Kyi Kyi May
Trustee Kyi Kyi May has been involved with Prospect Burma since our inception 30 years ago. At a recent event, we invited our supporters to join us in our London office to meet the team and find out about the work we’re doing. Kyi Kyi May kindly gave a speech about our work over the years, the transcript of which is below.
I feel so honoured and privileged to be standing here on behalf of Prospect Burma to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of this educational trust. Three decades. It’s a long time. Looking back I’m happy as well as sad. Happy to find that we are still here, still operating and have successfully metamorphosed into a modern educational organisation. But sad as well, because our country still needs a lot more help in the education sector, more so than before.
Prospect Burma was created after the 1988 uprising when Myanmar students, from the universities as well as high schools, fled the country in droves. Some ended up in the jungles at the borders while some reached the big cites, Bangkok and New Delhi, as refugees. We heard that some students had set up an armed wing, some joined the rebel group KNU at the borders, but many of them were in limbo. Michael Aris and a group of friends started to think something should be done for the Myanmar students to be able to continue their studies so that they could return to the country and help in the development. That was how Prospect Burma was born, in the sitting room of Evelyn Aris, Michael’s step mother. And the midwives of PB, so to speak, were Evelyn Aris and Lady Gore-Booth, two strong-willed ladies with hearts of gold. They became the Executive Director and Chairman respectively. The late Alan Hall, the late Lord Slim, Ambassador Martin Morland, Patricia Herbert and Martin Smith, to mention a few, were also there from early on to give their unwavering support.
We started with less than a dozen people, with not much experience but all with hearts in the right place to help Burma and its students in times of dire need.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was already under house arrest when PB came into being. She donated part of her Nobel Peace prize money later, and we received some help and support from well wishers who have great love for Burma and its people from UK as well as from the United States. All these years, we had stalwartly carried on doing our best through many obstacles, threats, setbacks, loss of loved ones, heartbreaks and uncertainties. I’m happy to tell you now that we have made leaps and bounds to become in line with the technology of the 21st century. We became digitized, we are on the web, and Facebook, we have very enthusiastic and capable young professionals working for PB. Our students and alumni these days can communicate with us easily using these tools, wherever they are in the world. We have also managed to set up an office in Yangon which was something we dared not even dream of, in those days. We are now openly able to bring openly the staff members from our office in Yangon to the UK for training, since last summer.
Prospect Burma is very close to my heart as I was involved from the gestation period up to now. Looking back today, I am surprised that we have come such a long way, and we had never thought that we would still be needed, in 219, when we first set up the office in the basement storage room of Rivermead Court, Ranelagh Gardens, where two of our founders had their apartments. We affectionately named our first London office as the Dungeon, as it looked like a cell with only one small window and an old fashioned electric fan. It was very hot in the summer months but in winter months it was so cold. We used bar heaters which warmed only around our legs. There was never enough fresh air in the basement and we needed to come up a flight of stairs for some air in the afternoons while going through applications. In the beginning, everyone involved rendered their services voluntarily, so that all the funds we raised could be used just for giving away scholarships.
I always feel nostalgic when I think of those days. We held meetings, prepared the quarterly newsletter, stuffed envelopes, spent hours sticking stamps on envelopes, and last but not least, sifting through the scholarship applications that arrived mostly via Thailand and India, as no one dare use the Burmese postal service to send a letter addressed to Prospect Burma in the UK. People inside Burma, at that time, did not know much about PB apart from the fact that it was linked with Aung San Suu Kyi. Ironically, no one dare mention her name out loud during that period, simply out of fear. Remember the word “Lady”?
Thanks to the Myanmar newspapers under the military regime, PB got a lot of publicity in some ways because they published articles, commentaries and cartoons in Myanmar language newspapers, ridiculing the new educational trust in the UK and accusing PB of wanting to meddle in the country’s affairs. We, on this side of the world six thousand miles away from Burma could not understand their logic, as we thought they should have thanked us for trying to raise money to fund Myanmar students to be able to attend universities abroad. Now, when I look back I realise it was actually a very difficult time for all of us, people from Myanmar, young and old alike, whether they lived in the country, at the borders, in the jungles or working abroad.
Citizens living in a free world would not understand the fear all of us lived with, day in and day out, inside the country. I was in London at that time but from what my family members and friends told me, everyone politically involved on not, were looking over their shoulders to see if they were being followed on the streets, wondering when they would be accused of something that they didn’t commit, and they lived under the shadow of that most dreaded thing —can you guess? A knock on the door at midnight that could take you away without any warrant or reason.
That was the kind of atmosphere inside the country when PB was created. PB’s initial mandate was to select students also from inside the country, send them abroad for further education and after graduating, the students would return to their motherland and help build the country that was deteriorating, especially in the field of education. It was a very sad thing for many Burmese parents that all the schools were closed because their aim and object for their children is to equip them with the very best education for life.
We were in a dilemma.
Prospect Burma wanted to help the students inside the country but the prospect of advertising in the local socialist newspapers was almost nil. To go into the country and set up interviews for prospective students was also unthinkable.
