In 2012, the Nippon Foundation began assisting the construction of schools in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. This followed a similar initiative in Shan State, located in the east of the country. Through the initiative in Rakhine State, 100 schools are to be constructed over a five-year period, providing the children there with a safe environment in which to study. During the first phase, which ended in February 2014, 10 schools were built and a colorful ceremony marking the transfer of the schools was held. To the people living in villages where the new buildings were erected, these sturdy reinforced concrete structures symbolize local development.
The state of Rakhine, which shares a border with Bangladesh, has a harsh natural environment, with a long monsoon season that brings torrential rains. In the fifteenth century the area flourished as the Arakan Kingdom under the rule of the ethnic Rakhine. Today, the kingdom’s ancient capital, Mrauk U, is a popular tourist destination known for its historical relics and stone pagodas. Mrauk U is also the location of one of the new schools.
Kyet Zay Primary School, a single-story reinforced concrete building, painted cream and light green, is a world apart from the village’s ancient monuments. At the inauguration ceremony, young girls perform a dance and give expression to the pride they feel in their new school.
The school construction project in Rakhine State is overseen by Akiko Mori, who supervises the construction work and negotiates with government administrators. She also serves as the Myanmar representative for the nongovernmental organization Bridge Asia Japan. Mori appears deeply moved as she watches the ceremony.
“Some people told us that the buildings didn’t need to be this fancy; that we should cut back on the budget for each school and increase the number we build,” she explains. “We went ahead with our original plans, though, believing that these sturdy, attractive buildings would send a message about the importance of education precisely because they are not something people in rural areas ordinarily see. It is our hope that the new schools will serve as a promising symbol for people in the region.”
Old, Dark, and Unsafe: Issues with Wooden Schoolhouses
In Myanmar, the state government bears part of the costs for constructing a new school. The principal of the school is expected to raise the remaining funds, while parents and others in the community must donate materials and labor for the construction. In poorer areas, where people do not have the financial means to do this, old wooden schoolhouses continue to be used, even if they are in a state of disrepair.
The old buildings are often not only unsuitable for studying, but also pose a safety risk to the children. Many, for example, lack pane glass windows and the classrooms are pitch black when the windows and doors are shut. The floorboards, meanwhile, are loose and have holes, and old nails can be seen jutting out of them. In some cases parents keep their children at home because of the safety risks, and some teachers quit working because the learning environment was so bad. A shortage of teachers is of particular concern because it is linked with a drop in the quality of classroom instruction. The old two-story wooden schoolhouse was left standing next to the brand new building at Kyet Zay Primary school. But it had all the faults of wooden schoolhouses. It was old, dark, and unsafe; creaking even if someone just walked in the corridor.
The lack of progress in improving the environment for learning in Myanmar is a serious problem. As many as 11% of children who started school between 2006 and 2008 quit before the fourth grade. Just 60% of all students have completed their basic schooling. In Rakhine State, primary school teachers on average are in charge of 36 students, far more than the nationwide average of 29. There simply are not enough teachers. The Myanmar government has also been paying special attention to this issue.
In 2011, as part of a project to give people living in remote areas access to inexpensive medicines that is underway in 14 states across the country, officials from the Nippon Foundation visited Rakhine State. They attended an inaugural ceremony for the traditional medicine box project in the state and while there met with the Chief Minister of Rakhine State. It was during this meeting that the idea of providing assistance for the construction of schools was raised. The Nippon Foundation subsequently teamed up with Bridge Asia Japan, an organization with more than two decades of experience implementing technological training and construction programs in the state, to launch a school-building project in September 2012, and by February 2014, which marked the end of the project’s first phase, 10 schools had been built in and around the capital, Sittwe City.
The village of Kyae Taw, which lies between Sittwe and Mrauk U, acquired a new building in June 2013, just in time for the beginning of the school year. The new facilities have boosted the spirits of teachers as well as students. As one teacher puts it, “I’m so happy I work here. Now I really look forward to teaching the children. The number of children absent from school was higher when we were in the old schoolhouse,” she continues. “We only had a few blackboards and a very limited supply of teaching materials. We also didn’t have any windows, so the room was dark, and there were holes in the floorboards. I always worried that the children might get hurt. The conditions were so bad that some parents kept their children at home. After the new school opened, though, the number of absentees fell dramatically. The children are more serious about their studies now, too.”
Nearly half of the children say they suffered an injury in the old school. Today, parents no longer keep their children at home and attendance is close to 100%. When asked whether they like their new school, the children beam and answer with a resounding “Yes!”
An Evacuation Center for the Community
The school construction project is about more than just providing a better learning environment and ensuring the safety of the children. The schools are located at the watershed of the Kaladan River, which drains into the Bay of Bengal, and every year, during the May-to-October rainy season, the water level of the river rises, posing the threat of flooding. The region frequently suffers damage from typhoons. With their reinforced concrete structure, the new buildings can serve as evacuation centers for the villagers in the event of a flood or typhoon. BAJ has come up with a number of designs, including a school on stilts to guard against flooding and a school with a flat roof that doubles as an evacuation area, and the organization chooses a plan that best suits the local conditions. The organization also has a policy of hiring young people in the village and providing them with on-the-job training. In this way, the project not only creates jobs, but ensures that there will be a supply of skilled laborers for future building projects.
Construction Fosters Youth Employment
Mori says that training human resources is the key to the construction of schools in Rakhine in the future. “Our plan to build a hundred schools in five years cannot be realized unless we can secure enough skilled workers locally. Rakhine at the moment does not have a construction company large enough to take on a job of this scale. We decided to train people on the job and carry out the project in stages. As the young people who get on-the-job training gain experience, the pace of the construction work will increase. In the first year of the project, 10 buildings were built. Whether we can build 20 in the second year and 30 in the third will hinge on our success in training these young workers.”
The people who initially got on-the-job training did well enough to be made foremen, and they are now working as experienced builders at a new site.
Takeju Ogata, president of the Nippon Foundation, flew to Myanmar to attend the Handing-over Ceremony and visited 4 of the 10 schools that were completed. He conveyed the same message to officials at every school he visited. “The schools are not a present from us to you. All we did was to lend a small helping hand so that you could carry out your plans to build them. I do have one favor, though. I’d like to ask that you get the students to clean the school. If the children learn how to keep their own classroom neat, they will start doing the same at home, too. This will help teach them to respect their surroundings, whether it be their school, home, or someplace else. The growth Japan experienced was made possible by school learning, including the lessons of cleaning. It is my hope that the new school and the education children receive there will similarly pave the way for development in Myanmar.”
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa