Since 2002 the Nippon Foundation has been providing assistance for the construction of schools in Shan, a state in Myanmar where many ethnic groups live. In December 2012, the 200th school under the initiative was completed. The program is distinguished by a two-pronged strategy: first building a school and then implementing a project in the community to raise the funds needed to run it. Recently we visited two newly completed schools along with a Myanmar staff member from the Japanese nongovernmental organization overseeing the operations.
School Building in Myanmar
In Myanmar, the areas where ethnic groups live have far less basic infrastructure than urban areas like Yangon, the country’s largest city, or Naypyidaw, the new capital. Educational facilities are no exception. Many children today still study in “open-air classes” with no roof or walls. Children in Myanmar begin first grade when they are five and schooling is compulsory through the fifth grade. In many places, children leave school when they are older because the nearest school is too far away for them to reach.
In 1999 the Myanmar government submitted a request for the construction of schools to the Nippon Foundation, which was implementing various programs in the country to eliminate leprosy and tackle other problems. The foundation agreed, while deciding it would create a base for education in communities rather than just constructing buildings. To do so, however, it needed the cooperation of educators and administrators as well as local residents.
The foundation joined hands with a Japanese nongovernmental organization set up in 2002, named Saetanar, which is staffed locally and has experience and know-how related to Shan State and its inhabitants. Under the plan, the villagers would donate labor for the construction of the school and the money saved would be channeled to a development project that puts local strengths to use. The proposal was well received by the villagers, who, like most other Myanmar people, place a high priority on education.
The Nippon Foundation has plans to construct another hundred schools in Shan. It is also planning to build a hundred schools in Rhakhine State, in the west of the country, with the cooperation of Bridge Asia Japan, a Japanese NGO.
A Hydro Plant that Does More than Generate Power
After a one-hour flight that takes us north from Yangon, we arrive at Heho Airport, the gateway to southern Shan State. There we are met by Aye Aye Thant, who has been with Saetanar since its establishment. Aye Aye Thant’s job at the NGO is to provide advice on the construction of schools in the southern part of the state. This includes surveying and selecting the construction site for the community development project, while also addressing the concerns and needs of local residents.
“My role at Saetanar is to support the village and help the villagers realize their dream of doing something for the children. I do this by enabling schools to be built faster and securing funds for running the school through the community project.”
Aye Aye Thant takes us to Phoung Pyar, one of the villages where members of the Danu tribe live. The village is perched in the mountains, about an hour north of Heho Airport by car. When we arrive, a Burmese language class has just begun. The lively voices of children echo from inside the building, which was completed in 2010.
The new schoolhouse has made it much easier for the children to study, as Aye Aye Thant explains: “In Myanmar, elementary schoolchildren learn by reciting—not just in Burmese language classes but in other classes as well. So it’s hard for them to concentrate when they share a room with another class.” She shows us the old building next door, where a math class and a Burmese language class are underway at the same time. The two groups of children in the room are seated in opposite directions.
At the school we speak with the principal, who tells us: “Before the new school was built, all five grades shared one room. Even so, the kids studied hard. Over the past five years, three students ranked in the top ten for the prefecture’s achievement tests. The villagers wanted very much to provide the children with a new school and a better learning environment.”
The development project committee and school construction project is headed by Kyaw Si, who was chosen in his capacity as village representative. He tells us that the villagers planned to build the school on their own but also worried about the time it would take. “When we heard word of the program from a nearby village, we realized that if we asked Saetanar and the Nippon Foundation for assistance we could create a better learning environment for the children quickly.”
A hydroelectric plant was built that is just a 30-minute walk from the village, at a location with a sufficient source of water. The villagers agreed on the plant idea without hesitation. “Our village didn’t have electricity, and only about 30 of the 170 households had their own generator. Today, 140 households have power. Before, the children had to study by candlelight at night and we always worried about the danger of a fire. We don’t have that worry anymore.”
