A class of their own

U Nayaka sat wrapped in a blanket and an extra set of monk’s robes, shivering in his Swiss hotel room. He pulled three hats on to his shaved head, and wound a thick woollen scarf around his face. The temperature outside was probably in the mid-teens – after all, it was only September. Yet it was the coldest he had ever been.

In spite of the late hour, there was no way he was going to bed. On the other side of the world, tens of thousands of his countrymen had taken to the streets in what many people thought was the start of a revolution, and an end to Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Alongside the crowds of students marched thousands of his fellow Buddhist monks, decked out in their burnt orange robes and red velvet sandals. But U Nayaka would watch it all unfold on the TV news. It was perhaps fitting. U Nayaka (“U” is a Burmese honorific) has spent the past 20 years trying to avoid politics. Instead he has devoted himself to being the headmaster of one of the country’s largest schools, Phaung Daw Oo, where he and his brother help to educate more than 6,000 impoverished children every day. (His visit to Switzerland in late 2007 was for an international education conference.) Yet despite his distaste for politics, U Nayaka – and many others like him – are now key players in the country’s move towards democracy.

Our last encounter had been in 2003 when I taught English at the school – a trip made at the suggestion of my grandmother, an academic who has devoted her life to the country she still calls Burma, but which now calls itself Myanmar. Earlier this year, I returned to see it gripped by dramatic change. For Myanmar’s pro-democracy campaigners – such as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – that means being in parliament rather than in jail or under house arrest. For multinationals, it means business deals not boycotts. The former ruling generals have either ditched their uniforms or gone back to their barracks and lavish villas, while the press – and the internet – have been set free.

Cosmetic changes can be seen almost instantly on arrival at Yangon airport, where adverts for Pepsi sit atop the baggage reclaim conveyor belts. Just months earlier, only indigenous brands would have been readily available. Driving into town, new car dealerships and supermarkets point to a small but fast-growing consumer society. And where before there were cycle-rickshaws, now there is traffic, and lots of it.

Myanmar’s economic potential is enormous, but far from being realised. It is rich in energy resources and minerals, teak and precious gemstones, and has the topography to be a leading exporter of rice. Its ports could serve the whole of southeast Asia, while its location between China and India gives it a unique position from which to capitalise on trade in the emerging world. The Asian Development Bank says it could be the region’s “next rising star”, achieving growth rates of 8 per cent a year, up from the current 5.5 per cent to 6 per cent.

Yet the challenges ahead are huge. Infrastructure is woeful, corruption a way of life, and the country’s education system is cripplingly underfunded and out of date. Myanmar’s government spends less than 1 per cent of GDP on the school system according to Unesco data, while only about half the country’s children get more than a primary school education, leaving businesses – both foreign and domestic – short of the people and skills they need. The university system was hollowed out for fear it would again become a hotbed of dissent. Many bright students simply left and have not returned. The result is a country without the experience needed for a functioning civil society.

“It’s a huge, huge challenge to undo 50 years of neglect, and perhaps the most important challenge Myanmar faces,” says Robert Gordon, a former British ambassador to the country and chairman of Prospect Burma, an educational trust. “As the country mobilises to re-skill itself for the modern world, [it is] counting the cost of the lack of talent.”

The education deficit is not lost on the many foreign dignitaries – such as Hillary Clinton and William Hague – who have flocked to the country in the past year. Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar, gave the key speech of his recent southeast Asian tour to students at Yangon University, preparations for which required hurried repair work to make the dilapidated buildings presentable to the outside world.

The staff at Phaung Daw Oo are also acutely aware of the need for education, giving them a missionary zeal divorced from their Buddhist philosophy. In spite of the rapid transformation taking place elsewhere, much at the school is unchanged. U Nayaka’s scrabbly beard is a little greyer, and he now has a Kindle on which to read his history books, but his energy is instantly recognisable.

U Nayaka at Phaung Daw Oo school in Mandalay, which he founded with his brother in 1993

The school is in Mandalay – the last of Myanmar’s royal capitals – a city made famous by the writings of Rudyard Kipling, even though he never set foot there. From the school’s front gates, you can just make out the red walls of Mandalay Palace, where King Thibaw handed power to the British in 1885. Today the city is a scruffy trading hub on the northern plains, its economy buoyed by goods from China.

