Canadian Zen Monk Hopes to Bring Education to All in Myanmar
Since 2005, Canadian Zen Buddhist monk John Stevens has dedicated himself to bringing education to dozens of remote rural communities across Myanmar. Working through 100 Schools, a UK-registered charity based in the northern city of Chiang Mai in neighboring Thailand, Stevens has so far enabled more than 10,000 children to attend school.
In the last 10 years, the organization has grown into a permanent team of 35 Burmese masons and carpenters who work with volunteers from the villages they are helping. To date, 100 Schools has built 49 schools in remote, impoverished areas of Myanmar. It has also built a primary school in the far northern Thai province of Mae Hong Son and currently has two projects underway in central Myanmar.
Unlike in some larger towns and cities, schools in remote rural areas of Myanmar that are largely inhabited by subsistence farmers, while technically government-owned and run, are often neglected makeshift structures—little more than a corrugated tin roof supported by wooden beams. Since these structures fail to meet the government’s own standards, the education office will only allocate from two to four teachers to a primary school, and any additional teachers needed must be paid for by the villagers themselves. However, 100 schools notes that “if a village does have a school which conforms to the Ministry of Education’s specifications [classrooms measuring 24 feet by 30 feet, brick construction, and proper toilets, as well as accommodation for the teachers], then the government will and does send a minimum of one and often two certified teachers per grade to the school free of charge to the village. This makes our contribution a win-win situation for the villagers. They get a new school plus they get more teachers—for free.” (100 Schools)
Stevens points out that beyond simply providing a place for children to study, 100 Schools is committed to constructing brick buildings sturdy enough to survive earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters. “Once we have completed the assessment to build a school, we take all of the responsibilities, and use our own crew to guarantee a good-quality building,” he said. “We create the jobs for all the crew, so they have stayed with us for many years. Many of the 35 crew members have been working with us from the beginning.” (The Irrawaddy)
Since its inception, the scope of 100 Schools’ work regularly goes beyond providing serviceable school buildings. It has also constructed dormitories to accommodate teachers, and has supplied basic stationery to more than 10,000 students, as well as desks, chairs, blackboards, and toilets. “Each year we try to give all the students their notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, rulers and one school uniform. Since we make the school uniforms ourselves in our small factory in Mandalay, this enables us to keep the cost at just over US$9 a year for a primary school student and US$14 for someone in high school.” (100 Schools)
With the help of donors, 100 Schools has even been able to provide high school and college scholarships to help promising students from families with little or no financial resources. One such student, who went on to study computer science, is due to go back to an underprivileged school after graduating to share his knowledge with the students there.
More recently, the organization has become involved in a joint project with Myanmar’s new government to build medical clinics and accommodation for staff. In return, the state has pledged to provide qualified medical personnel and to build access roads for the clinics. Stevens is hopeful that the new government, which is prioritizing education and improving healthcare, will be able to take on some of the work of his organization.
The governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party, headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a sweeping victory late last year in Myanmar’s first openly contested election since 1990, which effectively ended more than 50 years of military rule. Last week, the NLD party announced that it would provide free textbooks and uniforms for all primary school students.
“Within two months of the new government being sworn in, we already have received permits to build two new schools, so we don’t have any problems [with the new government],” said Stevens.
Despite the government’s pledge of a more proactive stance, however, there is still much work to be done—according to an education ministry report last year, some 7,800 school buildings in the country are in urgent need of repair, while the ministry has the resources to renovate just 2,800 schools.
Stevens—now in his late 60s—is insistent that he will continue his work on behalf of Myanmar’s underprivileged children for as long as he is able: “Myanmar is the size of France and England put together and is divided into territories comprised of seven divisions and seven states. . . . Our aim is to be building them schools in all 14 areas. It’s obviously not going to happen overnight, but with financial support coming from outside the country and the efforts of local volunteers continuing to come from within, it is entirely possible that one day down the road, every child in Myanmar will be getting a decent education.” (100 Schools)