In the summer of 2011, Edward Tsoi and Rose Tsui, two university students from Hong Kong, embarked on a voluntary teaching trip to Mae Sot, a city located in Thailand’s Tak province that shares a border with Myanmar. Despite the plight facing the young Myanmar refugees displaced by repression and conflict, all the students at the class were so eager to learn, Tsui recalled. After coming back to Hong Kong, the two decided to start an organization in 2012 — Connecting Myanmar that could connect youth in Myanmar and Hong Kong. The organization has since benefited 7,000 students in Myanmar.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): How was Myanmar when you first visited and how has it changed?
Edward Tsoi (ET): My first visit to Myanmar was in 2012, when the political reform was underway. There was a lot of censorship, and mobile phones were inaccessible to the less privileged. While there wasn’t much development economically, they were culturally rich.
Kr: What made you set up a youth-oriented organization in Myanmar?
ET: My first encounter with Myanmar people when I was teaching English on the Thai-Burma border inside Thailand. It made me realize that they were in need of a lot of financial support. But they were also some of the most generous people I’ve ever met.
Rose Tsui (RT): For two-and-a-half months I joined an English teaching program at the same Thai-Burma border town called Mae Sot, teaching kids from three to five and nine to twelve years old. They were all such hard-working kids, and they really try to make a change to their lives through education. The teachers also left a strong impression on me, because a lot of them taught for free due to funding issues. That’s the reason we founded Connecting Myanmar. We wanted to realize the potential of kids and to bring them a better future through education.
Kr: Does anyone in particular inspire the work behind Connecting Myanmar?
ET: The first is Steve. He joined the same volunteer program as us in 2008 as a university student from the UK. It was supposed to be a summer-time experience, but after the program, he quit his university degree and stayed on to become a full-time teacher. That level of dedication inspired me. The second is Paul Ray, a headmaster in Mae Sot, running one of the largest migrant schools. She started an education system for migrant children when there were lots of migrants fleeing from Myanmar to Thailand in the 90s. She’s still working on migrant issues to this day, and she remains to be an inspiration to me.
RT: Kyaw Win was a very inspiring teacher. He founded Science and Technology Training Center (STTC), a technical and vocational school for migrant teenagers. Connecting Myanmar has cooperated with STTC. Together with their students, our volunteers have built schools and fixed playgrounds in the migrant schools. Kyaw Win is very hospitable. You will see a fest of food every time you go to his school. He always greets you with a smile and treats you as his own children.
Kr: Other than construction projects, what other projects have you organized?
ET: The basic thesis of Connecting Myanmar is building connections with our Myanmar friends. We have set up different programs connecting students in Myanmar with university students in Hong Kong.
The renovation program is one. Another is Street Law. We work with the Law Faculty in Hong Kong University and the Hong Kong law students share their legal knowledge with those in Myanmar. It is not necessarily about specific laws, but more about the ideas behind laws. One more is a program concerning journalism. It’s a two-and-a-half month programme on news literacy, teaching them about verifying news information, how trustworthy social media posts are, and more. This is something that’s very useful right now globally, not just in Hong Kong or Myanmar. They are also given tools to tell their own stories. Our volunteers talk to them about writing short feature articles, simple video interviews, and other ways to give voice to migrant communities.
Kr: Can you tell me more about Connecting Myanmar’s scholarship program?
ET: When Connecting Myanmar was first founded, we were university students with nothing more to offer besides our time and effort. Once we started working, the focus shifted and we launched our scholarship programme. We wanted to provide financial support to fund the many inspiring students we’ve met. They are future leaders of their own communities. The idea of the scholarship program is to provide students with quality university education and work with them after graduation for them to contribute back to their own communities. We are always collecting donations from our former volunteers or interested donors to fund this programme.
Kr: What are some of the challenges that you have faced?
RT: The recent ones are political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of our fundraising means is to sell artwork from Myanmar through art fairs in Hong Kong. Due to social unrest in Hong Kong and the pandemic, selling art right now is tough. We are relying mainly on funds from volunteers and friends. It’s also difficult to travel back to Myanmar and operate our program. One of the key values at Connecting Myanmar is connection, but that’s difficult with the travel restrictions in place.
ET: COVID-19 has not only affected our operations in Hong Kong, it has also affected Myanmar people. That made us rethink the position of Connecting Myanmar. How can we better support people during this situation? One challenge is that we don’t have staff, only volunteers. While this cuts administrative costs, volunteers have day jobs. It’s not easy to maintain a NGO and continue to deliver impact.
Kr: With the coup, how do you plan to continue supporting Myanmar teenagers?
ET: In the long run, we will double down on our scholarship program. It is necessary to have future community leaders not just in major cities like Yangon, but also in villages and towns. Ensuring support for existing students and working with them to develop projects benefiting larger communities will be a focus, especially when people might not be able to count on their government to deliver many of these social welfare services.
In the short term, we are looking into providing immediate financial assistance. One of my major concerns is the education in Myanmar, in light of COVID-19. Many students in high school might be dropping out of schools when they reopen in June. Many of them might face financial difficulty and be forced to enter the workforce prematurely, working in shops, factories, or other places. That would be a devastating blow to their productivity in the long run for the entire country. We are exploring options to better support students’ families in order to keep students in the education system as long as possible, rather than dropping out without finishing their primary education.
Kr: What would be your message to the young people in Myanmar today?
RT: Never give up or lose faith, even with an authoritarian government. One of the driving forces of any human being is to keep hope and have faith in the future. An authoritarian government wishes to extinguish this fire in your heart. There are many people around the world who are supporting the Myanmar community right now. There is international solidarity. We have your back.
ET: We share more similar similarities with people than we think. Go out there and connect. Be hopeful and find ways to make an impact be it in our home community or elsewhere. If you look for opportunities, they are always there for you to contribute to.