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A Lesson in Poverty

Steve Tickner The Irrawaddy

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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.