For Myanmar high school students, passing their matriculation exam with distinction is a near guarantee of getting into a university, even if not the school of their choice.
But that hasn’t been the case for Muhammad Ayaz, a Rohingya Muslim high school student from Buthidaung town in western Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state, who passed his matriculation exam this year, earning distinctions in all six subject areas tested.
The 15-year-old aspires to go to medical school and become a doctor so he can treat people of all races and religions in the Buddhist-majority country with 135 ethnic groups.
“I want to attend the University of Medicine,” Muhammad Ayaz told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“When I become a doctor, I want to treat people of all races in Myanmar, especially people from Rakhine state,” he said.
Students in Myanmar graduate from high school after 10 years of education when they are 15, unlike in Western countries where graduates complete 12 years of school and are usually three years older. A recent change in years of schooling that took effect this year means that Myanmar students now will have to complete 12 years of study.
Those like Muhammad Ayaz who are on a science track learn six subjects — Burmese, English, biology, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Those who pass individual tests on these subjects during the matriculation exam with a score of 80 percent or higher receive distinction.
Of the nearly 49,200 high school students in Rakhine state who sat for the exam during the 2019-2020 academic year, more than 12,300, or 27.7 percent, passed. But only 20 of them, including Muhammad Ayaz, passed with six distinctions.
About 700 high school students in Buthidaung, including Muslims, ethnic Rakhines and others, passed the exam this year, according to Rohinyga lawyers and activists in Buthidaung town and the state capital Sittwe.
But the overall number of those who sat for the exam dropped from about 1,000 test takers in 2019 due to the various roadblocks they face that prevent them from pursuing higher education, they said.
It is impossible to know the number of students who continued their studies but later dropped out because of communication problems in Rakhine and an ongoing armed conflict in the region, they added.
Among the more than 350 Muslim students who passed the matriculation exam this year were over 75 from Sittwe, about 30 from the towns of Minbya and Mrauk-U, and about 240 from the Maungdaw-Buthidaung area combined, said Soe Ting, a Rohingya activist and Buthidaung local.
But only students like Muhammad Ayaz with high total scores on the exam can be considered for entry to one of three medical universities — two in the commercial hub Yangon and one in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay.
The prospects for higher education for Muslim students In Rakhine who are top scorers remain dim, however, because of their lack of citizenship and travel restrictions.
“Every year I hear about Rohingya students who pass the matriculation exam with five or six distinctions, but I’ve never heard of any successive governments giving them any kind of recognition,” said Nickey Diamond, a rights activist with Fortify Rights.
Few students from Rakhine state’s 3.2 million people attend college, let alone go to medical school.
Rakhine is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, with a poverty rate of 78 percent — nearly double the national rate of 37.54 percent — according to an August 2017 report by an advisory commission on Rakhine state headed by late United Nations chief Kofi Annan.
A stagnant, underdeveloped economy, poor social services, and a dearth of livelihoods beyond farming, fishing, and running small family-owned businesses limit the opportunities for young people with a college degree.
The state also has been a hotbed of ethnic and religious tension for decades.
A wave of sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhines and Rohingyas in June 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 120,000 others, most of them Rohingyas who later were housed in displaced camps to prevent further clashes.
Following the riots in Sittwe and in other towns, authorities restricted many Muslim students from attending colleges in the state.
Three years ago, Myanmar forces led a brutal crackdown on Rohingya communities in the state's northern Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships, leaving thousands dead and prompting more than 740,000 others to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
The hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who did not flee and still live in Rakhine state remain subject to ongoing persecution and discrimination, as they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied Myanmar citizenship.
Buthidaung town, where Muhammad Ayaz and his family live, remained relatively safe amid the 2017 military “clearance operations” that targeted mainly Rohingya villages in rural areas.
But a lack of citizenship and travel restrictions imposed by the government may prevent the teenager from realizing his dream of becoming a doctor.
