Rakhine (Burma): Understanding your students from Rakhine State and their cultural backgrounds

Rakhine refugee students: Cultural background profiles

Many educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

Photo by UNHCR
Photo by UNHCR

Rakhin Map

Burma (Myanmar) has suffered civil war, political oppression and ethnic conflict since the 1950s. Burma includes over 100 different ethnic minority groups, with some of the most well known being the Burman, Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan, Mon, and Rakhine/Rohingya. The Rakhine and Rohingya live in Rakhine state, also called Arakan. The Rohingya are Muslim and the Rakhine are Buddhist.

Arakanese, which includes three dialects: SittweMarma (spoken by two-thirds of Rakhine), Ramree, and Sandoway.

Teaching in the Classroom
Formal education provided through government-led Basic Education schools. Basic Education schooling lasts 11 years: 5 years of primary school (Kindergarten to Standard 4) and 6 years of secondary education. Students graduate at 16 or 17 years old.

Rakhine’s education system is highly marginalized and ranks very poorly for both primary and secondary school attendance, as well as for gender parity. Common barriers to education are dilapidated buildings, overcrowded classrooms, shortage of teachers, inadequate facilities and the absence of teaching and learning materials.

Rakhine offers alternative educational institutions:

  • Self-help schools for younger children in remote areas
  • Short-term Basic Literacy Education drives try to give children and adults basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills.
  • NGO-run adolescent spaces offering basic vocational training and life skills
  • Churches offering literacy and numeracy teaching to younger children in the areas they serve.

But by far the most prominent educational institutions in Muslim areas are community-funded mosque schools, or madrasahs. They provide a religious education to younger children of both sexes, and to mostly male adolescents. Most lessons focus on memorizing and interpreting religious texts and not on literacy or numeracy. Madrasahs usually function in parallel with the government education system rather than in competition with it, with classes timed in order to avoid clashes with government school timetables. Muslim parents see madrasahs as important and valuable but not as a preferable alternative to the formal education system. However, for children in areas where government schools do not exist, or when parents are too poor to afford costs associated with education, madrasahs provide their only education.

Family/School Engagement
In Rakhine state, there have been particularly bitter tensions between the Rakhine people, who are Buddhist and make up the majority of the state’s population, and Muslims, who are mostly Rohingya. You will need to be aware of this divide when interacting with families from Rakhine.

Many of the larger cultural norms practiced in Burma can be found among the Rakhine people. For example, traditionally, Burmese do not have family names. A man named Htay Maung might have a wife named Win Swe Myint and two children named Cho Zin Nwe and Than Tut. None of the names has any relationship to the others; each is individual. The absence of surnames creates problems when Burmese are asked to fill in forms in Western countries.

Furthermore, students in your classroom who are ethnically Burman may have parents who experienced severe political persecution, though they themselves may have been born in the US or been very young when their families came to the US. Literacy rates of adults in Burma are estimated at approximately 60%. However, Burmese adults in the US are likely to be more educated than the average Burman.

It is important to keep in mind that many refugees do not know how to drive or lack access to a car, so transportation to school events will be a challenge even if parents want to be involved.

Respect for elders is important. Thus, younger persons do not sit at a level higher than that of an elder in the same room, nor do they sit with their feet pointing at elders. The feet are regarded as the least noble part of the body, and it is disrespectful to point them toward someone deserving your respect. Use both hands to give something to, and receive something from, an older person.

Don’t touch people on the head, which is considered the spiritually highest part of the body.

Burmese tend to be reserved until friendships are formed. Losing one’s temper is a sign of bad manners and poor upbringing.

Gender, Culture, and Family
There is an emphasis on family and community and a respect for elders and ancestors. In general, men and women do not interact in public. Arranged marriages are acceptable. Extended families live together in one house, with men commanding the most respect. Women, however, play an important role in Rakhine society, often making decisions for the family.

There is a distinctive Indian influence throughout the culture, in particular with regard to its food, music and literature. Rakhine people have their meals in the late morning and early evening. Like most Myanmar cuisine, plain ingredients are enhanced with the use of chilies and spices. Rice and vegetables tend to be the order of the day, along with meat and fish when supply allows.

Additional Resources






Share Your Ideas

If you have comments or additional information or ideas to share on teaching Rakhine students, please email: info@usahello.org.

Take our Course for Educators

If you would like more training on how to educate refugee and immigrant students, please consider enrolling in our course, Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students: An Online Course for Teachers.

Print this Information as a PDF

You can download and print this Rakhine learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

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