August 17, 2009
Better Late than Never (optional subtitle: In which the author makes excuses, excuses, excuses)
A few days before I was scheduled to leave for Burma (Myanmar) I came across an article online titled “10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger.”  Number one was Burma. This is part of the excuse why I am posting my first blog entry now, rather than 11 weeks ago, when I first arrived in the country.
Another excuse I have is that using the internet in Burma is no easy matter. For one thing, only the wealthiest of the population can afford to have private internet access in their homes. Everyone else has to go to small internet cafes that charge about 400 to 500 kyats per hour (about 50 cents).  While these internet cafes are relatively affordable, they give you no privacy. The computers are tightly packed together and the people sitting next to you can easily see all the websites you visit and even read over your shoulder. More importantly, internet cafes are closely monitored by the government. There are signs posted everywhere that say: “please do not visit websites related to politics.” Also, every website I am used to visiting is blocked: yahoo, gmail, brown email, wordpress, BBC, even flickr. I had to use a proxy every time I wanted to check my mail. Using too many proxies, however, arouses suspicion and can attract the attention of the government monitors.
So here I am, safe and warm (perhaps too warm) in California, trying to remember everything from the beginning. I guess I should start with an introduction. Hi. I’m Thirii. If you can’t tell from my name or my prose, I’m female. I’m a rising junior concentrating in Literary Arts and hopefully, International Relations. I like footnotes. I also like helping underprivileged children. This summer, I combined my two passions into a fellowship with Child Aid Foundation, an organization that provides basic needs (i.e. food, housing, healthcare, education, etc.) to children who were orphaned by Cyclone Nargis.
I found out about Child Aid Foundation through Sayadaw U Ashin Dhammapiya , the main founder of the organization and coincidentally, our family monk. U Dhammapiya is the head monk of Metta Nanda Vihara monastery in Fremont, California, but he also has a monastery in Yangon called Ngar Kyan Pyan. Last summer, soon after the cyclone hit Burma, U Dhammapiya and other volunteers traveled to the Ayeyarwady Division,  which was the most devastated region of the country and distributed aid to the survivors. Working together with the local monasteries, which often served as community shelters in the wake of the cyclone, the volunteers provided food, clothing, medicine, healthcare and other basic supplies like pots and pans, soap, etc. Many of the villages they visited were accessible only via boat and even after weeks had received no aid from the government or international organizations.
Child Aid Foundation, however, grew out of the realization that emergency relief aid was just the first step in the process of reconstruction. One year on its feet, the Yangon-based organization is now caring for 575 orphans, 519 of whom have personal sponsors who donate $10 a month. The majority of orphans still have surviving adult family members who are willing to take them in. What Child Aid Foundation does in such cases is offer financial support to those families so they can keep the children in school. Other children who do not have family members willing to take them in are placed in foster homes. Currently, Child Aid Foundation is in the process of building a school for the orphaned children who do not have an extended family or a foster family to care for them.
Child Aid Foundation, however, is not an independent project. It is just part of the larger effort to provide secondary and higher education to the extraordinary number of Burmese children who otherwise cannot stay in school and escape the cycle of poverty that child labor creates. Two years before Cyclone Nargis, the Nigrodha Sāmanera Project (a predecessor of Child Aid Foundation) was started at Ngar Kyan Pyan monastery in April 2006. Novice monks and nuns from poor villages all over the country came to live at Ngar Kyan Pyan to get a religious and secular education. The project funds everything for the children – the construction costs of classrooms and dormitories, the cost of transportation to and from their (often rather remote) villages, the cost of electricity and running water, the cost of food, clothing, school supplies, etc. In turn, the children study around the clock. In addition to their religious studies and their school subjects (Burmese, English, Geography, History, Mathematics and Science for middle school students, plus Biology, Chemistry, Physics in lieu of “Science” for high school students), they also learn Chinese and practical English . There is also a public library that opens four days a week and a free medical clinic that opens two days a week on the monastery grounds.
I will write about my personal role in all this in the next entry, which I will probably post tomorrow or the day after (seeing as how I have nothing to do at home but look at classes on mocha). Sorry for the long post. Thanks for reading. And check out the website for Child Aid Foundation: http://childaidmyanmar.org/. It is not very friendly to non-Burmese people right now, but I will be working on translating things into English as soon as I get my own website for the Nigrodha Sāmanera Project up and running.
 The article stub, which I originally found on the Huffington Post, redirected me to the special report conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), a nonprofit organization based in New York that promotes freedom of the press worldwide. In case you are wondering, the ten worst countries are: 1.Burma, 2.Iran, 3.Syria, 4.Cuba, 5.Saudi Arabia, 6.Vietnam, 7.Tunisia, 8.China, 9.Turkmenistan, and 10.Egypt. You can read the full article here: http://cpj.org/reports/2009/04/10-worst-countries-to-be-a-blogger.php
 The official exchange rate of the Burmese kyat to the U.S. dollar is about 6 kyats to 1 dollar, which is outrageous! In reality, 1 U.S. dollar is exchanged for at least 1000 kyats on the black market. Also, although it is illegal for Burmese citizens to be possession of U.S. currency (the offense is punishable by three years of imprisonment) many people secretly hold on to U.S. currency because it is less bulky and more resistant to inflation than the kyat.
 “Sayadaw” is a title of respect used to address higher-ranking Buddhist monks in Burma. “Saya” is the Burmese word for “teacher”. “U” is the equivalent of “Mr.” “Ashin” is just the generic first name for all monks.
 Burma has seven states and seven divisions. The seven states are named after the seven largest ethnic minority groups in the country; for example: Shan State is where the majority of Shans live, Rakhine State is where the majority of Rakhines live, etc. The majority of Burmans, the largest ethnic group, live in the seven divisions. Of course, the states and divisions are not ethnically homogenous and in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, you can find people of all ethnicities, religions, etc. I’ll talk more about the ethnic minorities when I talk about Mandalay.
 It may seem strange that English is mentioned twice – first as a state required subject and secondly as an elective. I should clarify that the English taught in state schools is strictly Parrot English. The students read, memorize and regurgitate whole essays, but they do not understand what they are reading, memorizing or regurgitating. Rather than teaching the students how to write in English, the teachers simply write essays for them, which the students copy word for word on their monthly state exams.
Posted by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint at August 17, 2009 02:16 PM