In Person

Triple-Distinction Prison Graduate: ‘I Decided Not to Give Up My Education’

By Zarni Mann 20 June 2017

MANDALAY — During the 2016-2017 academic year, Obo Prison in Mandalay opened the first in-prison examination center, where the inmates could prepare for matriculation exams. Eleven inmates signed up to take the exam and seven passed. Of those, five inmates passed with honors. Ma Shun Lae Wai Kyaw, 19, from Kho Leik village, in Kachin State’s Shwe Gu Township, earned three distinctions, while the four others each passed with one distinction.

Ma Shun Lae Wai Kyaw is two years in to a 10-year sentence for drug charges. The Irrawaddy’s Zarni Mann talked with her in Obo Prison on Tuesday.

How did you feel when you heard about your exam results?

I was so excited on the day the results were out. When I was told by the prison officers that I had passed the exam with three distinctions—Geography, History and Economics—I was overjoyed, because I thought that I would receive only two distinctions. At the same time, I was sad, because I am in prison and I know I will not have the chance to attend a professional university, although I scored high and am eligible for one.

The prison officers let me call my home and my parents and two elder sisters were surprised and happy for me. I take this as giving back the gratitude to my farmer parents who have worked tirelessly for me.

Will your parents come to meet you? How did they react to your success?

Since we are poor and our village is far from Mandalay, my family can come meet me only once every two or three months. Next week, the prison officers will do an honorary ceremony for all of us and then my family will come see me…My parents said they are so proud of me.

This was my second attempt to enter the exam. In the 2012-2013 academic year, I failed. I was arrested in the years after that.

What happened to you two years ago? How were you arrested?

I was working as a salesgirl at a store when the police came and seized drugs and wanted to arrest the store’s owner. Since they didn’t find the owner, I was arrested with 15 WY [methamphetamine] tablets and was charged under the Narcotics Law. I received [a sentence of] 10 years imprisonment. About two years have been served.

How did you feel at that time?

A: I was so afraid and so sad during the trial. When I was sentenced to 10 years, I was so disappointed and felt I had no future. After spending one year in the prison, our wardens told us we could re-enter the matriculation exam, so I joined the classes. The prison superintendent U Cho Win Tun and Warden Daw Tin Tin Maw encouraged us a lot, saying that we still could study even though we are in prison. So I decided not to give up my education.

How are the classrooms in the prison? Are there any difficulties studying there?

The prison officers made a hall into the classroom. There are many students studying, starting from Grade 6. For the matriculation class, we have a separate room. The teachers and doctors who are in prison teach us, and teachers from outside also come to us. As the exam date drew near, the prison officers gave us separate rooms to study in, and the teachers cared for us like their own children. We received every required material, from textbooks to stationery.

As you have now passed the matriculation exam with three distinctions, what would you like to do, concerning further studies?

I would like to go to the University of Economics. I believe my total marks will make me eligible to enter that university. I want to enjoy the life of a university student like the others do. I want to be a tutor in that University of Economics after I graduate. However, my dreams and my future are in the hands of the government officials, for I am a prisoner and I still have many more years to serve. I think I have to go to the University of Distance Education like my friends here.

I pray every day that the government officials will award us with a special chance to go to university like other students do. I wish for my prayers to be granted.

Most of the young people here who entered the exam, including you, were charged under the Narcotics Law. What would you like to tell others, concerning this?

I would like to urge youth to stay away from drugs. Do not use it, do not sell it. Please take us as an example for your life. Once you have a relationship with drugs, your life will become complicated and it will become a great barrier for your future goals and your dreams.