published in The Irrawaddy
It was 1998, and Lois and I were in Burma’s northern Kachin State as guest consultants with a non-government organization (NGO). The NGO was trying to reconstruct at least a rudimentary health system in rural areas of Burma after several years of intermittent shutdown of the nation’s medical schools. We were walking with several team members to the school building in Putao to begin another day of teaching the classes for village health workers. Maung Soe Tint (not his real name), the medical student working with me that day, wore a T-shirt picturing a gas-drilling rig with the words,
Drilling in the 1997 Monsoon Season
I asked if he had worked there after the medical schools closed in Burma.
“No,” he said, “the shirt is a gift from a girl worked in their office.”
“I thought Texaco had pulled out of Burma,” I said.
“They had a lot of pressure from back home in America to pull out,” he said, “so they changed their name to Premier Oil and registered in England. They expect to begin producing this fall.”
“So where have you worked these past two years?” I said.
“There isn’t any work. That’s why I’m a volunteer teacher. I’d like to work; my girl and I want to get married, but without a paying job, I can’t afford it. I had only two months yet to go until graduation from medical school when the government shut down the universities in 1996. Without a degree, I can’t practice medicine or begin resident training.”
We joined the rest of the doctors, nurses and teachers outside the classroom. Funded by an international group, we were there to teach 104 women, chosen by their village headmen to learn the basics of giving health care to their neighbors. There is a small hospital in Putao, but some of these women came from villages many miles beyond the end of the road. There are no doctors or nurses out there, only an occasional herb saya or a quack with an unclean syringe and scant knowledge of how to use it. Clean well water, mosquito nets, and latrines are almost unknown. But three weeks’ training is at least better than what they had had.
The students rose as the teachers entered the room, then sat again, nervous about this final day of the course. Yesterday they had taken a simple written exam; now each would have to pretend she was teaching back at her village, and speak for five minutes on a health subject she would be given at random by the teacher.
Now that Burma had had no doctors graduating for two years (except possibly military doctors from their own school) the government encouraged training of lay village health workers. Because we had done similar teaching in rural Thailand for another group, the organization had invited my wife and me to join the team. We came once in 1996 when they began their project, and again in 1998 to see how well the students could remember and use such teaching. By that time there were five hundred women who had taken the three-week training course. Some of them were quite competent as far as their training went, each working with about thirty families in her home village. Others were woefully unable to make decisions, even though they could remember facts.
Several memories stick in my mind from those visits to the Kachin State. Our first Sunday in Myitkyina, my wife and I attended church; there are a lot of Baptists among the Kachins. It was a large church, seating about 500 people at each of two Sunday morning sessions. That day, the preacher asked all those in the audience who would be taking the twelfth-standard [high school graduation] examination next day to stand. I was astonished to see almost half the crowd rise. This was during our 1996 visit, when young people still had hopes of entering a university.
Education is highly valued by the Burmese. When the universities were no longer open in 1998, I noticed that the courtyard of the inn in Myitkyina, where I stayed between trips to villages, was crowded with bicycles each morning. I learned that the owners were studying English in a private school next door, in hopes of improving their chance to find a job.
Even in the villages, the health workers we trained were eager to learn. Their village headmen appeared to have chosen them well. Even though not all had completed primary school, they listened. They asked questions, an uncommon phenomenon in Burma in my experience. And they had pride in their work. Their neighbors looked up to them because they were able to lessen the amount of disease in the village.
In Burma, students are waiting with no place to go. Few can afford a private education. Very few can afford to study abroad. Those who do often have to tell the government they have a job overseas. “I had no job to come to, here in America,” a Burmese graduate student told me in the spring of 2000. “I am here in Connecticut on a scholarship grant. But I had to say I had a job in order to get permission to leave Burma. The Myanmar Embassy considers that anyone in the U.S. makes at least seven hundred dollars a month. I have to find 10% of that amount to pay the embassy, and send another 50% back to Burma “for my family” whether I have a family or not. That leaves me with the other 40% of my non-existent wage for living expenses.”
Not every student who takes the exam will get into a university, of course. But when universities are closed to all undergraduates, no one gets in. High school graduates are all still waiting at home, or employed below their capability, waiting for a chance, wondering when schools will open, and for how long they will stay open this next time.
The military government of Burma/Myanmar appears to be uneasy about reopening the universities, fearing they will become focal points of “unrest.” The military government has access to world-wide information sources. They should not find it too hard to learn how successful nations deal with such matters.
Denying higher education to all civilians just to control a minority of agitators puts a nation at great disadvantage. Not only in morale, but economically, politically, even militarily, the lack of education damages the country’s future.
The question here is, can training lay workers for a few weeks take the place of six years of medical school? The answer, of course, is no.
An excerpt from “Flame Tree, A Novel“:
“I looked at my teen-age children, growing up in that kind of climate. Even if the universities were allowed to stay open, the best they could expect would be years of work for a small salary and little hope of improving their lot. I told them, we can do better than this in Thailand. But of course we refugees are restricted to the border areas and no other country will take us. So now I am a schoolteacher in the jungle.”
“And how does a jungle school compare with an elementary school back in Burma?” asked George.
The man thought a moment, scratching an insect bite on his arm. “We have a better attendance record, but we really dont have the resources to accomplish much,” he said. “We have very few books, no equipment. And most of the children are so hungry, it’s all they can do to survive, much less learn. If we have to move to a new hiding place, many drop out.”
“Hard to learn much under those conditions.” George was sympathetic.
“But conditions are not always better out in the districts and towns back home,” the man said. “In Burma, elementary school itself is free, but many can’t afford all the fees the teachers must charge. Children have to buy textbooks, uniforms, paper and pencils; they must often pay athletic fees, examination fees, buy cleaning supplies for the classroom; the expenses can go on and on. The government has invested very little in the education system. Most children drop out before middle school.” He shrugged. “If you want an education, join the army.”