Having lived and worked in West Pilton, Edinburgh for 30 years, I am now really happy to be living in Port Seton and Headteacher of Prestonpans Infant School. What excites me about working in schools is the opportunity to nurture children, families and communities to learn and to celebrate life and learning. Since 2005, I have been inspired by the community of Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand, who struggle against incredible odds to give the best education possible to their children. I've been honoured to spend time with them each summer and pray the changes in Burma will give freedom to her people.
On Tuesday night, 17th July, we were joined by Khaing Maung Muang’s mother and father. As I wrote before, we have become good friends through Khaing over the last 4 or 5 years. They picked us up on Tuesday evening and took us to a lovely restaurant that sold Burmese and European food and we caught up on family news. The next day they picked us up in a minibus which they hired for the rest of the time we were in Yangon. It was a glorious change from the taxis, especially since that last Wednesday was so very wet. This slideshow shows our visits to 3 pagodas, the River Yangon, an amazing Chinese restaurant and back to Shwedagon Pagoda. However, the highlight of our last day was a visit to AUNG SAN MUSEUM. I’ll blog about that next.
As the first Global School Partnership we created, Hle Bee has a very special place in my heart. I first went there in 2007. That Global School Partnership with Forthview is ended, as have all GSPs since the UK government stopped the programme in March this year. However, as I handed over the lovely letters from Forthview pupils to Hle Bee, the staff were keen to show me the display they created of their partnership with Forthview.
Hle Bee – Forthview partnership
Over the last year, Hle Bee has gone through yet another hard time, as is the way for the migrants living in Mae Sot, constantly at the mercy of others. We’d been told that Hle Bee had moved buildings so here is their story…
The Thai landlady that rented them the land for the school lives next door to the school. Headteacher Thazin understood that she owned all the land the school was built on. However, the landlady’s brother died and it transpired that he owned half the land, which was the half housing Thazin’s original house, the toilet blocks, the 2nd building, the new 3rd building at the back of the land and the playground area. His family wanted the land back so the school lost those buildings.
Here you can see the very best Hle Bee building, broken and wasted. This is the building that Teachers Irvine Wright and Fiona Vacher taught Strip the Willow to the Hle Bee community in in 2009. Last year, this building was splendid with strong teak doors and shutters. So quickly the school is faced with losing a building that they put so much energy and so much of their precious funding into building.
However, the Thai landlady, used another part of her land and built a building for Hle Bee School on that piece of land. Hle Bee is at the end of a lane and the new building is nearer the road than the original site. The new building is a large building with a metal roof (so it’s as hot as the original building). It’s subdivided into 6 classrooms. At the back are new toilets and a new house for Headteacher Thazin and her family.
Hle Bee 2012 on PhotoPeach
It was lovely to see our friends. We couldn’t believe how big Way Haing and Toto, Thazin’s nephew and niece are. But the biggest surprise was Louise’s favourite baby, U Shwe Hla, who is in the centre of this photo and is 5 and big enough to go to school. When we visited her wee house, Mon Sein and mum had lots of photos of Louise and U Shwe Hlar on the wall. U Shwe Hlar was always shy and didn’t recognise Louise to begin with but her mum made sure she remembered by the time we were leaving and Louise had a nice wee chat with her.
Another surprise was when a child came up to me with a huge smile and sang, ” Lay Lay Laygo say, powre see ong say, minsay kinkway pyalay may, senyit ya lay may.” I was gobsmacked! This boy remembered our handwashing project of 2008, when we used Scottish Government resources based on the song Row, Row, Row your boat with the words, “Wash, wash, wash your hands, wash nasty germs away. If you don’t you might get ill and that will spoil your day.” Our friend Bobo and some teachers translated that into Burmese and this boy remembered!
And in typical Hle Bee/Forthview style, Headteacher Thazin and I started an assembly and we were surrounded by singing children going through our old favourites: I’m the only I, As we go now, I can clapy my hands, You are a star etc. Magical.
We visited Hle Bee on a Tuesday afternoon and sat and caught up with all their news with Headteacher Thazin in the staff shelter which now stood in the middle of the empty space where the original school had been.
When we came back the next day, we found the old school plot being fenced off to be separated from the school. It was a chilling reminder of how quickly situations can change for the migrant Burmese population in Mae Sot and how powerless they are. This is what life is always like for the migrants.
Can you see the huge water jar? It took 5 teachers and Thazin’s brother to move that jar out of the old school area. Can you imagine Scottish teachers agreeing to do that? But that is the total commitment of these teachers to their school and their children.
5 teachers and the caretaker move mighty water pot
So that’s the Hle Bee story. It was summed up best by Headteacher Thazin, when Louise asked her if she was happy. She said, “I’m as happy as a migrant teacher can be.”
… Khaing’s father said this last year when he wrote a letter supporting Louise’s visa application. He’s just emailed to thank me for letting him know we’d arrived safely home and said this in his email about our parting at Yangon Airport, which I’ve already told you left me crying….
“The two families had to separate at Yangon Airport on 20.7.2012 but our family had a scar in our heart and we miss you and your family everyday. Dear Ms Sheila see you again next year…..” Awwwwwwwww…………….
