RANGOON — One of the most surprising statistics about the Burmese people is not that they are the poorest in Southeast Asia. It is well known that decades of military dictatorship destroyed the national economy and set human development back at least a generation. What is unexpected is that throughout the worst of times, the Burmese have kept literacy rates high, at about 92 percent, in line with the richest of their richer neighbors.
A key as to how this miracle came to pass can be found in the monasteries of this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. Down a muddy lane in one of Rangoon’s shabbiest, most deprived neighborhoods, U Margainda, a genial 70-year-old monk (his traditional maroon robe set off by bright yellow socks and white sneakers) shows how it can be done.
U Margainda, his fellow monks and occasional volunteers from home and abroad are educating and providing health care and a home for about a hundred boys at the Yatanabon Yeiknyein Monastic Education School. There were, until recently, two girls, who have since moved up to more advanced education, one to study computers. Many other girls live and study with Buddhist nuns. Coeducational monastic teaching is still a novelty.
Americans may debate the place of faith-based education in national life. In Burma – officially renamed Myanmar by a military government – this is a meaningless quarrel when so much intellectual leadership is needed and where monks have been beaten and jailed for promoting democracy, earning great popular respect. That monasteries should be providing parallel or alternative social and educational services is not an issue.
“Here, people ask monks to accept into their care the children parents can’t afford to feed,” U Margainda said through an interpreter. His flock includes orphans, he said, but the majority of children are from families who do not have the money for public education. Government schools demand fees for everything from enrollment to uniforms and books. Private, secular (more or less) education, expanding now under a reformist Burmese government, is reserved for the rich.
[Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident who is now a Parliamentary member, said on her visit last week to Washington that 15 percent of Burmese children never go to school. And Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi to New York last week as well, noting her participation in the global Education First initiative, to be introduced this week at the UN and focused on full school enrollment for children, improving the quality of learning and fostering international citizenship.]
Among the hundred boys from preschool age to high school age at U Margainda’s monastery are numerous students from disadvantaged ethnic neighborhoods – Karen, Padaung, Kayah and others, whose families are large and resources meager. By living in a monastery school, the children are spared the additional disadvantage of illiteracy, even though many leave before completing all their years of schooling. It is pattern throughout the country.
“We teach them the alphabet and numbers and tell them stories,” said U Margainda, the school’s headmaster and founder as well as the monastery’s senior monk. Knowledge and books are especially important to Theravada Buddhists, the dominant school of the religion in much of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Theravada monks are mendicants, relying on donations from the faithful. A serving of cooked rice may be all the poor can afford to give, but for those who are more affluent, there is a list of requests: 50,000 kyats (about $58) pays for a meal for students and monks; 150,000 kyats feed everyone three large meals for a whole day.
Donations and volunteers from abroad provide valuable services. Germans built a clinic capable of routine health care and some simple surgeries; German and Italian doctors visit periodically. A Thai visitor, learning that U Margainda had a serious heart condition, took him to Bangkok for medical care. Vietnamese Buddhists paid for a three-story classroom building. Japanese and American citizens have also contributed to the monastery’s running costs or donated large quantities of food.
The World Bank and Unesco, both of which use the 92 percent literacy rate for the Burmese for documentation, add that the figure also assumes basic numeracy, the ability to do simple mathematical calculations. These are important factors in the future development of a once-isolated country now looking to the outside for help in catching up with the neighborhood. More than half a century ago, Burma was one of Southeast Asia’s most promising nations by many measures: the leading global rice exporter, home to two leading Asian universities, in Rangoon (also called Yangon) and Mandalay, and the transportation hub for the region, a role it ceded to Singapore and Bangkok long ago.
United Nations agencies and the United States government are listing education as a high priority as aid programs are being devised for Burma. The decrepit public schools and universities need a lot of help. But, at least for the near future, the monastery schools scattered around the country should not be overlooked.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.