Myanmar Political Instability Makes Mission Work Challenging

Fr. Kurt with students in Myanmar
Fr. Kurt with students in Myanmar




Columban missionaries have long served in some of the most difficult places on earth. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is one of those places. Recently, Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala sent me the following update about his work in Myanmar.

When I first arrived in Myanmar, I had to learn the Burmese language. For almost a year, I attended daily classes with local teachers. One of them is Saya Zenry. He is a graduate of the Teacher’s College and during the holidays took time to teach Burmese to foreigners and earn some extra money before heading to the village to teach. There are very few male teachers in the country. Mostly because it does not pay much and it demands a lot of work.

After learning Burmese, I moved to the north to begin the mission with the Kachin people which meant learning yet another language. I never lost touch with my Burmese teachers. Once a year I get to spend a few days on break, so I decided to pay my former teacher a visit. Traveling by bus is a common way the locals move around the country. I got on the bus and arrived at the first stop, a small sleepy town by a river. Near the market is a small dock where boats come and go picking up passengers and cargo. We moved up the river and ended up at another dock. From there, we drove on a tiny road sandwiched between rice fields. We passed by one of the two village’s schools.

Finally, I arrived in the village of Seik Gyi, where my former teacher lives and works. He introduced me to the family who looks after him in the village. He showed me his tiny hut where he sleeps during the week.

Lay Missionary Michael Javier on assignment in Myanmar where he teaches students English.
Columban Lay Missionary Michael Javier teaching students English in Myanmar.

The next day we went to the village school. Having told him I wanted to wear the teacher’s uniform, he kindly offered me his old one. I wore it to school like a local teacher. He introduced me to the school principal who turned out to be a Catholic. The children started coming into the rooms. One by one, they took off their shoes, arranging them neatly outside the door.

“Good morning children,” Saya Zenry said. “Good morning Saya!,” they responded. Saya is a Burmese word that translates to “sir” or “teacher.” Saya Zenry’s class is a mix of Grade 3 and 4 pupils. The whole school has 24 students and four teachers. He has a mixed class of eight students, so he must be prepared for all subjects and for two grade levels. This is just one reason why teaching is not for everyone. Although teachers do not get enough salary, teachers are highly respected, along with parents and monks in Burmese culture. They are idolized. Saya Zenry explained that, “Our parents raised us.Our teachers shared knowledge with us while the monks preached the Dhamma. For these reasons, each are considered blessings to us.”

Today, Saya Zenry, together with many school teachers, have joined in the civil disobedience movement and stopped reporting to schools. Most children are not going to schools, too. It has been more than a year after the junta declared martial law - taking control of the civil government.

After more than two years, I met again Saya Zenry, who like many young people I know protested in the streets. I asked him why he wanted to become a teacher. He told me that it is a simple question but difficult to answer. He wanted to change and improve the education system of his country and raise the standard of education by forming highly qualified teachers to educate the children of Myanmar. Only through quality education can Myanmar progress and develop. Simply put, that is why he wanted to be a teacher.

But he added that being a teacher in Myanmar is not an easy task. He explained that “There are not enough teachers for one school and not enough teaching aids. Education spending in Myanmar is very low. In developed countries, education spending is at the top. In Myanmar, education spending is still at the lowest. In addition, the education system is not good. This is a very frustrating topic for many teachers.”

He shared that his greatest dream in life is “to make the world peaceful. I want everyone in the world to enjoy fully their human rights.” Sadly, the political crisis in Myanmar is delaying the dreams of many young people. He added that the crisis has torn families apart. Some have died. Some were arrested. Some had to flee to liberated and safe areas. He lamented that “the army arrested many young men out of suspicion. Living conditions also become very stressful. Now, I just want to leave Myanmar.”

Saya Zenry, like so many young people, wants to leave his home country to fulfill his dreams. He is a bright young person wanting to bring change to his country by being a teacher. Let us continue to pray for him, for Myanmar and support the young people here.

Mission in Myanmar has always been challenging. While the political instability makes our work more difficult, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has also created new challenges. We are so very grateful for young Columbans like Fr. Kurt who are making a difference in the world even though it is so very problematic right now. It is only with your prayers and financial support that we are able to continue to spread God’s light and the promise of a better future in Myanmar. We are so very thankful for your support and remember you appreciatively in our daily Masses and prayers.


Gratefully Yours in Christ,

Fr. Chris Saenz, Director

Fr. Chris Saenz
Director, U.S. Region