We knew it would be rainy season and had bought our usual waterproof capes in Mae Sot. However, in Yangon, everybody including young men carries and use umbrellas in the rainy season. The hotels provide complementary umbrellas. So I was pleased I’d taken tartan umbrellas as gifts for 3 of our friends.
I have more to write about Yangon, particularly about spending time with Khaing Maung Maung’s family, who, as they say, are the same family as our family because we have looked after Khaing Maung Maung since he came to Scotland. Utterly kind and hospitable people, they made our last 3 days in Yangon very special. As we left them at the airport, I was so so sad to be leaving them and to be leaving Burma. Tears rolling down my face, we moved into the departure lounge – very sad. A country we have loved from afar and now know and love more.
I guess it was inevitable that the frantic pace of our (is it only…) 19 days in Thailand and Burma would catch up and when we arrived at our lovely transit hotel, I crashed – same as Livvy did actually – I slept for almost 18 hrs and had a dreadful tummy upset and was hot / cold / shivery. So now ready to do that 30hr journey home with plans to sit very near the toilet! Thank the Lord for immodium. So I guess it had to end with a toilet story for all of those who know me.
Will blog about Hle Bee, Khaing’s family, Aung San museum, posh Burmese restaurants, our 5 hotels when I get back….. at the weekend.
Sadly we left at 0830hrs on Martyrs’ Day but there was a huge increase in military and police presence the day before and on the day as we drove through Yangon.
Having had the privilege of going to the Aung San Museum in the house Aung San Suu Kyi lived in when she was a child and when her father was assassinated (more of that later), we had been reminded of the day on 19 July 1947 when General Aung San and 7 of his co-leaders were killed, having been led by Aung San to be liberated from Britain. That day is commemorated annually as Martyrs’ Day and here is an excellent reflection on that day and its consequences for the current political scene in Burma. Louise, here’s the answer to the question you asked about why Burmese peoples all revere General Aung San.
Today President Thein Sein laid down a wreath for the 8 leaders assassinated, followed by Aung San Suu Kyi and other family members of the 8 leaders.
Yangon roads are kamikaze busy. No motorbikes and bicycles which I expected but the huge rise in car imports means Yangon is one big traffic jam with its one way system at peak times. The fumes are overpowering and it’s so so hard to cross the road, requires a high skill level in risk assessment. You have to be gallous enough to go but smart enough to retreat. The cars are ancient and break down frequently. Apart from the last day when Khaing’s dad ordered a minibus which was a complete and totally appreciated luxury. Here is a link to an article on The Irrawaddy website on Traffic in Yangon. http://www.irrawaddy.org/?slide=a-ride-around-rangoon
There was more intenet access and electricity than I expected, though it was subject to intermittent power cuts. Our phones didn’t work, which was a wee bit frustrating.
I thought Yangon would be cheap. Thailand is very cheap. However, in Yangon, there’s one price for locals and one price for tourist. Taxis are 300% dearer unless you have a local with you. Price of coke goes from 500 Kyats (36p) to 1300 (95p) kyats if you are with a tourist. We found Western food all week and so food wasn’t a problem. Hotel prices in Yangon are extortionate. We’d booked ahead and got a good deal in the expensive Traders. However, as we didn’t travel to Sittwe, we needed to find a local hotel. We got a hotel more basic than DK in Mae Sot for £46 a night. It was like Faulty Towers. The people were so sweet and desperate to help but the rooms were poky and dingy, our air con was like a helicopter and didn’t work so the room was hot. Electricty power cuts meant we had to climb 9 floors after breakfast. We had no hot water. Oh it was awful. Luoise had a better experience but DK was better at £9 per night.
The worst thing was finding out that the ‘democratic pariament’ has no clout, is still managed by the junta and living conditions are not improving for the poor.
We commented that we’d not seen many soldiers or police and were told that we were in an expensive tourist area so would not see many but that informers working in hotels and standing in the streets would be watching us and know what we were doing. We think we must have given them a run for their money. Geoff, went outside every building we were in to smoke his pipe (though it’s still accepted to smoke inside). “Your informers will be confuse,” giggled some friends, and will think Geoff is a spy.
It made me think again about the friendly ‘tourguide’ that walked up to us outside our hotel on our first day, asking where we came from, why we were here, and Geoff and I kept bumping into him that first day many times. Strange and disturbing but part of daily life in Burma still.
We also did the tourist thing of getting the taxi driver to drive us past Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. She was in Naypidaw at the Parliament so we didn’t expect to see her. There were fewer signs of the adoration of the Burmese people for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi thank I expected and sadly.the only time we heard her spoke about on the streets was by street sellers trying to selll ASSK merchandise eg the Lady film. I asked one of our friends if they had seen The Lady film about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi and he said it is forbidden. Funny when they can sell it on the streets to tourists.
We had many moments of strange connections of people who knew us but didn’t know each other, though they may have met before.
