A Lesson in Poverty

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Historically speaking, Burma’s educational institutions have taken quite a battering, in some cases quite literally. As far back as 1962, in the aftermath of student unrest and on the orders of President Ne Win, Burmese government troops used dynamite to reduce the Rangoon University Student Union to a pile of rubble.

A generation later, following the 1988 student uprising, the military junta ordered the arbitrary closure of many schools at all levels. They remained under bolt and key for a number of years; some never reopened.

The teaching of English was forbidden, and higher education facilities were relocated a distance from the then capital, Rangoon, in an attempt to stifle further student unrest.

Since then, the entire education system has suffered from inadequate budgets and a severe lack of resources at every level.

Burma’s government-sponsored schools today compete for funding estimated by some sources at only 1.2 percent of the country’s annual budget. The Australian government this year announced an 80 million dollar package specifically aimed at improving the nation’s access to quality education.

At a grass-roots level, one of the greatest obstacles to children’s education in Burma is the depth of poverty in many sectors of Burmese society. While primary school education is officially compulsory, many low-income families simply cannot meet even the basic costs of compulsory uniforms or educational materials and their children continue to slip through the cracks.

It is also widely accepted that many teachers and schools in the government system solicit additional funds from parents to supplement their meager salaries and resources.

The children from poverty-stricken backgrounds typically do not attend school at all, and many spend their days looking for plastic and other materials for recycling to supplement the family income.

The May Suu Children’s Center, a small and independent community group in South Dagon Township in the outskirts of Rangoon, is one example of motivated Burmese attempting to bridge this gap by providing educational and health services to underprivileged families.

Not unlike the government schools, the community center has continuously struggled with a lack of financial resources. The center is staffed by 10 permanent volunteer staff plus its principal, Mr Nyi Nyi. It receives no governmental funding or support, and survives on limited local donor funding. The staff are clearly intelligent, highly motivated, conscientious and dedicated to assisting their students.

May Suu currently functions as a vocational skills center, offering technical training in computers, hairdressing and tailoring skills, an effective community blood donor registration and co-ordination center, and a grade one to four educational center for local children living in impoverished circumstances.

A visit to the homes of students in the nearby Block 19 area of South Dagon illustrates why these children rarely attend school. Homes are squalid, nestled together on unpaved narrow streets, and mostly constructed with bits and pieces of assorted “recycled” materials. In the rainy season, hygiene is a major concern as waste and monsoonal rain create a toxic breeding ground for any number of diseases; the conditions can be severely debilitating to young children.

Many local kids spend their days searching through local waste for anything which can be used by their family or recycled for a few pennies.

Principal Nyi Nyi says about 70 students currently make use of the center on a rotational basis. The classrooms are cramped and insufficient, and in the future, he says, they would like to build an extension to create more space for classrooms.

Those who attend May Suu Children’s Center are given a period of meditation from a young local monk before class, and the Band of Brothers NGO, which has recently offered financial support, is currently considering a plan to introduce school dinners for students.

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch—and sponsors will of course be expecting results. Staff hope these innovations will increase the children’s learning capacity and their ability to focus, as well as improve overall health and offer the kids not only an incentive to continue attending, but hopefully the chance of a brighter future.

10 Responses to A Lesson in Poverty

  1. Excellent photographs!
    This is the reality of Burma for 99% of the population. Forget about those rich “gated communities”.
    As I have always said, Burmese society, underneath its thick military skin, is still basically a feudal oligarchy ruled by corruption, coercion, nepotism and patronage. Burmese, like many Asians, tend to sweep unpleasant things under the rug, but now that they are trying to “reform and open up” the uglier things are coming into view. Time to clean the dirty rug!
    Improving Health care and Education for the 99% is the key to “changing” Burma (I don’t really care about the über-rich and the upper class charlatans in Burma)

  2. A poverty is considered a bad Karma of previous lives amongst the Buddhists but you cannot mend what you have done in your previous lives but just to fight back to survive at the present life.

    It is the catch 22 situation for the poor people. They don’t have money so they cannot get education and because of no education they are poorer.

    Education system and people:

    Myanmar education system really need to be reviewed and revived otherwise it could not pave the road to democracy and forthcoming challenges of capitalism (here we called open market economy) with the people and the progress of the nation.

    All our teachers were adorable and we still owe them great deal of gratitude for sharing us with what they knew. I wondered if the teachers themselves were having difficulties in the understanding of the syllabus that they were teaching. We only worked hard to pass the exams but we did not really know where or how to use the knowledge we gained from the Myanmar education system. We then finished the high school and we struggled the same thing at the universities too (yes amongst frequent closure of the universities). Then a person become a graduate but doesn’t really know what they are good at.

    So many well to do parents nowadays thought that it is a waste of time to keep their children at the government school by choosing private schools (it is a bonanza in Myanmar due to current education system) where they think their children can have better education and also have a future for further studies abroad and eventually to stand on their owns.

