The Kachins love to fish. During the rainy season, when the river and stream waters are high and when empty dry ponds are filled with water, the fish seem to grow in number. You will find many Kachins, both young and old, gathered at some spots even along the roads with their fishing rods, patiently waiting to catch fish. But fishing is no longer an enjoyable activity. Many of the streams and rivers are now polluted by human activities like mining and banana plantations. Environmental degradation is worsening with the current political crisis in the country.
“All the Fish Died,” was the headline of one magazine in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The fish were dying from two streams where chemical runoff s from a Chinese banana plantation mixed with the water. From these streams the villagers also get their water for drinking and washing. These days it is not just fishes dying but also young people and their dreams.
“Masha langai hpe lani mi sha ‘Nga’ ( fish) jaw sha na malai, shi prat tup, ‘Nga’ hkwi sha chye na matu sharin ya u.” This Kachin proverb literally means: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
A popular adage many of us heard reminds us that helping another person is more than just giving the person materials things and resources but giving the person the opportunity learn the skill to provide for himself or herself. Many of the young people these days are struggling with life. Some are just surviving and not finding joy and meaning in their lives.
I have been working with university students the past three years since arriving in the diocese as chaplain and spiritual director to the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM), a ministry to university students. But the pandemic and the coup closed all educational institutions in the country. Many of the students I worked with could not complete their university education. One of them is Philip Hka Naw Seng. He is now the interim CSAM president. Together with the committee, we try to continue to minister to the students and youth. He was into the second year of his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry program when he like most young people had stopped going to the university in protest of the military coup. The new military regime is very brutal in suppressing protests and resistance especially the youth.
The pandemic and the coup revealed many weaknesses in the education system of the country. Many young people are now not work-ready which means many of the young people even those with university degrees are not readily accepted or employed by organizations and companies because they lack in basic and necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic and the on-going political crisis is the country has led to increase in stress and trauma among children and youth. Th ere is an increase in cases of anxiety, worry and other mental health problems among children and youth which is contributing to the anxiety and depression in young people causing loss of interest in life, increase in substance abuse (drugs, alcohol, other substances) among youth.
“Why is education important for you?” I asked Philip. He replied that education means a good future for him. These days many young people are suffering because they do not have access to good education. He shared that in his family he is the only one able to reach university education level. These days he cannot go to the university, but he is finding alternative ways to continue his education. He also wants to become a good teacher so he can also teach his people and improve their lives. He added that most Kachin people rely on the abundant natural resources alone and extract them without considering the impact to the bigger environment like jade and gold mining have. But since the closing of universities and other learning institutes many young people are now working in the many mining fields of Kachin. Many are losing interest in studying because of the situation in Myanmar. Philip shared he also feels lost and depressed.
Mary Ja Seng Lu, another university student and member of the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina shared that the pandemic and the political situation of the country created many challenges for her. Her family could not support her to pursue her studies so she had to struggle to balance university life and work. She was doing well until the coup happened. These days she feels lost and confused.
Philip and Mary are not alone. There are thousands like them in Myanmar who are hoping for real peace and justice in Myanmar. Many young people these days are lost and uprooted. Some joined the armed resistance. Unfortunately, to pursue studies in other countries can also be a challenge for many young people especially those coming from rural areas who have little to no opportunities and information on scholarships and trainings. These days young people feel their dreams and their future are gone.
But not without hope. When Pope Francis came to Myanmar he met the young people and to them he said, “Be brave, be generous and above all be joyful.” Many are trying their best and if given the right opportunities to learn and gain new knowledge and skills they will be able to survive and make a difference not just in their lives but also in the lives of many other young people. Mary Seng Lu added that “… we should give them opportunities and platforms to keep learning new things in their lives.”
So together with Philip and other young people, we are opening a Student Resource Center. The center will have a computer laboratory, a library, a counseling room, classrooms and meetings rooms. The center will provide a safe space and an alternative learning center to provide skills training (English language, Computer, Accounting, Life or soft skills) and also mental health services. Livelihood trainings will also be an essential component of the center to encourage business entrepreneurship among young people. We do not just want to give them fish, but we want to empower them by giving them the right knowledge and skills to succeed in life but also have meaningful lives.
Help us help young people help other young people through supporting this student resource center. The center will be run by the youth, with the youth and for the young people.
Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar (formerly Burma).