Year of Youth 2018

Myanmar Needs Dreamers and Doers

Last edited 25th April 2018

Myanmar Needs Dreamers and Doers

PHOTO: Roza with students at PSIE in Yangon in January 2018 and Roza Vukovich with colleague Sophia Henshaw at Kalay airport flying back to Yangon.

Many years ago I was as a Marist International Care Worker in Thailand and I spent some time with young people in refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. I encountered young people, who had run from their villages in Myanmar, hid from the military junta as their homes were burnt to the ground and fled into the dense jungle until they could cross the border into Thailand. These young people, refugees mainly from the Karen State in Myanmar taught me something of faith, freedom and love of country.

Maria a young Karen woman shared that she would rather be poor and free on her own patch of land in her own beloved country than rich in another person’s country. This was my introduction to some of the complexities of being a refugee waiting and hoping to go back home.

Fast Forward 20 years later, I am in Myanmar. In Yangon, it’s capital. Noisy, bustling, colourful and vibrant. Old mixed in with the new – colonial buildings, ancient Buddhist temples and Samsung and Apple megastores. The Church quietly present in the midst of all this movement. What struck me most about Myanmar was its people, gentle, hospitable, and deeply faith filled and the Church, a steady and quiet presence, an emerging Church, that for many years was like a lamp light underneath a bowl.

Myanmar is rich in diversity with many different ethnic groups making up a delicate tapestry. This diversity is beautifully represented and celebrated in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Charles Muang Bo – the first Catholic Cardinal of Myanmar believes that the Church’s harmonious diversity is a model of what Myanmar could be. (Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference, 2016).

With it’s troubling and complex history, Myanmar is in the midst of change. Cardinal Bo says that his country:

“is emerging from a long night of tears and sadness into a new dawn.” (World Watch Monitor, 2016).

The new dawn that he refers to is still fragile and uncertain however the Church is passionately and earnestly seeking to fill gaps and give hope. According to the Cardinal, the Church in Myanmar is present:

“where the government is not. We are in the slums; we are in the camps for internally displaced people; we are working with our friends in the Buddhist and Muslim communities to promote interfaith harmony; we are providing education, health care and livelihoods; we are advocating for our people.’ (Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference, 2016)

One way that the Church is contributing to this ‘new dawn’ is through education. Cardinal Bo says that:

‘education is key …and it is particularly vital in my country…as we begin our journey into a more democratic system, a more open society, and as we confront difficult challenges of nation-building, peace-making, celebrating diversity and tackling poverty.” (Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference, 2016)

The education system in Myanmar is one of harsh discipline and rote learning. This style of teaching is fixated on learning content off by heart and has cultivated a culture of discouraging critical thinking, creative problem solving and questioning of the status quo. The current government schooling structure is also poorly resourced, with inadequately trained teachers and has resulted in a 30% matriculation rate across the board– that means that for all students who sit their final exams at the end of high school – only 30% pass. In some regions it is as low as 17%. This is an appalling rate for students who have spent the last 12 years at school.

The Bishops Conference of Myanmar identified education as one of its biggest priorities and together in partnership with Catholic Mission are supporting several schools and teacher training centres across the country. In a pilot program – the first like it in Myanmar, an alternative approach to teaching is being rolled out across classrooms based on the Montessori method of learning, centered on child development where students are encouraged to asked questions, explore boundaries and tackle challenges by creative problem solving. One school embracing the Montessori method is the brand-new St John Private School in Hakha.

Hakha is an isolated mountain community, 10 hours by truck through mountain passes from Kalay – the nearest city. St John’s is the first Catholic School in the diocese. It has 55 students, a kindergarten and year one class. These are our founding classes. Teresa, the principal at St John’s has said:

“We are in it for the long haul….our focus is on generational change.” (Teresa, 2018)

However, it is not enough to set up schools when you have ill qualified teachers providing the education. Catholic Mission is also partnering with Pinyae Sanyae Institute for Education or PSIE– a teacher training facility to train teachers to be the instigators of transformation. St John’s Private School is staffed by graduates of PSIE. Located in Yangon and run by the sisters of the Infant Jesus. PSIE was opened in 2007 at Cardinal Bo’s request and now can boast 140 graduates and currently has 28 diploma students and 12 pre diploma students. Some of the teaching students at PSIE are orphans from remote areas – who were encouraged by their parish priest to go to PSIE then supported by their local Catholic community. Once they graduate, many will return to teach in the remote villages that they came from.

Sr Grace Chia co-founder of PSIE says that the institutes vision is for students to develop their full potential, to tap into their talents. She says that their training opens the students up so that they can dream the impossible dream and in turn, when they are in the field – teaching, (like at St John’s) they imbue their own students with the same dream. Myanmar needs dreamers and doers and Catholic Mission together with St John’s Private School and PSIE are raising up a generation of young people who will have the skills to lead and make their impossible dreams a reality for their country and for their people.

I lost track of Maria. My prayer is that she has been able to return home to her own patch of land in her own beloved country and that she and her family will be able to make their own dreams of peace and a future full of hope – a reality.

Story by Roza Vukovich

To learn more about Catholic Mission and our work in Myanmar please visit their website at:

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