In the nine years since my last visit, the noise of the typical school day has not faded but the school facilities have been transformed, thanks largely to overseas donations. Twenty new buildings have gone up, most of them classroom blocks, while a whitewashed clinic now offers dental care, health check-ups and even eye surgery.

Other profound shifts are under way. In a stuffy, carpeted room at the top of the main building – three floors of sun-bleached mint-green concrete – local teachers are gathering for their own tuition. The subject is the art of debate. Thirty-five teachers are taking part in a five-day course to learn how to organise a debate, and how to formulate an argument. Among those leading the class is the impressive Ei Shwe Sin, a 24-year-old, who prefers to be called Nancy. “Debate is for everyday use – for debating with family and friends. But it helps to build critical thinking and confidence. That’s what we need in Myanmar. For us it is a new concept,” she says. “We believe it can be an educational tool for social change.” In her dark green sarong and white shirt – the uniform of teachers and pupils across the country – she stands at the front of the class translating for those whose English cannot keep up with the American instructor. Five years ago, even the word “debate” was dangerous. Previous attempts at holding similar classes fell foul of the country’s military rulers. Organisers ended up in jail.

But now, as Myanmar’s government, led by President Thein Sein, takes concrete steps towards political reform, the climate is changing fast. The topics under discussion are varied. Some relate to the country’s education system, others to gender inequality. But there are also more contentious issues. One motion reads: “Myanmar is rich in natural resources, but it should not sell them to foreign countries”. It’s a relevant question – just a year before the opening of a new pipeline delivering oil and gas from the country’s Andaman coast directly to southern China. Myanmar, meanwhile, suffers from crippling power shortages.

Ei Shwe Sin conducts teacher training in debating

Classes like these, though small, are a stepping stone on the country’s path toward democracy. Since the 1960s Myanmar has been ruled by its military, one of the world’s most brutal regimes, known for stoking ethnic war, economic collapse and diplomatic isolation. The journey back to democracy is only just under way: the army still dominates politics and is allocated 25 per cent of the seats in parliament. While the country sorely lacks good roads, power stations and factories, it also needs to build a young, well-educated class.

Yi Mon, a 29-year-old teacher, is one of the stars of the Phaung Daw Oo course. She and Nancy start their own mini-debate on the merits of affirmative action for male teachers, while the rest of the class packs up. She then returns to her home, a few yards away, past a pile of bricks the young student monks have fashioned into a makeshift grandstand where they can watch the older kids play football.

Yi Mon’s job is a 24-hour affair. When not attending classes, she is busy with the cooking, cleaning and emotional care she must provide as surrogate mother to the 25 children with which she shares her house – and her life. The children came to the school after Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar’s southern delta in 2008, taking their homes, and for many, their families. Just days after the cyclone hit, U Nayaka sent a bus down to the coast, returning with many of the 125 Nargis children who now live at the school. At first, says Yi Mon, most of the children struggled to sleep. Many were terrorised by the prospect of rain. Now, she says, they are gradually getting better – helped by her recent training in child psychology. Yi Mon does it all for a miserable wage. The starting salary for teachers is just 5,000 kyat a month – around £3.60 – while the more experienced educators get by on a maximum of £50. Most of them rely on family support to make ends meet.

In addition to the Nargis kids, the school is home to 50 children rescued from Mandalay’s streets, and more than 200 girls from ethnic minority villages across Myanmar. All of them need feeding, which costs around 62p a day per child, and is a worsening financial headache. Most donors, says U Nayaka, prefer to buy textbooks than bowls of rice.

Young monks check their emails

To watch as hundreds of children file home at the end of the day is in some ways to watch a small miracle: the school has come from humble beginnings. Set up by U Nayaka and his younger brother U Jotika in 1994, Phaung Daw Oo began life as little more than a couple of bamboo huts and some benches. For the first 400 students, classes were usually under a tree, even in the spring heat and summer rain.