So, how did we get the news out? We spread the news about our scholarship scheme by word of mouth, through NGO workers who had already set up offices along the borders in Chiang Mai, Mae Sod etc. Thabyay, an international NGO helped us as well. There was no Facebook, messenger or twitter at that time. Can you imagine a world without instagram or email? Actually, it wasn’t that long ago Actually it wasn’t that long ago when we used a writing pad and send letters by air mail, but now, it sounds like I’m talking about the Dark Ages. We had some fax machines in Myanmar, then, but it was illegal to own one, and omeone I knew, Uncle Leo Nichols, an honorary consul for Norway was imprisoned for having a fax machine and using it. And he died in prison. It was very sad. So, we had no alternative but to resort to use “our mouths” instead of sending fax or letters. And somehow Burmese people got the information and they also spread the news of scholarships being offered from UK by whispering, –using their mouths again — from one trusted friend to another, and the news reached the Chin state, Kachin state, Karen state and the border areas, too. At the same time, we were embarking projects in Karen and Karenni areas setting up teachers training courses, HIV/ AIDS Awareness courses, printing of guidebooks for health workers, setting up local libraries for Myanmar refugees, etc.
Within a short time, We started receiving applications posted from India or Thailand for our scholarship programmes. They arrived in different formats. Most of them were hand written on various types of paper. A few were on an aerogramme, some on a piece of paper torn from an exercise book, and some were scrawled with pencil on greasy, dirty paper. We sifted through all, filed them, select those whom we agreed should be given a chance for further studies.
Our scholarship scheme started with just one student. Within seven years we were providing scholarships for eighty students, jumped to 167 in 2004, and last year we were able to support over 70 students.
It was not easy at all to make contact with students inside the country and vice versa, but as the World Wide Web and email flourish it became easier to keep in touch.
Many people have asked us over the years how do we manage to fund so many students, most of them for postgraduate degrees. The very first appeal for funds was launched in early 1990. About 400 personal letters were written, and sent out, initially. We received about 16,000 pounds quite quickly from personal donors as well as by Deeds of Covenant. We received so much help from so many around the country as well as from America. It would be difficult to mention everyone but there are a few that stay in my memory. I remember a cash sum was donated in memory of a former Deputy prime minister, Sao Khun Cho who had served in the democratic government of U Nu, our very dear Professor U Hla Pe of SOAS, Alan Hall who was Prospect Burma first Chairman, and many others including the author Gerry Abbott who was an English lecturer and who had generously donated all his royalties from the books he wrote about Burma. He passed away recently and his widow sent the proceeds or donations from his funeral to Prospect Burma and we are very touched because it seems as though Gerry continues to support us even from the grave. Thank you, Gerry, wherever you are. Many including Lady Pat Gore-Booth and her son former Ambassador David GB, left legacies for scholarship programs, too.
We have also worked closely with other grant giving agencies and institutions of which New York based Open Societies Institute stood out as one big donor who cooperated and funded some students jointly sharing the costs of annual fees of many post grad students. There are also many individuals who raise funds for PB by taking part in marathons, holding garden parties and afternoon tea parties in the Shires, book auctions, and I would like to thank them here again on behalf of Prospect Burma. There were appeals made on Radio stations over the years and one that sticks out in my mind was the one done by no other than our all time favourite Ms Joanna Lumley. After Joanna’s appeal on behalf of PB on Radio 4 in 2001 we gained 300 new supporters and thousands of sterling pounds added to our coffers.
You would be surprised to know that not just human beings, but even a Cat came to our rescue. Yes, A Cat. Not an ordinary one but a Burmese Cat. Actually it got lost and a reward was offered for it to be returned by the owner. But this Burmese cat returned to the house of its own accord, a few days later. The owner was so delighted, he doubled the reward and sent it to us, for the Burmese students, saying the donation is from A Burmese Cat . It’s quite sweet and appropriate isn’t it, for A Burmese Cat to help the Burmese students via Prospect Burma? Another unusual help came from an on line auctioning. A pearl and platinum necklace designed by a Japanese student designer named YoKo Izawa won the first place in a jewellery competition to celebrate the Queen’s Golden jubilee. This young student designed her necklace with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in mind as she was still under house arrest.
That was in 2002 and the necklace fetched over 7000 pounds for our scholarship programme. It was a very beautifully designed pearl necklace. Sorry to say, it’s not me who bought it. Through these various donations, from a ten pound to a commitment to Adopt A Scholarship scheme, a legacy left in a will, all these contributions have made Prospect Burma possible to fund Myanmar students to further their education.
Although it’s sad to say that our country’s path to democracy is strewn, not with roses, but with so many obstacles and set backs, we are delighted that some of the students we have provided scholarships over the years are now back in the country working mostly for NGO’s and many other private concerns, including in politics, peace program, economics and business fields, helping the government by giving training courses to MPs and many other civil servants. There are many but I would like to mention Dr SaSa, a Chin national, an outstanding PB scholar who is now running Health and Hope, a community based non-profit charity organization looking after hundreds of villages in the remote Chin hills, Dr Thein Lwin, another Ph. D in Education, who
was formerly a trustee as well as a alumni who created the thinking classroom and Josh Htet, also another trustee and a alumni working as a corporate lawyer.