Educating the future of Myanmar

Photos and Words by Natalie Peart

Myaing sits opposite me nursing a steaming cup of Burmese tea. She stares into her cup timidly as I gather my notes together.

I was in Myanmar, or Burma as it is often known, for some government’s refusal to recognise the name change. I had been invited to the country to design a website and develop a marketing plan for a tiny non-governmental school in Mandalay. Here I was, finally getting the chance to sit down with the woman who asserts that “education is a fundamental right”.

She is right of course; everyone deserves the right to an education yet in Myanmar, it is reserved for the privileged few.

The current budget for education stands at just 1.2% annually, which is low even compared to its Asian neighbours.

Myaing is the head teacher of a pre-school in Mandalay. She isn’t much older than me, yet her story is much longer than mine will ever be.

Being solely responsible for the future of 36 young children in one of the most corrupt and unequal countries in the world is an arduous task, even for those who have help.

Myaing doesn’t have help.

She relies on international volunteers, but with constant media coverage of ethnic violence, the number of volunteers is dwindling. She needs more volunteers and funding. But, she is worried that the school will be closed if she advertises or asks around.

Although it is reported in international media that the military led government is changing under new President Thein Sein, (2011) there are still reportedly 176 political prisoners.

Myaing has experienced prison life in Myanmar.

Just six years ago she was running a much bigger and more appropriately funded school with a foreign national, until it was shut down and demolished by the government because foreign volunteers were teaching the children, which at the time was not permitted.  

The foreign national was deported; she and her native teachers were thrown in jail. She was then banned from finishing her law degree. Disheartened, she retreated to two years of meditation in a local monastery, and the children are something she cannot speak of easily.

“Every child deserves to have a childhood, and we let them play as well as learn. At home they mostly work because parents need money. They have to grow up too fast. I do not know what happened to all those children, but [I] don’t want the same to happen to my new students”

I assure her I will not report anything that will jeopardise the school; and I won’t. The risk is too high.

Myanmar seems to finally be opening its doors to the outside world, but the current education system favours those from affluent backgrounds who can afford extra tuition or private schools. Sadly, the others, the majority, fall through the cracks.

I visited numerous schools in Myanmar, and each time I found the same problems; overworked teachers, under resourced classes and class sizes exceeding 50. One school in rural Kalaw didn’t have enough desks to seat the 60 students, more than a quarter of the class had no notebook or pen and the teacher had run out of chalk. I watched from the back of the class, there were no flashcards or books, no paper or craft materials and no creative way for the students to learn.

The teacher recited words from a book , just over half of the students scribbled in their tattered notebooks, about 10 of them sat cross legged on the floor with no desk to lean on. The rest; the ones with no notebook listened or lay their heads on the desk.

This leaves students falling behind; unable to keep up. Those who can’t afford extra tuition give up or drop out.

People were happy to open up in Myanmar, something I didn’t expect. Many are relying on the youth to move their country forward; they feel that education is central to their future goals.

In the conversations I had the word ‘hope’ came up many times, they hope for a better nation, a better future and people like Myaing are playing a central role in that. She wants to break down the boundaries between rich and poor, male and female and the fighting ethnic groups. She wants to educate the future of Myanmar.

*Names, locations and dates in this article have been changed to protect the school.

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There are over 7 billion people in this world, each one with a story of their own. Natalie Peart is a nomadic journalist and photographer trying to uncover the stories that the mainstream media often ignores. She is from Scotland but currently lives a works in Sydney, and frequently travels internationally to work on research and communications projects for NGO’s.