In 1996, U Nayaka received his first foreign donation of $1,000, from the Australian embassy. He has never looked back. “My brother and my friends, they often ask me: ‘Is this possible?’ I say, I don’t care if it’s possible, I have to do it.” His dream is to open a university in central Mandalay. But for now his focus is on providing free schooling to the poorest children, and extra tuition to the smartest, in the hope that they, in his words, “upgrade the country”.

One of those is Chit Thu, who can be found every evening in a corner of the school’s upstairs library, where 10 young adults gather under the strip lighting for a 90-minute advanced English class. The bookshelves around them are filled with travel guides about destinations few of them will see: the Baltic states; northern Spain; New South Wales.

Their childhood dreams were typical of any girl or boy: dancers, singers or doctors. But today, as they have grown into adults in a much-altered country, they talk of starting their own businesses or running for parliament. Chit Thu once wanted to be a soldier. Back then the army controlled everything so choosing a military career was every young man’s dream. But the 22-year-old university student now has a new aspiration. He wants to be a lawyer. “In our country, some people who are poor don’t get justice. I want to make it fair,” he says.

Fairness is also close to the heart of Nann Myint, 24. She teaches citizenship classes where young people learn about their rights and responsibilities, as well as the mechanisms of the state. It is vital to teach ordinary people how government policies work, otherwise, she asks, “How can the people lead if they don’t understand?”

Schoolgirls play after class

The girls at the school are learning something else: how to be strong women. Known as the “colourful classes”, daily sessions help girls discover the principles of self-respect, women’s rights, and female empowerment. Many young teens carry flower pots containing a single rose bulb – a symbol of strength and independence from which teachers hope they too will achieve some personal growth.

Among the amateur gardeners is 14-year-old Htet Htet Lin, who is rarely found without a red plastic flower in her hair – echoing Aung San Suu Kyi’s signature look, and a common adornment among both pupils and staff. Htet Htet Lin lost her mother in the cyclone, and now lives with Yi Mon in one of the school’s four Nargis houses. Every morning at 6am she helps dish out breakfast to the younger children, before finishing her homework and, if she’s really lucky, listening to the teenage crooning of her idol, Justin Bieber. If she can’t persuade him to marry her, then she wants to follow in his footsteps and be a singer. Whatever path she chooses, hopes for her future are high; she is one of the school’s brightest sparks.

For now, Phaung Daw Oo remains a centre of hope rather than of academic excellence. As in most non-government schools, many of the teachers have received little or no formal training and are often absent or ineffective. The average student leaves with skills that fall far short of the requirements of the foreign businesses that may soon be looking for staff. And even the smartest pupils have a mountain to climb to gain entrance to a foreign university. The handful who have made it have not returned.

Yet belittling the school’s achievements would be wrong. Many of the children here would have received no education at all had they stayed in the villages. Of the 10 preparing for overseas entrance exams, one is the son of a carpenter, the rest are the children of farmers.

Phaung Daw Oo, like hundreds of other Buddhist monastic schools across the country, is filling a void left by Myanmar’s inadequate state education system. Between 200,000 and 250,000 children rely on monastic education. If the school can find the money to invest in training and to increase teacher salaries, it will continue to improve the lives of thousands every year in one of the world’s poorest countries.

But one question remains unasked: what happens when the school’s leader decides he has had enough? “I would like to retire one day, but I have so much to do,” says U Nayaka, now 66, with a wide grin. “So long as I have money, I will keep doing.” His 92-year-old mother is testament to a strong set of genes. He hopes that some of the students do make it abroad, and then return to continue his work.

Some former pupils have already taken on U Nayaka’s educational mission. Aiknyi was a novice monk and a student at the school for nine years. Now 25, and dressed in the traditional black and red of his Wa ethnic group, he has returned to see his old headmaster. On U Nayaka’s instruction, Aiknyi went up into the hills and found a village without a school. Last year he and a friend opened a kindergarten, where they now teach 40 of the village children. Soon he hopes to open a primary school. When asked if he could follow in U Nayaka’s footsteps, he blushes. But as his mentor has shown, big ideas can grow from the smallest seeds.

Josh Noble is the FT’s Asia regional markets correspondent, based in Hong Kong

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