Reading the Future

By Alma Freeman 20 August 2014

Publisher U Thant Thaw Kaung, head of the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation and the mobile library project under the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, recently visited the United States as part of a three-week study tour as the Asia Foundation’s Chang-lin Tien Visiting Fellow. The Foundation’s In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with Dr. Thant Thaw Kaung to discuss Myanmar’s vibrant reading culture and how he helped keep books and literary life alive in Myanmar during decades of isolation.

Question: At 95 percent, Myanmar’s literacy rate is among the highest in the region, but access to quality books and reading remains a challenge. Why?

Answer: The literacy rate is high as a result of a few big campaigns that the government started in 1975 where volunteers and college students went to rural areas across the country promoting the value of reading and books. The government received an award for this campaign from UNESCO, and it has continued until recently. People are able to read in Myanmar. But accessibility to quality books and affordability are our two biggest challenges now. When we began the mobile library we found out that people were eager to borrow a lot of books – they want to read. That’s why the mobile library project under the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, named after the late mother of noble laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is successful: it goes to people’s homes; they don’t have to go to the library. So far, the library has had 90,000 checkouts and we have 8,000 members.

Q: Where does the enthusiasm for reading and education come from?

A: In the villages and at every corner of the road you will find at least one book-lending shop. People really appreciate the value of education in Myanmar. In fact, in the 1930s and ‘40s, students from Southeast Asian countries wanted to attend Yangon University as a first choice, and still today they are proud to say they are alumni from there. The monasteries have also played an enormous role in teaching rural children how to read from a very early age. As such, Myanmar’s education system was historically very strong, but from 1962-1988 and from 1988 to 2010, after the military coup, the country was ruled under a socialistic and military system until the recent political shift. These governments did not give attention to the quality of education.

Moreover, teaching methods have followed a rote learning and memorization style of teaching and learning, rather than on approaches that encouraged critical thinking. The government is trying to introduce a more “student-centric” approach, but that will take some time to change.

Q: Myanmar’s budget for education remains extremely low. What challenges does this present?

A: This shows that the government is emphasizing defense over health, which accounts for 3 percent, and education, which accounts for just 5.4 percent of the budget (compared to Vietnam which allocates almost 21 percent to education). Myanmar defense’s budget is almost 23 percent of the total budget. There is a big discussion in Parliament about this now, and in January, the government announced that the budget for health and education would increase slightly. By the time the teachers’ salary is paid, which is also very low at only about $100 a month, the education budget is used up.

Myanmar is also poor: 26 percent of the population is still living under $1.25 a day. And there’s a severe lack of electricity. Because of poverty, school dropout rate is high: there are 8 million students studying right now from K-12. But there are only 400,000 students in university which means there is an 85 percent dropout rate from kindergarten to high school and only 5 percent reach university-level.

Q: While in New York, you received the prestigious Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award for your leading role in keeping books and literary life alive in Myanmar. Can you talk about how the environment has changed since you began?

A: In those days, the censorship board could confiscate books at any time if they felt that they were sensitive. According to the law, every single book had to get the approval from the censorship board. The board could require that a word, paragraph, or even a whole page be torn off if they declared it to be too sensitive. For example, even a tiny photograph of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed. Sometimes, they asked us to use white ink to blot it off. Our books were carefully checked and sometimes we had to withdraw them from the shelves. Many times we even thought of closing down our business.

We had doubts initially in 2010 whether the government would loosen censorship over publications and the media. But they did it step by step, initially lifting the censorship of weekly journals, on health, sports, and education. Two months later, they introduced more categories, including news journals. The government’s recent decision to abolish the censorship board had an enormous impact on the entire publishing industry and we all welcome this. We have donated over 800,000 books to over 800 libraries.

Q: 70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas, and as you say, paved roads and other basic infrastructure services are still largely missing in these areas, including electricity for libraries, making it difficult for rural communities to benefit from the rapid development experienced by the country’s urban centers.

A: We are starting to see these big gaps. Most of the 70 percent of rural residents are farmers. Most of the working age groups now work overseas – 2 million are working in Malaysia or Thailand – where they are more highly paid. There is a shortage of manpower even for farming. In order to narrow this gap, we need to create jobs for them so they work at home and don’t migrate. That’s why we are involved in rural libraries because they can play a major role in access to information in rural areas. At present, we are constructing rural libraries and equipping them with books and computers. Moreover, we are offering training opportunities for modern librarianship to public librarians.

While English-language books are sought after in the urban centers, there is a great need for local-language books in rural libraries. To meet this need, we have arranged with our donor to be able to sell 30 percent of our donated English language books so we can buy local books. We hold what we call book buffets twice a year in urban centers where people can buy books at low rate.

Q: While only 2 percent of Myanmar’s population has access to the Internet, mobile penetration is rising sharply. How do you see technology playing a role in improving access to education?

A: Mobile penetration is now at 10 percent, and could be nearly 50 percent in just one year. The younger generation is leapfrogging straight to smart phones, which are becoming very popular in urban centers. At present, we are negotiating with local and international partners such as Beyond Access and Ooredoo to provide internet and computers at public libraries in rural areas. People are can now access a far broader range of topics, such as health, education, and the economy.

This article originally appeared in the In Asia section of The Asia Foundation’s website,