Kyaw Si’s face lights up as he describes how the situation has improved. He notes that the biggest benefit of the new plant has been the elimination of malaria. “The mosquitoes that carry malaria come out when it was dark. Before, a few people in the village used to catch malaria every year, but that is no longer a problem because now we sleep inside a mosquito net and leave a lamp on.”
Kyaw Si tells us that the villagers are all aware of how the Nippon Foundation provided assistance for the school. “We will never forget the help we have received from the people of a distant land. We will try to show our appreciation by becoming as affluent as Japan and reaching a position where one day we in turn can do our part to assist a developing country.”
Phoung Pyar Basic Education Primary School
(as of January 2013)
- Enrollment: 142 students (1st to 6th grade)
- Teachers: 5
- Main ethnic group: Danu
- Construction cost: ¥1.71 million (MMK 16 million)
- Completion: 2010 (reinforced concrete structure)
- Project type: Small-scale hydroelectric plant for local community
- Development fund: Approx. ¥500,000 (MMK 4.7 million)
School on the Lake Is a Testament to Villagers’ Belief in Education
On Lake Inle, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations, is located Inn Paw Khone Ywa Thit Basic Education Post Primary School. The lake and surrounding area around are home to members of the Innthar tribe, many of whom live in wooden houses built on stilts set in the sandbanks. Although some of them make a decent living from the tourist industry, most eke out a living by cultivating tomatoes and garlic on reclaimed land or floating farm beds made out of seaweed and other materials.
Aye Aye Thant explains more about the school: “The village where the school is located is a ’new town,’ which young couples developed and moved to when Inn Paw got too populated. The number of children has swelled since then. Inn Paw is a lake village, and there was not enough land to expand the school. The rest-house of a Buddhist monastery was being rented because overcrowding was so bad, but this building was in such disrepair it looked like it might fall apart at any time. My first impression of it was that it was dangerous to have classes there.”
The villagers’ attitude to education is the most important criteria when choosing a construction site. As Aye Aye Thant explains, “It does no good to build a school if circumstances may prevent children from continuing their education in the future. In the case of New Inn Paw Khone, the children were serious about their studies and the villagers were willing to pitch in and pay for the construction materials, though they have so little to spare. Though the people there are poor, we knew there was a good chance of success.”
The construction of the new school allowed the village to expand education from fifth grade up to eighth grade. Also, parents no longer have to worry about older children getting into a boat accident on their way to a distant school.
One mother of three children told us, “I couldn’t send my oldest two children to school when they reached the upper grades because they would have had to commute by boat to a school in a faraway village. We don’t have to worry about this with our youngest.” With pride, she tells us that her daughter loves her studies and wants to be a doctor one day.”
Once a decision has been made on the construction site, Saetanar calculates exactly how much money will be needed for labor and materials. The money that would have been spent on labor, which is donated by the villagers, is transferred to a fund for a development project to be used after the building is constructed. In the case of New Inn Paw Khone, the local residents decided to implement a microfinance program to provide small loans to residents.
Zaw Lwin, a villager who serves as the head the project committee, notes that, “Lake Inle is large, but it doesn’t have different elevations and hydroelectric power can’t be generated. Agriculture wasn’t an option because land is so scarce. We already have enough boats, so a transportation program wouldn’t have been profitable. This left microfinancing. Loans are made available to everybody in the village, and this has made people even more fervent about education.
The interest collected on the loans pays for the salaries of the teachers at the school, the purchase of materials, and other costs of running the school. The villagers have used the loans to purchase seeds and fertilizer, and the improvements to the soil have meant a higher income for many families. The project got underway in June 2012, and the deadline on interest payments was set for the end of the year. According to Zaw Lwin, not a single person was late making the payment.
Inn Paw Khone Ywa Thit Basic Education Post Primary School
(As of January 2013)
- Number of students (grades 1 through 8): 206
- Number of teachers: 8
- Main ethnic group: Innthar
- Construction costs: ¥3.6 million (MMK 33.6 million)
- Completion: 2012 (wooden structure)
- Type of community development project: Microfinance
- Development fund: Approx. ¥510,000 (MMK 4.8 million)
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa