp-sites-kachin-state-31-march-2021

[ii]Tsa Ji (2012) Lessons from the Kachin “Development” Experience. Online Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG).

[iii]Pangmu Shayi (2012) Silence is not all that Golden. Kachinland News. September 18th. Available from https://www.kachinlandnews.com/?p=22292

[iv]Houtman, G. (1999) Mental culture in Burmese Crisis Politics. Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. Tokyo. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.                

[v]Lwin, T (2011) Languages, Identities, and Education – in Relation to Burma/Myanmar. Thinking Classroom

[vi]South, A and Lall, M (2016) Schooling and Conflict: Ethnic Education and Mother Tongue-based Teaching in Myanmar. Online. Asia Foundation.

[vii]Lwin, T (2019) Global justice, national education and local realities in Myanmar: a civil society perspective. Asia Pacific Education Review. p.273-284.

[viii] Fishbein, E., Nu Nu Lusan. (2021) Military coup kills higher education dreams in Myanmar. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/3/military-coup-kills-higher-education-dreams-in-myanmar

[ix]Becker, G. (1993) Human Capital. Third Edition. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

[x]Meyer, J.W. (1977) The Effects of Education as an Institution. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 83 (1). p.55-77.

[xi]Collins, R. (2019) The Credential Society. An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. Legacy Edition. New York. Columbia University Press.