    As for a child from an average income family, you can still afford to pay for a very minimum school fees (not including tuition fees of the teachers and a lump sums bribe to the headmasters for school enrollments), the child can only have very mediocre education (or better to say a degree) only if he can try a lot with his motivation on self study. That person can survive but become a very average person.
    A person with a bit more motivation realized only after or during their university term and looking around additional education else where for their survivals.
    Many people go through accounting courses then sitting exams abroad at the British Council, some got into seamen jobs, some become tour guides, office clerks, drivers, hotel staff, waiters and waitress by having those additional trainings and courses.

    For a child in the poor family, normally the parents’ expectations to their children are not so high by sending their child to either a government school or a monastic education centre just to be able to read and write. So basically they cannot continue more than fourth or fifth grade (during our time we call it third or fourth standard). Those person can only survive in the area by more physical jobs such as by sewing, selling food, maids, masons, construction works, carpenters, trishaw drivers etc.

    The poorest level of people cannot afford to send their children to school for a few reasons. For sure they cannot afford to pay for such complicated school fees and partly they need their children’s help in making money to support the family (here many people talk about child labour issue but mostly due to that problem) for their survival. Those are the people mentioned in the pictures. This is the hardest level of people.

    What I have mentioned is not true for everyone, there are many outstanding people come out of poor families it all depends on how much a person can foresee his future and how to have motivations and to try hard to achieve what they want.

    Most of the successful people came from poor family because we don’t have luxury but full of motivations by looking up to the rich.

    What is going wrong here?
    The previous governments have their own priorities as well as due to the domestic disputes, the education and health systems were left out in their priorities for improvement so everything is well behind anything and the country suffered after a few decades with the lack of good people for various reasons.

    How to fix the problems?
    I would say, the government owned schools has all the good basics such as school layout, management flow, syllabus and the school compounds are far better than any private school but it needs to be improved. The teachers should get paid well by getting rid of stupid custom of having tuition after the school by the same teachers. The criteria in selection of the teachers have to be very high. The teachers and the headmasters should be very ethical. The government should also work with some renowned international schools and universities. Let them come in and work together rather than having so many private schools which people do not really know if they are good or not.

    Humanitarian projects
    I work with some people who would like to help the country aside from doing business with Myanmar. If anyone think that they need help in funding the poor people in various projects, please leave your contacts, project location here and I will contact you and will do necessary assessments and to see how we can help together with the group of people I am working with.


  3. I have heard many critism about our ravage educational system without offering concrete solutions.Thanks to OPARLAY( July 6 comments) for his offer of funding.Where are our Super Rich hidin their money? Come out to the fore to match Buffet and Mitilda-Billgate charity.One percent of your wealth can fund many MAY SUU CENTRES for the poverty-stricken communities.We will appreciate contributations from Australia and the likebut we must remember ” self-reliance ” for long-term commitments.

    • Dear U Ngwe Win,
      Could you please repeat again with your project name and the location or I would appreciate if you may have a website that I can study.
      Yes, indeed, the project has to be self sustainable.

      Thanks for your reply.
      Best wishes,

  4. Hi Oparlay,
    Thanks for sharing your experience with school system of Myanmar.
    My name is Troy Mikulka. My NGO organization was mentioned in this article. Our full name is Bandofbrothersfoundation.org.
    We are providing funding to this South Dagon school project A May Su’s Children’s Center. We met with Ko Nyi and his team and have been communicating with them over the last several months. They are very dedicated and we are happy to be working with them.
    In Band of Brothers we are all USA businessmen that pool or donations and help grass roots projects in Asia that protect kids, promote education and freedom for all people.. We are focused on empowering kids to take control of there lives by learning.
    If you are interested in sharing your insight and networking with us to help this center and others that we be supporting in Myanmar send me an email.
    [email protected]

  5. It is true much of Burma is under poverty, but with my experience visiting a number of countries in the west and in the east, I find Burmese people, though poor, have real hearts of gold. On my trip to Mandalay, in the outskirts of the city, many years ago, I came across an old man splicing bamboo. I was thirsty and asked him a glass of water. The gentleman just said, “O son, you don’t need to ask for the water when you are thirsty, it’s right there for you to drink as much as you can.” I learnt it from the interpreter. How many of you rich guys of the world can say with that big smile of the wrinkled face can tell me, “the water is there, and you even don’t need to ask to drink to your fill”? Even our high-class education has never bred that kind of love and sympathy for humanity. I feel really sorry when people just go on poking fun at the ‘poverty’ of the Burmese, in fact, it is the philosophical poverty of those who have seen Burma only through their “one eye.” Military machine, feudal system, they are far away from the reaches of the great people of Burma. I salute you from a foreign soil.

  6. The education system is in chaos in Myanmar.
    So it is most every where in the world.
    The real educators in Myanmar are the Monks and the Monastery.
    We should pay credit to them.
    They are the ones that’s really educating the poor.
    Not the schools not the missionaries.
    It is the Budhist monks that is educating the rural areas.
    It has been like this for a long long time.
    Nothing’s changed.
    How lucky Myanmar is. To have this education offered and serviced by the Monks.
    Even the Generals were educated by the Monks.
    That’s why they have chosen the right path.
    I think Myanmar is better off than most countries.

  7. Burmese Gov should stop killing innocents muslims, Pakistani people support all oppressed muslims in Burma. Syop killing

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