Earlier this year Theint Theint Thu shared her story with us, of how she is working to improve the education system in her homeland of Myanmar/Burma. 16 years old and a junior at high school, Theint Theint currently lives in Tokyo, where her parents work for a car company. Her commitment to her cause belies her age. Sarah interviewed her and was truly blown away.
How long have you lived in Japan, and how has that experience motivated you to do the work you’re doing now?
I have lived in Japan for 14 years. Living in Japan has made me understand what the quality of life should be. It has also helped me analyse how important education is to the development of the sciences, the arts and the humanities. I understood what people were capable of once they were given the opportunity to pursue their dreams and passions. It also contributed a lot to the idea of ‘acting now’. I’ve always wanted to put these projects off for a later date, but as I contrasted the two worlds I am connected to and realised the severity of the situation in Myanmar, I was pushed into acting right now.
What led to your interest in education in Myanmar?
My interest in education was a rather messy journey. When I was in middle school, I dealt heavily with anxiety, and a severe lack of motivation. There would be days when I just couldn’t get myself out of bed, or would be hyperventilating for two hours straight. One thing that remained with me was the love I had for the people of Myanmar. I loved the humble, kindhearted and warrior-spirited people.
For a while I was back in Myanmar as my parents believed the change in environment would help me overcome my mental state. I remember sitting in a tea shop there when my father asked one of the working boys whether they were at school or not. Most of them said no. I asked them what they wanted to be in the future and most knew to reply with “nothing”. I realised the lack of motivation they had for their future was something I similarly felt and I did not want others to feel this way as well. I wanted them to have a chance at their future and at their lives. I wanted them to understand what it meant to have a value in their future, and what it meant to have a dream to chase after. I believed that a child should be given the opportunity to become who they desired to be, not who they were destined to be.
My beliefs drove me to try to find equal educational opportunities for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, disability or age. Eventually, the children I had met became the reason I ever overcame my emotional and mental struggles, and to this day I cannot thank them enough.
Can you describe the political situation in Myanmar at the moment, and how that affects education?
Public schools in Myanmar are often inaccessible to people in the country. In addition, due to its very basic facilities and poor quality education, the number of students who remain in school after five years after their enrollment is 50%. Unfortunately, schools also charge students unofficial fees, especially those in poorer rural areas, who are already faced with financial difficulties. As a result, many drop out of school. Not only is education inaccessible in Myanmar, academic freedom remains restricted. Students are not allowed to express, write or publish freely, defeating the entire purpose of educating a child.
Recently, three more students were detained and arrested for their involvement in the protests on March 10, 2015 at the Rangoon Eastern University, for education reforms. The peaceful protest, which was led by students a little less than a year ago, were met by “a brutal crackdown by baton-wielding police” and the arrests of more than 100 demonstrators. The arrests highlight the lack of freedom of expression. The idea of expressing one’s self, in Burmese public schools, is considered taboo. This is possibly due to the government’s long-held fear of the effects of expression on their dominance in society.
Accessibility, freedom of expression, and providing equal opportunities for all are crucial steps that are needed in the current educational constitution. Without the fundamentals of education, the country cannot progress as much as it would hope to. Although president Thein Sein vowed to make education the top priority in Burmese politics, his progress was nonapparent. The government budget for education is low, and the quality of education, by international standards, is too. The government needs to understand the role of education in the development of the nation, and in building the confidence of its citizens.
What are some of the barriers you expect to face, or that you have already faced in trying to bring about change?
The biggest problem I’ve faced is how no one takes me seriously. Everyone assumes that a 5’2″, 16 year-old girl fighting for education reforms is ‘cute’ and oftentimes my ideas are disregarded as ‘naïve dreams children have’. However, if I could get people to change their perspective on education for the better, despite what they think of me, I would be happy. At the end of the day, my goal is to promote education, not myself. The local authorities have been difficult to work with as well. The idea of having private or public school curriculums, or trying to bring reforms has been difficult to implement. It’s been incredibly hard, and terrifying, to present my ideas of a quality education in front of older men with military achievements, who unfortunately do not stand for the same values I do. More often than not I’m asking myself if it’s really worth it, but the answer is and always will be yes.
Why did you choose to start in Kalaw?
Besides its absolutely beautiful landscape, I chose Kalaw because I believe it’s one of the regions where education is neglected. Its surrounding major cities like Mandalay and Naypyidaw all have basic infrastructure and teachers, but most of Kalaw does not. Geographically, it makes it harder for a lot of students to attend schools as well.
Are you working with anyone else on the fundraising and construction?
I am working to fundraise on my own. However, for the actual construction I am hoping to work with organisations like Build a School in Burma. In addition, a group of my friends and I have started developing various programmes to financially and academically support children who are out of school. The programme will include free tutoring lessons, providing school supplies – including uniforms – as well as providing basic necessities like school lunches.
How much money are you trying to raise for the Kalaw school, and what will you use it for?
I’m trying to raise about USD 12,000, which is a huge sum of money. This will be for construction and labour costs. I hope to employ the local people as I believe this will help provide temporary jobs in the meantime. Other costs, including bathrooms, classroom supplies, textbooks and teachers’ salaries will have to come from donors. In addition, the village I am working with has agreed to help maintain the school, through cleaning and tidying up. Though I do not have a set date, I hope to start before monsoon season in Myanmar – around June or August. This is because the ground becomes much easier to dig up when it is wet. The rest of the construction will have to take place when the weather becomes dry again, hopefully finishing in time for the next school year. If the school is built before then, it becomes easier to have a head-start lesson for children who may need to catch up. It’ll also be a good time to educate adults as well, on basic literacy, and provide other programmes, even though these will hopefully be run throughout the year too.
If you’d like to support Theint Theint’s project please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.