The life of children in Myanmar

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 26/03/2014
Mingalar Parahita orphanage
ANDREA VANCE/FAIRFAX NZ
LUCKY ONES: Children say prayers before dinner at the Mingalar Parahita orphanage.

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As she skips barefoot over polished blue tiles, no-one can keep up with Nan Dawi.

She squirms from her teacher's grasp, giggling as she scampers off across the room.

Bright as a button, in a pretty green-polka dot dress, the toddler has huge brown eyes and an even bigger smile.

Her tiny face is painted with the distinctive yellowish-white thanaka paste, used by the Burmese as a natural sunscreen.

Only a few weeks ago, Nan Dawi wasn't this lively. She was found alone, dusty and distressed, on a bridge spanning the Twante Canal, the silty waterway that connects the Irrawaddy and Yangon Rivers.

No-one knows her real name - or true age, although she is believed to be two.

It's assumed her desperate parents abandoned her on the busy bridge, hoping someone would bring her to an orphanage where she would be fed, clothed and schooled. Their prayers were answered.

Just 90 minutes from Yangon, the Mingalar Parahita orphanage is close to an industrial zone, dominated by big business.
 
The locals are dirt poor, eking out a subsistence living in the bamboo shacks clinging to the banks of the canal's dirty tributaries.

Nan Dawi joined the 1130 children living at the shelter. Seventy per cent of them are orphans.

Many arrived after cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar's delta region in 2008, killing 140,000 and leaving tens of thousands of children orphaned or separated from their parents.

Kalayar, 23, an assistant at the orphanage, arrived almost 10 years ago. It is run out of a Buddhist monastery, headed by stern head monk Sandima.

"I came for education. My parents were very poor. They could not support me," says Kalayar.

She returned to work there after she graduated from university. "I wanted to help the monks."

"She [Nan Dawi] is lucky. She will eat, and go to school every day. The students [here] are lucky."

The children rise at 5am, to wash, and within half an hour are praying.

Chores follow, before lessons. They eat twice a day - rice, vegetable curry and fig juice, costing US$1500 (NZ$1750).
 Meat is donated, but so infrequently, the children don't know how to eat it.

Twelve-year-old Nge Htwe is Pa-O, one of the nine ethnic groups of the Shan state, in eastern Myanmar.

Her poverty-stricken parents sent her to the orphanage four years ago.

"Every summer holiday she goes back home, except this year. She's happy here. She wants to learn English," Kalayar translates.

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Child labour props up Myanmar's economy - from the Yangon dockyards to teashop boys. As the country marches towards democracy and development, its children are increasingly left behind.

The United Nations estimates that about one-third of Myanmar's children are working.

Its Children's Fund (UNICEF) reveals just 58 per cent remain in education after primary school. From 7 to 16 years, kids are working in factories, cleaning houses or simply just begging to help their parents make rent.

But Phyu Phyu Cho is determined her 190 charges will get a better start in life. She is project director at Dream Train, a Japanese backed shelter and live-in school. The youngest is five, the eldest 18.

Twenty-three of the children come from the war-torn Kachin state, in the country's far north.

Conflict has raged between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese army since 2011, killing more than 1000 and displacing up to 6000. The remainder of the kids are from Shan state.

The school is on the outskirts of sprawling Yangon - far from their home towns to protect them from human trafficking and child labour.

"Some are orphans, some are from single parents, and some parents are very poor," Phyu Phyu Cho explains through a translator.

"I plan to send them to send them to university but if they don't pass the matriculation exams we have vocational training, such as driving, mechanics, IT. For girls we have sewing machines, handicrafts, hair cutting, beauty parlour [training]."

As well as education and shelter - and counselling for the most traumatised - the children get medical checks twice a year. A stack of back-packs, donated from Japan, are stacked in the hall, still wrapped in plastic.

A classroom doubles as the boys' bedroom, with colourful sleeping mats neatly piled up against one wall.

"Like the name of this place, it is dreams come true," she says. "There are a lot of things to be done for children, especially in the Kachin state ... there are a lot left there."

Khine Yinohn, 18, from Yanloo Lanhwe village in Shan state, is bent over a vibrating sewing machine. She's fashioning a red skirt for a little girl.

This, along with embroidered handicrafts and local costumes, will be sold in Japan to raise money for the school.

Next door, in the dining room, a group of girls are giggling over an enormous pot of cauliflower.

Because it is summer, there are no lessons, so Lailai Win and her friend Esther, both 14, are carrying out their share of the chores.

Across the yard, their classmates are sloshing around in a washing tub, dancing as they wring out bed sheets in the hot sun.

As she cuts the vegetables, Lailai Win, from Panple village, also in Shan state, says she has been here for three years.
"Her parents want her to be educated," says Phyu Phyu Cho. "Yes, she misses her family."

The newest Dream Train residents are 8-year-old Naw Khu Payram and his twin sister Topsy.

They arrived on March 8.

Topsy clings to Phyu Phyu Cho while her brother charges around the playground with his new friends.

"Their parents are very poor," she says. "They couldn't be separated. Both had to come."

Phyu Phyu Cho hopes that one day there will be no need for projects like Dream Train as Myanmar's education system is developed after more than six decades of neglect and under-investment under the military junta.

"But that is far into the future," she says. "For now we give them [the children] opportunities."

 Andrea Vance travelled to Myanmar to attend the East West Centre International Media Conference with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

- Fairfax Media

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