Getting a Burmese Education

Today was my last official day in the office. As we have done many times over the past three months, one of my colleagues (we’ll call her Q) and I spent a long time lingering after the lunch plates had been cleared and talking about Burma.

Q told me that when she was a high school student in Burma, she knew that her country’s educational system was broken and she wanted it to change, but her dissatisfaction with the government did not reach any further at that point. Later, when she was studying at university, her father told her that she was unlikely to learn anything of value from her regular coursework, and advised her to seek out training from a private tutor on the side. Q’s tutor was a well-informed man, and a former member of the democracy movement. Every day he told humorous stories that kept the students entertained and engaged. Only when Q arrived home after class and had time to reflect did she realize the important lessons that her teacher was relating through these stories.

Through this informal education, Q started to realize that the world outside Burma was likely quite different, and she developed a strong interest in moving to Thailand. J, a high school classmate of hers, had invited her to come to Thailand back when they finished Grade 10. J’s mother was already in Thailand and had founded an organization where they could continue their education and work for the democracy movement. At the time, Q had opted to attend university instead, but when she finished she knew that it was time to accept J’s offer.

When she arrived in Thailand, Q learned things that shook the foundation of her entire educational experience – concepts like human rights, women’s rights, and democracy. It was the first time she had ever been taught that she was afforded basic rights simply by virtue of being human, and that the practices of the  Burmese government were not acceptable. She learned that as a woman, she could take an equal role in society and that she need not be subservient to her future husband. And it was her first exposure to the governing systems of other countries, and the idea that people in other parts of the world could speak and live freely.

After completing an internship program at our organization, Q enrolled in an advanced women’s leadership course. She then returned here and took on a leadership role in our organization.

Q values the time that she spent learning with her teacher while she was in university, but she can’t help feeling some jealousy of our organization’s recent crop of interns, none of whom attended university before migrating to Thailand. Q arrived at age 25; some of our interns are only 17 when they get here, including Q’s sister, who came last year. Many of them did not finish high school. These young women have even more time to gain exposure to the world outside Burma and experience working for their community. They also have access to excellent educational programs in Thailand. On the other hand, they have less firsthand experience with life and education inside Burma, and less exposure to veterans of the democracy movement. Either way, their dedication to continuing their education is admirable, and the diversity of perspectives that they bring to our organization is a tremendous asset.

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