The following post by Cathy McCann originally appeared on the website of PEN International.

In early February I spent eight days in Yangon talking to writers, journalists, publishers, activists, and politicians about their experiences of the current state of freedom of expression in Myanmar ahead of submitting a shadow report to the review of the country’s human rights record by the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism later in the year. On 5 February, I was privileged to accompany members of PEN Myanmar on a mobile literary tour to the township of Dala, on the southern bank of the Yangon river, in the Irrawaddy delta. Since there is no bridge linking Dala with Yangon, the area remains rural and largely undeveloped. Access from downtown Yangon is by ferry. The event was hosted by the Kumakasid Monastery in west Dala, which runs a primary school for 100 local 5 -10 year olds as well as other charitable services such as a local ambulance.

Since its launch in September 2013, PEN Myanmar has been organizing open, public, interactive literary readings and panel discussions across Myanmar to encourage dialogue between writers and readers and promote critical thinking and debate. PEN Myanmar is also developing creative writing workshops to encourage self-expression, foster literary skill and promote cultural exchange between the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The Centre targets disadvantaged groups in particular – it has recently worked in a women’s refuge, an orphanage for HIV positive children, and with the rural poor. Discussions tackle difficult and sometimes risky issues, such as hate-speech. These talks and workshops play a pivotal educational and capacity-building role that is currently not permitted within the state education system in Myanmar.

In Dala, PEN Myanmar experienced a rare opportunity to work with a group of 200 or so high school children from the local state secondary school, which stands adjacent to the monastery compound.

Soon after our arrival, lines of expectant grade 9 and 10 high school children entered the compound two by two. For nearly three hours, in stifling heat, they sat and listened attentively, joining in when invited, sometimes discussing amongst themselves in small groups. Some even took notes.

Asked by writer and journalist Han Zaw what they liked to read, most said they had no experience of reading outside school. Unsurprising, since there has been no investment in public libraries for over 50 years and the formerly popular book-rental service has all but closed down. Short-story writer Ni Ni Nine read them an excerpt from one of her short stories which addresses the issue of human trafficking; award-winning novelist Khin Mya Zin read to them about the daily lives and traditions of the people living along the banks of the Irrawaddy river; a local Dala writer talked about etymology, and a young short-story writer read an excerpt from her historical narrative ‘The King is Dead’. Writer and musician Su Me Aung described how writing helped her overcome anxieties as she was growing up – encouraging the children to express their feelings in diaries, poems or stories as an important life-skill. It was evidently a learning experience for all those involved, as PEN Myanmar writers carefully negotiated this new territory.

Most experienced and confident in participatory teaching techniques was poet Saw Wai, who spent over two years in prison from 2008 for his poem ‘Valentine’s Day’. Saw Wai read a new and as yet unpublished poem called ‘Return of Peace’, written on the back of a world map which other PEN members paraded round the room. He soon had the children shouting ‘Peace’ repeatedly in a rousing chant. Afterwards, he joined them sitting on the floor to listen to the rest of the performances.

The event closed with a formal donation of books to the monastic school and to the local township library – as many as PEN Myanmar members could carry. Titles included Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, Saw Wai’s prison poems, a bestselling Yangon cookery book, and collections of short stories and literary journals containing works by members of PEN Myanmar. A donation was also made to the monastery, which relies entirely on charity to support its work.

Saw Wai later told me that the Ministry of Information had called the township education officer during the morning to express concern that the children were missing their education, and as a consequence PEN Myanmar decided to wind down the proceedings early. It was probably time for lunch by then anyway.

Radical educational reform and investment is badly needed in Myanmar, particularly at primary and secondary levels. Decades of censorship, under-investment and corruption has left a once-proud education system shockingly under-resourced and disabled. Education is only compulsory in Myanmar for five years, and the majority of students drop out after primary school; according to UNESCO, only 50% of Myanmar’s children are enrolled in secondary education. There is almost no literature teaching in state schools, and a tradition of rote learning and a lack of teacher training has stifled any development of child-centered learning, critical thinking and debate. Only government text books are allowed in schools, and academic freedom in the higher education sector is also severely compromised as a result of decades of military rule under which universities were closed and decentralized. Civil society groups seeking to address these issues and empower learners such as PEN Myanmar are currently not permitted to work within the state system.

In spite of these impediments, literacy rates in Myanmar are among the highest in South East Asia (nearly 90%). This is largely thanks to the crucial role played by monastic schools in providing basic literacy and numeracy skills to the rural poor and other marginalized groups who cannot afford to send their children to state schools. Monastic schools are required to cooperate closely with township education authorities, but are relatively free from government control. Teachers in monastic schools are not required by law to attain a certificate in education, and these schools rely almost exclusively on donations and collaboration from the public for their operations and receive little or no government funding. Although standards are poor – there is a lack of basic facilities, teaching and learning materials, and inadequate sanitation and hygiene facilities – monastic schools provide education and food to over 300,000 disadvantaged children in Myanmar. Many also provide a safe space for civil society groups such as PEN Myanmar to operate.

Over the past year, the activities of PEN Myanmar have been seriously compromised by licensing regulations and interference from the Ministry of Information. As a result the Centre is unable to hold events freely in public venues, and, like many emerging civil society groups in the country, they rely on the support of local hosts. Monastery compounds are often used for public events, and provide a vital space for the newly-emerging civil society.

Ironically, this newfound democratic space is being eroded by the rise of religious and ethnic intolerance, which is threatening to further undermine the faltering reform process. Civil society groups, including PEN Myanmar, all agree that human rights education in schools is a long-term solution to promoting inclusion and tolerance in society. A rights-based framework for reform in which freedom of expression is strongly protected, coupled with public investment and a program of restorative justice, are all prerequisites for the creation of an enabling environment in which the work of groups such as PEN Myanmar can flourish and fully contribute to sustainable development in the country.

To read the joint PEN submission on Myanmar, click here.

Cathy McCann, Researcher/Campaigner for Asia