When Burma shed British colonial rule and became an independent country in 1948, it was one of the wealthiest and best-educated in the region. Now, after almost half a century of repressive military rule, the country — now known as Myanmar — is one of the poorest. And education there suffered when the military closed campuses for long stretches of time so students wouldn't protest.
But recent political reforms have started to open the country up again, and Burmese are flocking to English classes to prepare for new opportunities.
To get to Mya Kyaing's popular all-day English class, you walk down a dusty side street, into a teashop, and through it to the other side. And there you are.
There are some 500 students crammed into this makeshift space, on low wooden benches. Their beefy, middle-aged teacher sits up front in a plaid shirt and a sort of male sarong, called a longyi. He reads from the book he's selected to teach his students English: "The Master Key to Riches" — a self-help book by Napoleon Hill, published in 1956.
One of the students is a Buddhist monk.
"This book, it gives knowledge to me," the monk said. "That's why I study this book."
But then, he admitted he doesn't really get what the book's trying to say. I page through it. The front cover says, "The World Famous Philosophy of Personal Achievement based on the Andrew Carnegie Formula for Money Making." The book includes praise for "the art of salesmanship, the art of competition, the blessings of individual initiative and the necessity of honest production to justify the art of advertising."
I tell the monk I can see why this might be hard going for him, and he seems relieved.
But Mya Kyaing thinks the lessons in this book are perfect for young Burmese, at this moment in their country's opening up.
"They can get a lot of sense from this book, for business dealing. Just now, we can deal with a lot of foreign companies and foreigners. Before, we could not deal this way, because the country closed the doors when we were young. The children now are very lucky."
Mya Kyaing is 53, so he grew up under military rule. In fact, he said, he served as Burma's military attaché in India in the late '80s and early '90s — so he was away during the 1988 crackdown. He said he's glad to see the current reforms, but he seems a little wary.
"We hope these are real reforms," he said, but he added that people are watching carefully to see what happens in the next few months. "The present government wants something. I don't know what their aim is, but that's why there's change. Otherwise, they wouldn't do it."
Whatever the military's aim, Mya Kyaing said his students need the help with their English; many are poor, and can't afford more expensive lessons. They pay about $4 a month to come to as many classes here as they like. Much of the class seems to be in Burmese, but 21-year-old student Myo Myint Aung said it's working for him.
"I am a lazy student, but I attend the class, day after day, and the teacher motivates me," he said, "and I become an engaged student."
Burmese schools teach English from kindergarten on, but Myo Myint Aung said that doesn't count for much – the teaching is bad, and there's little opportunity to practice:
"Our education system was systematically destroyed, so we had no knowledge of English."
Yet, English is essential for many professions, said Naing Khin Lay, a 28-year-old engineering graduate. She said Myanmar is different from Thailand and Japan, where they translate the relevant subjects into their own languages.
"In our country, we have to learn everything, like in engineering or medicine, through the English medium. If you do not know English you cannot be an expert in your subject."
She's coming to this class, she said, because she's ashamed her English isn't better than it is. She's impatient to improve, an energy that seems shared by many young Burmese.
Another, English class in Yangon, a much smaller one, is taught by a non-profit organization called Myanmar Egress.
"We have to educate the people to make real changes here, so we are trying to be the change agents in Myanmar," said Hla Hla Win, who heads the English Department here. She said Myanmar Egress runs many other classes as well.
There's social entrepreneurship, which she said is the "disguised name" for a political leadership course. There's mass communication for citizen journalists, management for NGOs, civics education for ethnic minorities, and public policy for members of parliament.
In other words, Myanmar Egress is trying to train up a competent civil society to help Myanmar move in a new, more democratic direction. Hla Hla Win said the military government had its suspicions, when the group started doing this in 2006. She said military intelligence would come to the classes, record or videotape them and then report back.
"But something they realized was, Egress was just an education institution. It's not trying to threaten their power. So they let us go, and they even sent their people to join our courses."
Now, Myanmar Egress runs courses teaching international standards to police, as well as to private citizens. Hla Hla Win hopes all this training and education can lead to Myanmar once again becoming a regional leader in education — as it was in the 1950s.
"I don't want to compete with Thailand for tourism. I don't want to compete with China on factories. I don't want to compete with India on outsourcing," she said. "We have our own advantage. Even now, higher education schools in Myanmar have a lot of international students — it's much cheaper, and they're getting a good standard of education. But this is small scale."
Take it larger, she said, and Burma can reclaim its competitive advantage as an education hub.
Mya Kyaing's classroom is certainly doing its bit. A couple of his students tell me he has inspired them to become English teachers themselves. Meanwhile, they're stuck into Napoleon Hill's exhortations to lead successful entrepreneurial lives. Their teacher said when he gets through this book of Napoleon Hill's, he plans to teach all the rest.
An English class in progress in Burma (Myanmar). (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)
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