On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Tin Maung Maung Aye discusses his efforts to educate Burma’s child laborers.
Aung Zaw: This week, I am joined by U Tin Maung Maung Aye, director of the Myanmar Mobile Education Project, will join me for discussion. I am Irrawaddy Magazine Editor Aung Zaw.
You left Myanmar after the 1988 uprising, and you lived in US for around 26 years. You missed your country and you were watching developments from there. Then you began a project—an education project for child laborers—when you came back. It is a mobile classroom for working children. The project has received accolades from the international community and labor activists since it launched. Before we discuss your work, let’s touch on your homecoming. Before talking about this project, let’s start with your homecoming. Why did you come back? Did you feel any culture shock?
Tin Maung Maung Aye: I lived and learned in US for more than two decades. While I was there, I always missed my country and its people. I always wanted to come back. I had to adapt with great difficulty to the situation here, as the reality on the ground was quite different from my imagination. It is like looking at a picture from a distance. You can’t see color or shapes clearly. You get closer and closer to the picture and finally you get into it, and you find that the details are more complicated. The major culture shock for me was seeing so many people struggling for their livelihood every day.
AZ: Myanmar before 1988 and Myanmar after 1988. From my point of view as a returnee, Myanmar is suffering from poverty, Yangon’s population has become more crowded, and cultural values have diminished a great deal. Do you feel the same?
TMMA: When I left Myanmar in 1989, there were nearly so many people and cars on the road. The environment was more friendly, people were more friendly and supportive toward each other. At that time, Yangon did not have people from so many various walks of life, various regions and various backgrounds. When I came back, I found that Yangon was very populous and there were many, many cars. Everywhere, people are struggling hard to sustain their lives. To get 4000 or 5000 kyats in their pockets when they get back home is all they are thinking about. Some families have to cook dinner when they get back home from work while others have to redeem pots from the pawnshop to cook dinner. The majority of the faces I saw were overwhelmed by worry and stress.
AZ: I feel that the faces of both young and old men here are hopeless and demoralized. Don’t you think?
TMMA: Yes, that’s right. The majority of people are leading a hand-to-mouth existence. A safety net and fundamental human rights are almost non-existent for them. As such, everyday, they have to struggle all the time for their day-to-day survival.
AZ: There is the problem of internal migration. People come to urban areas to find jobs and opportunities and to support their families. When we sit at teashops, we see school-aged children of around 10 working there. How did you get the idea to provide education for them?
TMMA: As we have said, it is a culture shock to see child workers working at teashops, restaurants and roadside eateries. When I left Myanmar in 1989, there were almost no working children. Then I came back and when I sat at teashops together with my friends, I saw them and wondered why there are so many children working at these places, where they come from and what they do each day. As I talked to them, to teashop owners and with my friends and families, I came to know that 80 or 90 percent of them came from rural areas, the delta and central Myanmar. They have come to big cities like Yangon and Mandalay as they were facing hardship in their home regions.
Some are called to cities by their friends, relatives and siblings. And some are brought by middlemen. They have to do whatever job is available and send back their daily wages to their parents. Child workers have to work from dawn to night at teashops, seven days a week, so they have no time to learn. Then, a thought came to me. While Myanmar is opening up—by opening up I mean higher degrees of freedom and increased rights compared to the past—and as the country has millions of youths, and if we did not play a part in their intellectual advancement and improvement of their lives, then where and what will they be in the next five to 10 years?
We don’t need to ask an astrologer how much they will be able to contribute to their families, villages and the country. Every one can predict what they will be. From that, I got the idea to play a part and carry out this mobile education project to provide a practical education for them.
AZ: So, you bring the school in buses to working children, and there are donors for the buses.
TMMA: It is not that they don’t have access to schools; rather they don’t have time to go to school. Unlike other countries, Myanmar does not have part-time schools. So, if they are to go to school, they have to attend half the day. And they don’t have that much time. The break they get is mostly two or three hours. I thought about how I could provide education to them during that short period. Then I got the idea of turning old buses into schools. I put desks and tables and also equipped the buses with solar panels so that we don’t need a power source when we teach at night. As you know, electricity is always off and on in Myanmar, depending on the location. So, with this in mind I equipped the buses with solar panels, projectors and computers, and now I am preparing to bring the internet to mobile classrooms. I had to negotiate first with teashop owners before I could teach them.
AZ: The teashop owners accepted it willingly?
TMMA: In Myanmar, though shop owners fight for the survival of their businesses every day, most of them have a philanthropic spirit. What we teach is also practically useful for their shops. For example, we teach the children the English names for menu items. As Myanmar is undergoing a transition, many foreigners are coming into the country. When foreign customers come to those teashops, child workers can deal with them to a certain extent. So, it is beneficial to shop owners. Secondly, we teach them about interpersonal skills.
AZ: So you teach them skills training.
TMMA: We teach them what is practical. We teach them things like interpersonal skills, personal hygiene. They will know how diseases like dengue fever and HIV can develop. So, they can bring with them these skills and knowledge when they move to another shop or when they go back to their villages.
AZ: And they can open their own shops when they go back to their home villages?
TMMA: Yes, they can. People with good interpersonal skills will have many friends, won’t they? What we teach is things for their development. We divide levels in teaching them. Level 1 is about interpersonal skills and health awareness, Level 2 is about basic computer skills and internet, as well as using Facebook and mobile phones. Level 2 also teaches them knowledge about occupations, for example from where raw materials come and how finished products are manufactured in a garment factory, what skills and experiences are needed to work at a garment factory. Again we teach spoken English for service industry businesses like hotels and restaurants. There are three levels—basic, beginner and further.
AZ: Your organization to help these children is relatively small. But then, there are international organizations that have a mandate for such projects, like UNICEF and the ILO as well as internationally well-known NGOs like Save The Children. They have huge budgets and implement big projects.
TMMA: Mine is small compared to theirs.
AZ: Last year, the media reported that UNICEF rented an ex-general’s house to use as their office for US$87,000 per month. I think your budget is much smaller than that amount.
TMMA: I wish I got that amount. Then I could teach all working children effectively.
AZ: What is government the doing with regard to the issue of child labor? There are underage workers in Myanmar. According to international and local laws, children under 13 or 14 must be spared from work. But the government is not doing anything or can’t do anything to ensure underage workers are not working, while shouting from the rooftops rhetoric about poverty alleviation national development. What is your opinion of the size of the issue?
TMMA: Child labor is a big issue. Not only Myanmar but also in many other countries. There are also many ways to address this. It is important that either the current government or the next government addresses it, as it is an important issue. Youth is the force that will shape the future. If we do not address these problems right now and fail to provide the education and knowledge they deserve and they are interested in, I am afraid they will not be able to play a part in rebuilding the country five to 10 years from now.
AZ: Is there a risk these children will take the wrong path?
TMMA: There is a large chance that they could, considering that they don’t have knowledge and experience, and they are not taught proper ethics while living away from their parents. Often, employers will put their business first and not consider assisting and supporting the moral development, education and health of their employees. If authorities fail to make due consideration and support and assist them effectively, we would see many difficulties in our country and our society.
AZ: The director of Myanmar Mobile Education Project, Ko Tin Maung Maung Aye, joined me for discussion in this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy. We will return to the subject of child labor next week. I am Irrawaddy Magazine Editor Aung Zaw.