Books to the future
Cast adrift by the junta then smashed by Nargis, Myanmar's schools and libraries are finally thrown a lifeline
When Cyclone Nargis tore through Myanmar in 2008, more than 130,000 lives were lost. Among buildings left smashed were 2,000 schools and libraries, many of which remain wrecked due to lack of funding. But thanks to the efforts of local and international NGOs, these schools and libraries are now slowly being restored.
Taking a lead is Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, the son of U Thaw Kaung, considered the father of Myanmar's library system for launching the country's first diploma for librarians.
Dr Thant is director of the Nargis Library Recovery Foundation, with the goal of achieving his father's dream of protecting libraries as a source of knowledge development in Myanmar.
He also runs the private Myanmar Book Centre.
"We've been in the book trade for 15 years. But we also run foundations that preserve books, Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts, and promote reading in Burma," he says.
Thant was in Bangkok last week at the TK Conference on Reading 2012 to discuss his mission to revive Myanmar's reading culture and preserve its written heritage.
"Palm-leaf manuscripts are very fragile. You cannot hold them. So we need to digitise the text and put it online to give the public free access," he says.
His bookish mission has a two-pronged strategy: preserve libraries, and donate books to remote schools across Myanmar.
He formed the Book Aid and Preservation Foundation in 2002, but when the cyclone hit, it was overwhelmed by the scale of damage to schools and libraries. Teaming up with Dr John Bradley, an old friend, Myanmar expert and a retired curator from Cornell University, he was able to persuade the US's Thrift Books, one of the world's largest online used-book sellers, to donate one million books.
"We need to get these books to schools and libraries destroyed by Nargis. We need all sorts of books - children's, academic texts on medicine, engineering, law, etc," he says.
While distribution presents logistical difficulties, kick-starting a reading culture is the biggest challenge, says Thant.
"Burma enjoys a 95-per-cent literacy rate. That's high in comparison to its neighbours. The point is that people tend not to read, or have access to reading materials and well-maintained libraries," he says.
Myanmar's first national library came into being in Yangon in 1952, revived from the colonial-era Bernard Free Library built in 1883. Now, with the capital moved to Nay Pyi Taw, a new national library is set to open in 2013, though without a lending section.
Myanmar's best remains Rangoon University Library, with its vast collection of rare and antique books. It is among 164 libraries attached to universities, and 50,000 public libraries across the country. The latter are mostly located in poverty-stricken villages and are barely functional.
"The problem is that Burma has a very limited budget for education. Last year it stood at 2.4 per cent of the national budget, this year 4.7 per cent or US$740 million [Bt23.2 billion]. But that new budget is considered very low," says Thant. (Thailand by comparison spends around 27 per cent of the national budget on education.)
At present, eight million students study in primary and secondary schools, but only 400,000 make it to university. Education suffers from a general lack of funding - Myanmar teachers are paid just US$30 a month.
Thant's foundations seek to fill that void.
"I want to follow in my father's footsteps. He founded the Myanmar Library Association to promote reading and won the Fukuoka Academic Prize in 2007 as the best librarian of the year. Through our foundations, we've been able to raise funding for transport shipments of the first batch of 300,000 books to schools in the Irrawaddy Delta, which was badly hit by Nargis. We got great support from the shipping company American President Line," he says.
In total, more than 750 libraries have received 500,000 books from his foundations, 400,000 of which are in English and 100,000 Burmese.
Thant's Book Aid and Preservation Foundation is also repairing and rebuilding schools and libraries wrecked by Nargis. It's just opened a community library in Thin Khan Gon village in Lutputta. Backed by the generosity of various organisations, his foundations plan to build 30 libraries in Bogale alone.
"We need all sorts of books. But transporting them to remote areas could be a challenge," he says, adding: "Apart from our foundations, only Asia Foundation has donated English-language books to Burma. If I have more funding, I could build more public libraries in my country."
There is a great thirst for quality reading material among Burmese, says Thant. The recent dawning of a more liberal era has made politics the most popular subject among Myanmar's publishers. Weekly political journals published by private companies are springing up to meet popular demand.
"These journals give us up-to-date information. As the government has relaxed its censorship policy, more and more publishers are seeking to bring out political books. Beyond politics, there's a world of environmentalism in which novels by Miss Ju [Daw Tin Tin Win] are best-sellers in major cities.
Dr Thant's Book Aid and Preservation Foundation and Nargis Library Recovery Foundation are supported by Thrift Books in the US, American President Line in the US, the Opportunity Foundation in Thailand, University of Washington Library Gift Programme, Cornell University Library Gift Programme, Institute of Southeast Asia in Singapore, National Library of Australia, World Vision Myanmar, Montana Library Association and United Nation Women's Guild Vienna. For more, visit: MyanmarBook.com.