Johan Brusten has not yet finished his education project Myanmar
He has only just got home after a year in Myanmar. But VSO volunteer Johan Brusten is already planning to return to ‘his’ educational project in the Northern Shan state in the beginning of December. He is simply not finished yet.
“After consultation with VSO and the local NGO, we decided that I would extend my work for another twelve months”, explains Johan from his apartment in Tienen, Belgium.
From the regional capital Lashio, Johan cooperates with the Ta’ang Education Institute (TEI), which establishes schools in rural villages and trains teachers. “I help to set up and expand the project and to improve education. Also, I stimulate contact between teachers, VSO staff, parents and the local NGO that has its roots with the Ta’ang population.
The Ta’ang is an ethnic minority of one and a half million people in a patchwork of numerous ethnic groups in Myanmar. Since the country democratised, minorities are officially allowed to use their own language and to organise their own education. The TEI was founded to improve the living conditions of this minority, who mostly live in communities of 200 to 300 families.
“So far, 250 schools have been established,” says Johan. “This year alone, another fifty were added. Monks, connected to TEI, go to local temples to talk to the people about what they want and how we can help them. If they want a school – usually one classroom to start with, sometimes not – there will be an architect involved to build it and the institute will provide the teachers and the salary.”
Education in rural Myanmar is still not up to standard. Especially among ethnic minorities such as the Ta’ang, the level of education is lagging behind. Many people do not speak English or Burmese. This was one of the main concerns that led to the establishment of TEI, a close partner of VSO-Myanmar.
While children are taught in their local language in primary school, Burmese is the main language in secondary school. In higher segments, English is spoken as well. However, activities to improve the standard of living are hampered by ethnic tensions between the government army, paramilitary groups and small armies of different ethnic groups. “They regularly get in each other’s way”, Johan explains. “Although this is a small-scale operation, there are still cases where people are killed and injured. This has a great impact on the local population, that is forced to flee to a neighbouring village. Lashio itself is not dangerous. However, if you go deep into the countryside, you have to be careful. As a foreigner, you need permission from the authorities to do so”, says Johan.
After his university studies in Chemistry and Education, Johan soon got involved with development work. He taught in Burundi for a few years and also worked in Rwanda and Ghana. He carried out assignments through the Dutch Volunteers Foundation (SNV) and similar organisations. Although he also worked as a teacher in Belgium and a call centre employee in between his foreign assignments, Johan says that the development work has become his way of life. “I have been doing this work since the 1980s. The combination of education and development cooperation suits me perfectly. I usually spend about two months in Belgium before I leave again.”
One of VSO’s objectives is for local partners to take over at some point. “We support TEI in building up the education system, wherever we can and wherever it’s necessary. Nevertheless, we will stop if things go well and we are no longer needed. There are many other groups in this country that could use help.”
By Bert Vos– volunteer editors pool