Su Thi is 17 years old. She lives in Bago in the northeast part of Yangon. She isn’t in school because she sells packs of postcards for 2000 kyats (about 2 dollars) at the reclining Buddha. I realized just how privileged I am to be able to not only receive an education, but to study abroad.
It’s hard to imagine having to choose selling postcards for money over going to school, but that’s how it is here. The priority for survival is to make enough money for food and shelter, and often that means the kids have to give up their education to help support their families. For Burma, the government banned education for many years, so kids didn’t really have a choice between school and sales. However, the government has eased up recently as they slowly transition from a dictatorship to a democracy. More Burmese are trying to teach themselves and their kids. Su Thi, for instance, spoke remarkable English. It turns out she taught herself, which is what many Burmese people are doing now.
Hundreds of books line the side streets and sidewalks. Anything from novels to encyclopedias to Myanmar-to-English dictionaries and grades 1 through 7 workbooks. It’s so apparent that the Burmese want to learn and are doing what they can to catch up.
I was drinking coffee at a local cafe in Yangon when a man sat and began talking with me. His name is U Ngwe Thien and he’s a teacher of business and marketing management at the local university. He also translates English texts to Myanmar because he wants to help spread the knowledge to the Myanmar people.
He strongly believes in education and it’s power to uplift the people. He said that the government instilled fear in the people for many years. No one would dare talk to each other. The government fed off of this fear. It’s been keeping all of the wealth while the people suffer. For too long reading and learning were almost entirely forbidden. The people might have been afraid of the government, but the government feared an educated population because it would mean more confidence among the people to speak out.
U Ngwe told me an analogy about the Burmese/Myanmar government: it’s in the driver’s seat, but doesn’t know how to drive so it’s always getting into accidents and hurting its passengers. In other words, those that make up the government need to learn as well. They need to learn how to drive its passengers safely to their destination. And he has hope that this learning will come and with it suffering will lessen and the people of Myanmar will be living better.