Uncovering Burma: Parts 9 and 10

Author’s Note: We cycled through Burma for five weeks. The following 10 part series is our account of how recent political changes in this historically isolated country are affecting the lives of its everyday citizens. 

Part 9: Master Tai Wen

Master Tai Wen

Master Tai Wen is a Senior Assistant Teacher of English in Kalemyo, High School #2. We met him at a tea shop in Kalewa, 25 miles west of the city, where he used to work before he beat the odds and got the transfer two years ago to the metropolis. Now he has a chance to really make a living.  It has been a slow march up.  12 years ago, he was teaching in a farming village, raising his family of six children on the thin wages of the government, making ends meet by farming the land for peanuts and rice with his wife.

In a stroke of fortune, the central government education bureau in Mandalay moved him to Kalewa, a river shipping port of 10,000, where goods from the cities are traded for the produce of the lush northern farming lands.  He took it eagerly, even though he had to leave his family. Wages were not enough to support the whole clan in town.

It wasn’t that the salary from the government school changed. That has always been the same everywhere: 64,000 kyat ($75) a month, until two years ago, when Thein Sein’s government bumped it to 92,000 ($106) a month.  It’s that in the towns you can make money as a private school tutor, and in the cities you can make even more.  The wages from the private schools, which teach the kids how to beat the government tests and get into the best government universities, far outstrip the wages of the public high school.  Some teachers augment their salaries by 300,000 kyat a month with the work, though Tai Wen is still far from those heights.

A burmese classroom in Yenanguan

The private schools are a critical service in an overburdened education system.  Master Tai Wen’s classes at the public school have at least 70 students to one teacher.  His largest class has 83.  Besides, the education system boils down to a single key metric: your grades in the last two years of high school.  Those numbers decide who gets to go to which university, who obtains the vaunted positions at the Universities of Rangoon and Mandalay. Those grades, in turn, are decided by three tests a year, in six subjects, and those tests are the same for every student in Myanmar. They are written by the central government.  The teacher’s job is only to instruct and to grade.  It is after school, at the private schools, that the kids learn how to beat the test.

Master Tai Wen provides those services happily, as an opportunity to bring his family together again.  His wife is still in the village, farming rice and peanuts, as he left her twelve years ago.  He visits her less than once a month, because the voyage is a day-long each way, and it requires him to take leave from school. When he can’t go, he sends her 70,000 kyat a month in an envelope with his friends on the river shipping boats. His family has dispersed while he was away, his children trying to find their own living. The eldest daughter has married and moved to the south of Myanmar.  Three others work along the Chintu river, trading goods they bought wholesale from Monywa in the villages along the banks. When the profits aren’t enough, they pan for gold in the river’s silt. It has been many years since Tai Wen has seen them all together, because the cost of petrol is so high.

Soon though, the parting may end. Tai Wen is starting to earn enough money to bring his wife and two school aged daughters to live with him in Kalemyo.  “I hope it will be two years,” he said. It depends on how many after school lessons he can find.

Part 10: “She’s Just a Poster”

Before we arrived in Myanmar, we were told to be careful when it came to discussing politics. Even though the government had recently passed laws guaranteeing freedom of press, its power still rests in the hands of the military junta; there was no telling what could happen if we didn’t watch ourselves. Among the suggestions we heard were: No taking pictures of policemen or military installations. No mentioning of the fact we work as journalists. And especially no talking about Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s most recognized figure. The daughter of Burma’s founding father, she is the main democratic opposition leader to the military government, and internationally famous for her 20 year house arrest and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She’s also extremely controversial. We’d read about Burmese citizens who’d been jailed just for mentioning her name. For us, talking about Suu Kyi seemed a sure fire way to make trouble with authorities.

Yet no sooner had we arrived in Yangon when we started seeing her posters everywhere.

Tea shops, car repair garages, restaurants, hotels – they were all over the place. They ranged in every shape and size, from small, framed photographs to huge, blown-up banners. They weren’t restricted to large cities either; during our bike tour we continually came across Suu Kyi posters even in the smallest rural villages. There was one poster in particular that seemed to be most popular, a split image featuring a colored photograph of Suu Kyi on one side, and a black and white portrait of her father Aung San on the other. We were completely taken aback. We had thought Suu Kyi was a taboo subject.

As it turned out, our surprise wasn’t completely unfounded. Most of the posters have only been pinned up since a year and a half ago.

This was according to Mr. Slim, an animated man we met in Mandalay’s wholesale market who runs a tribal handicrafts store. When our conversation had turned to politics and Aung San Suu Kyi, he got excited.

“She is the only real leader we have” he said fondly.

He explained that Burmese people resonate with Suu Kyi because she’s highly educated and cares for the country, not just her personal welfare. “She’s also sacrified a lot” he added. During Suu Kyi’s house arrest, she wasn’t allowed to be with her husband or son, who were both exiled from the country. The posters, he said, are people’s way of showing solidarity with her struggle for democracy.

But Mr. Slim quickly added a caveat. “Believe me –these posters,” he said, waving towards one in the adjoining stall, “people are ready to tear them down at a moment’s notice.”

Mr. Slim is afraid to put up his own because he is a Muslim, and of Indian descent – a quick target for the police if things every returned to how they were. “Burmese prison is the closest thing on earth to hell,” he said, recounting the stories of friends who had disappeared in the past. He has no interest in joining them. As much as Mr. Slim supports Suu Kyi, he said the posters are not worth the risk.

Like much of his country, he hopes Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League of Democracy, will win the next election in 2015. It appears likely. What remains to be seen, he said, is if this time the military government is willing to cede its power, or if they hold on like they did in 1990’s corrupted election.

Mr. Slim says he’s making no predictions. “Suu Kyi is our symbol of hope, and I want her to lead the country.”

“But until then she’s just a poster.”



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