The Columbans went to Burma in the 1930s and stayed in the Diocese of Myitkyina in Kachin State until 1978 when those remaining were asked to leave. After the military takeover in 1962, when the name of the country was changed to Myanmar, any missionary who left the country was not allowed to return unless they had been in Myanmar prior to 1948. In order to continue their work in Myanmar, many Columbans stayed on for many years without returning home. Myanmar is now one of the poorest countries in the world. The country’s resources are being eaten up by the military and their international supporters.
The Columbans had set up some schools when they were in the diocese. However these schools were nationalized when the military took over. The military junta has systematically destroyed the education system, and teachers have very little incentive to teach. The so-called teachers are not qualified to teach the kids. Most of them are failed graduates from high school, as these are the only people who will stay in the remote areas for a salary equivalent to US $20.00 a month.
The Columbans also set up boarding houses in many of the parishes. These boarding houses are still being used today. The children from the rural areas stay there and attend school. In the evenings they received extra tutoring and instruction in the catechism. Since the Church is no longer allowed to run schools, these boarding houses have become an important educational component for the Church. However, many of these boarding houses, especially those in the more remote areas, have become rundown.
Most of the boarding houses are in areas that foreigners are not allowed to visit.
When Columban Fr. Eamon Sheridan visited Myanmar, he was taken to see the “good” ones and found them to be in mostly very poor condition. The kids have just two meals a day, breakfast and then an evening meal. Providing these meals is a struggle for the local priests as they juggle the many other demands on limited and sometimes non-existent resources. Many of the boarding houses don’t have toilets or washing facilities.
Most of the people in the diocese are extremely poor and engage in unstable jobs for low pay. Farming, livestock raising, working as street vendors and other very difficult and low paying jobs are all that is available to them. Many of the young people leave school at early ages to work for their families’ survival. Education is vital to break the cycle of poverty in Myanmar. Current estimates place the adult illiteracy rate at 89.7% for the population. In Myanmar, compulsory education ends at age 9 compared to the international level which is age 16.
Although not technically schools, the boarding houses function as schools offering tutoring in addition to pastoral care for all students. Improving the physical condition of the boarding houses, increasing the funds available for food and medical care for the students and teachers, offering training programs for boarding masters and offering scholarships to students are the top priorities.
Funding and Sustainability
Due to the grinding poverty under which the majority population of Myanmar lives, the project must be funded by benefactors. The military junta ruling Myanmar will not allocate funds to anything other than the government-run schools. It is the hope that education will provide the pathway out of poverty for future generations. With education come better employment opportunities which can lift entire villages out of poverty, one person, one family at a time.