The current 1982 Citizenship Law, which does not include the Rohingya among Myanmar’s official ethnic groups, established three categories of citizens: full, associate, and naturalized. It permits a government-controlled central body with broad powers to determine specific citizenship issues, such as what kinds of rights each category of citizens may or may not have.
Because the Rohingya are not considered a national ethnic group, they are ineligible for full citizenship, rendering them stateless.
Associate citizens are those who acquired citizenship through the 1948 Union Citizenship Law, which conferred equal rights on all citizens. This type of citizenship can be granted to those who applied for citizenship under the 1948 law and to their children.
Naturalized citizens are those who lived in the country before Jan. 4, 1948 and applied for citizenship after 1982. Few Rohingya possess the necessary documents that show conclusive evidence of entry and residence in Myanmar prior to Jan. 4, 1948, or can demonstrate the necessary bloodlines as required by the current law.
‘Whatever card they gave us’
Muhammad Ayaz doesn’t hold a National Registration Card (NRC) that would allow him to advance his education at the university level, said his older brother, Muhammad Reyas.
Instead, he has a National Verification Card (NVC), an official ID that identifies him as a resident, not a citizen.
Muhammad Ayaz’s father also has an NVC, although his mother holds an NRC.
“We had to take whatever card the immigration officials gave us, [but] what we want are national ID cards just like other ethnic groups have,” Muhammad Reyas said.
Even though one of his parents holds an NRC, Muhammad Ayaz still cannot become a citizen and obtain one of the coveted cards himself.
Students who are not citizens, or those who are foreigners, have not been allowed to pursue degrees in Myanmar’s medical schools since the 1960s.
The matriculation exam guidebook issued by the Ministry of Education says both parents of students who want to attend one of the medical universities should have national ID cards.
But Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader who once sat on a government advisory commission on resolving the religious and ethnic divisions in Rakhine state, pointed out that university admission handbooks say otherwise.
“In university admission handbooks, colleges for professional careers such as engineering or medicine say they admit students in all citizenship categories, regardless of whether they have full, naturalized, or associated citizenship,” he told RFA.
“In reality, it does not happen,” he added. “The existing laws and regulations don’t apply to the people on the ground. The rules and regulations are made on an unofficial basis within the departments that handle applications.”
Ko Lay Win, director general of Department of Basic Education under Myanmar’s Education Ministry, said students with NVC cards are allowed to attend college but first need approval from the Department of Higher Education.
RFA was unable to reach officials at the Department of Higher Education for comment.
No guarantee of security
Even if Muhammad Ayaz received such approval from the department, Myanmar’s travel restrictions on Muslims from northern Rakhine state would pose another obstacle.
“In addition to the citizenship problem, they need travel permits to go to Yangon or any other parts of the country,” said Nickey Diamond. “If they don’t have travel permits from the government, they cannot attend colleges in mainland Myanmar.”
Rohingyas and other Muslims from the area cannot leave the state, even for educational purposes or to obtain medical treatment, unless they have permission from authorities.
If Muslim students do receive permission, they are usually limited to studying at Sittwe University or Taunggoke Degree College in the Rakhine town of Taungup.
In reality, however, most opt not to go to these cities, where they would face other restrictions and racial tensions, so they end their formal education after grade 10.
“For Muslims who go to college, the government doesn’t give any guarantees for their security,” Rohingya activist Soe Ting said. “In Buthidaung and Maungdaw, some students passed the matriculation exam with distinctions, but they will face many problems if they attend college.”
Maung Tin Aung, an education officer from Buthidaung township, said that students who pass the exam with several distinctions will be allowed to attend medical colleges and other professional institutes.
Others who passed, but not with honors, can take distance-learning courses from teachers at Rakhine colleges who periodically travel to Buthidaung and Maungdaw to meet with students in their classes, he said.
Distance-learning students are limited, however, to taking courses only in two subjects — Burmese and history.
As for Muhammad Ayaz, his family said he has no alternate plan if he can’t attend medical school.
Reported by Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.