School Hits the Road for Burmese Teashop Boys

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 23 January 2014

RANGOON—Kauk Ya has to wake up at 4:30 every morning. While other children his age wait for school buses to arrive, this 13-year old boy starts working, taking orders from customers at a teashop in Rangoon.

“I used to go to school, until I finished sixth grade,” he says.

Born the middle son of a toddy palm climber in Upper Burma, he left the classroom when he was 11 years old because his parents were too poor to support their six children. He found a job at the teashop, sending back every kyat he earned to his family. He also all but gave up on his dream to go to university—at least until recently, when a chance to learn came to him, on a bus.

“Our mission is simple: When children can’t go to schools, we bring schools to them,” says Grace Swe Zin Htike, country director of the Myanmar Mobile Education Project (myME), a program that provides non-formal education via mobile classrooms to children in Burma who are forced to leave school to support their families.

The interiors of the buses are converted into mobile classrooms, where children have an opportunity to learn basic literacy in Burmese and English, as well as math, computer skills and critical thinking skills through innovative, interactive instruction.

Since last month one of the buses has been driving the streets of Rangoon as part of a six-month pilot project, opening its doors to 120 teashop boys like Kauk Ya who want to resume their studies. Classes meet six days weekly for two hours per session, in the evenings after the boys finish work.

“We started with teashops because you can mostly find primary and middle school dropouts working there,” says Tim Aye Hardy, director of the project.

He says the mobile education project will be expanded later to include four levels of classes, from beginner to advanced, to prepare students for either formal education or vocational training in the future.

“We are just shedding light on what needs to be done and filling in the gap: providing education to some working children who can’t go to school. But to address the entire problem, only the government can take care of it,” he says.

Burmese culture traditionally places a high value on education, and net school enrollment rates are at over 80 percent for both boys and girls. But the drop-out rate is also high. According to Unicef, less than 55 percent of children who enroll actually complete the primary cycle.

Over five decades of dictatorship, Burma’s government invested very little in the education system. While tuition is free at government’s primary schools, parents have long been required to pay for books, school building repairs and even furniture for classrooms—expenses which often present an insurmountable financial obstacle for impoverished households.

Facing tough economic conditions under the former regime, families around the country and especially in rural areas have frequently been forced to send their young boys to cities or towns for jobs in teashops or factories. Many girls also drop out but typically help with chores at home, rather than working at teashops.

This situation has not been greatly alleviated by education reforms initiated under President Thein Sein since 2011; although his administration has called for free compulsory primary education, offering free textbooks and school supplies to students at the primary level, a lack of income for families means that many children are still required to work.

Aung Myo Min, a human rights activist and director of Equality Myanmar, says the mobile education project will not only promote children’s rights, but also hopefully help to identify some of the root causes of child labor in the country.

“The project is an oasis for working children who cannot go to school,” he says, adding, “They should consider a long-term strategy to eliminate child labor. Otherwise, the project will be caught up in an endless cycle.”

Just minutes after one of the buses arrived at a teashop in Rangoon on a recent evening, 65 child employees hopped on board. Despite a long day of working as waiters, cooks and tea makers, known locally as a phyaw saya (brewmasters), they seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity to practice writing the English alphabet.  Others sat around tables inside the teashop, paying attention to the lesson, and when their teacher pointed at a picture on a whiteboard, the students correctly identified it in unison as a “map.”

“I don’t feel tired. Instead, I am happy because I want to learn,” says Kauk Ya, the 13-year-old son of the toddy palm climber, while completing an in-class exercise on building simple sentences in English. “I’m just grabbing my chance to learn now, because I want to be a university graduate to get a better job.”