We were meeting Dr Thein Lwin in our bedroom with his 2 colleagues, then David and Gaynor came over and we had a very depressing discussion about Burma’s progress in terms of rule of law and human rights. We finished at 3pm and were setting off to Win’s home, accompanied by Khaing’s brother and cousins and the Allens. So we all met on the steps of Traders. Khaing’s father has met Dr Thein Lwin when he came to Edinburgh and they had a good discussion on Education in Burma. So it was interesting to introduce Dr Thein Lwin to Thaw Thaw.
Off to Win Maung Thein’s. Win and Khaing are both Rakhine from Arakan state and they know each other well in Edinburgh but the families had never met. So here we were introducing them in Yangong.
On Tuesday, a friend of Khin, a highly respected Burmese lady who lives in Edinburgh, came to collect a letter from Khin. We were speaking to this lady when Win’s family arrived to give us our gift. Khin has been very kind to Win so although these people didn’t know each other, they made connection.
On Monday after lunch, Gaynor and David and the children ate their last lunch of the holiday with us. Louise had arrived that morning and they had all gone shopping for yet more Converse trainers so We did some quick blogging as we’d read reviews that Alfa Hotel wifi was poor. Glad we did as my website and all Edubuzz were FORBIDDEN sites from that hotel. Local IT advisers (friends and from the hotel) explained that your level of internet freedom depends on the package you pay. They were expertly able to get me onto my site by using proxy servers. They have to do this a lot. However, I could only read the website not upload. Another wee insight into the level of government interference in people’s daily lives.
David’s last beer in Yangon
Last but fuzzy photo at Traders
We had a brilliant time with Gaynor, David and co. We were amazed ar how well the children coped with a considerable level of discomfort without a lot of moaning. If you have read the exceptionally well written blog postings by Livvy, Seth, Immy, Maya, you’ll learn a lot about understanding Thai and Burmese cultures from a child’s perspective. (www.ourthaiburmatrip.wordpress.com). I love Seth’s post on betel nut gobbing! When I asked each of the children which part of the holiday they’d enjoyed most, it was telling that they each loved the time at CDC most of all.
Win Maung Thein graduates from Newbattle Abbey College
On Sunday we met Win Maung Thein’s family. Thaw Thaw, Khaing’s brother, arranged for us to visit their home. We had some gifts for them from Win. We hailed 3 taxis because by now there were 2 of us + 6 Allens + 4 boys from Khaing’s family.
Traffic in Yangon is not what you would expect. Nobody is allowed to ride bicyles or motor bikes in the city centre. Recently the government loosened the law on import of cars, which had previously been very tightly controlled. So Yangon has become one huge traffic jam at certain points of the day. Sunday afternoon at 3pm was one of those times. I was in the car with Seth and 2 of Khaing’s relatives. I had started to cough because of the strong diesel fumes from all the cars around. “THIS IS THE GREATEST TRAFFIC JAM IN YANGON!,” said Thaw Thaw. It surely was. It was horrible and took us over an hour to go to Win Maung Thein’s home – a journey that could take less than 20 mins at another time of day.
We drew up to a lovely white and green house and were welcomed in SO warmly by Win’s brother, father, mother, nephew, aunty and other relatives. We had asked Htoo Htoo to phone and say we didn’t want food because there was a lot of us. No chance! There were 2 rows of chairs set out for us, which was great because I HATE sitting on floors. Cold cans of coke (who said you can’t get it in Burma?) and lovely red and normal bananas. Bananas taste better here than they ever do in UK. Football on the TV set David off on a long discussion about, “What’s the football team in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Pegu etc called!” He is a hoot and like his daughter Livvy fills those awkward silences beautifully, which I really appreciated, cos it’s usually down to me.
Around the top of the walls in the living room area were family photos. Win Maung Thein at his Newbattle Abbey graduation and surprisingly a photo of Win with Geoff and I on both sides of him at his Newbattle graduation. It’s utterly humbling to know how much our support of our Burmese students studying in Scotland means to their families. We do so little for them but to the families, it’s so reassuring to know that the guys (and one woman)are connected with Scottish families.
Sein, Win’s nephew, spoke fantastic English and having finished 2 years of a degree course in Singapore, he hopes to complete the last 2 years of his studies in Glasgow University. He had a conditional offer, depending on his English exam, has achieved what is necessary but we are so cynical about the UK offering visas to Burmese students….. It would be lovely to welcome another Burmese young man to Scotland. Fingers crossed.
Sein explained that the family were so appreciative of us all taking good care of Win Maung Thein and they wanted to take us to a restaurant that served Burmese and Western food for tea. Refusal would have caused offence, yet we feel so bad that they had to feed 10 or 11 of us. Off we set in taxis again for a lovely meal, paid for by Win’s family. We chatted and thanked them profusely then said bye.
On Tuesday night, Win’s family phoned our hotel and said they were coming into give us a gift. Father, mother, brother, sister and nephew came to the hotel with a HUGE gilt framed mosaic of the boats on Kandawgyi Lake. It’s simply beautiful and so generous of them. It shall have pride of place in our home. We’ll post a photo of it later. We’re in Bangkok on our way home now and have dismantled it for transit.
See how alike Win’s brother is to Win with his great smile and strong hair.