It's A Small World

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MTT News Desk's picture
By Katherine Perreth
Catherine Erhard teaches writing to English language students from Myanmar.

Editor’s note: The Burmese comprise the vast majority of the peoples in Myanmar, a primarily agrarian society. But the country is populated with more than 120 ethnic groups. After independence from Britain in 1947, and prior to 1962 when the military dictatorship rose to power, Burma functioned as a democracy. After the coup, the country declined into economic and political isolation, impoverished and without basic freedoms. In 1989, the authoritarian government officially changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. Various countries recognize both names.


In this 21st century global village, serendipity abounds. How else to explain that a handful of folks from Middleton and Madison are able to directly impact Myanmar, a newly emerging democracy?

Middleton resident Dan Perreth, co-director of Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute (WESLI), explained the connection. While WESLI’s overseas recruiter attended English fairs in Asia last winter, he heard about a fair in Myanmar, Perreth said. Despite never having marketed in Myanmar before, and not knowing much about the country, the recruiter and Perreth decided at the last minute to add the fair to the itinerary.

“At the Myanmar fair, an American woman responsible for organizing six students to study English abroad saw the WESLI booth,” Perreth said. “She was looking for an [English as a Second Language] ESL school and city she could trust; when she recognized WESLI in Madison, she knew she had the right place.” The woman, Mindy Walker, had once been a WESLI conversation partner.

Indeed, Walker knew Madison well – she had also been involved in Wisconsin politics for over a decade, she said. Recently, she’s been employed in Myanmar by a non-profit organization and was charged with finding an ESL school for six Myanmar VIPs, she said. Four are recently elected Members of Parliament, and one is an activist lawyer who represents farmers. The last functions as part of a security team and staff member assisting the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD): pro-democracy icon, presidential hopeful and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. It is under her guidance that the six scholars traveled to study English at WESLI.



 “We’ve had students from over 125 countries study at WESLI in our 32 years, but these are the first from Myanmar,” Perreth stated. “It’s an honor and privilege to be entrusted with these leaders.”

The four men and two women feel that learning English will aid them in their quest to reform their country, and allow them to communicate with the rest of the world.

“Knowledge is power,” MP Myint Myint San, 52, observed. “Most of the books are written in English, so I need to know the English language.”

Two Middleton High School graduates, Catherine Erhard, 32, and Jennifer Phillips, 25, are teaching five of the six atypical students this summer. Phillips asserted they have integrated well into classes despite being over twice the age of her usual students, and having unusual backgrounds and circumstances. “They get along really well with the other younger students in class from Korea and Saudi Arabia,” Phillips said.

In her additional role as WESLI Homestay Coordinator, Erhard found local families to host the six. One of those families was originally from Middleton, as well.

But it is as their writing teacher for this segment of their English learning journey that most thrills Erhard, she said. “They’re such important and inspiring people in their country,” she explained. “I think that people who have the bravery to protest the way they did, peacefully under difficult conditions, are admirable. They’re my personal heroes.”

Although their English levels are only at the high beginner stage, Erhard expounded, “They’re excellent writers for their level, and are the best kind of student you can have – enthusiastic, actively participating, one who wants to be there and improve daily.”

For one recent exercise, the students explained their personal histories in written English.






Member of Parliament (MP)  Min Thu, 52, recounted his life after graduating from Mandalay University in 1982, returning to work in business in his native town. “In 1988, when people in Burma demanded democratic changes, I became an activist. I was imprisoned, as a political prisoner, three times: from 1989 to 1993, from 2003-2004, and from 2007 to 2012. I was freed January 12, 2012.” Less than three months later he was elected a member of parliament.

MP Aung Soe, 53, began as a pro-democracy activist even prior to the founding of the NLD in 1988, he said. As an MP, he said he is now “part of the legislative branch which draws laws for the government.” He added, “In the 2012 election, 84 percent of my constituency voted for me.” He also spent years in prison.

MP Thein Swe, 46, described his journey to parliament, first as a student protester in the 1980s. Initially he worked for the fledgling pro-democracy political party and also served as the chairperson of the first Burma Student Conference in 1989, he said. For his 1991 protest efforts in support of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, the government sentenced him to ten years in prison, he said. But he was released in 1992 under an amnesty agreement and finished his studies, graduating from Yangoon University in 1993 with a BS in mathematics, he said. He continued his involvement with the pro-democracy movement and, along with his activist father, received additional lengthy prison stays over two time spans, he said. His last imprisonment occurred after traveling the country with Aung San Suu Kyi, as part of her NLD security team, and participating in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. He spent the next five years in prison, and like MP Min Thu, was released in early 2012 and just months later elected to parliament.

 “Since I was elected by the people in Burma, I am having the chance to discuss different issues,” MP Thein Swe mused. “However, I have nothing to do with day to day executive powers of the Burmese government.” He looks forward to Aung San Suu Kyi’s bid for presidency in the 2015 elections. “If she is president of the country, she will have political power and she can carry out powers of the president for the sake of the people of Burma,” he said.

On June 6, longtime pro-democracy advocate MP Aung San Suu Kyi announced her intentions to run for president in 2015. She will be 70 then.

 “She should have been the President since 1990, when we had the first election,” explained MP Myint Myint San. “NLD won that election, but the result wasn’t recognized by the military government.”

Despite facing increasing domestic and international pressure, the government refused to hand over power to the winning party. Instead, for fifteen years over the span of two decades, the dictatorship kept Aung San Suu Kyi detained, mostly under house arrest - without charge or trial. She experienced at least one assassination attempt while the government repeatedly sought to crush the pro-democracy movement. She was finally released November 2010 and stood for the April 2012 by-elections.

On April 1, 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi and her party prevailed yet again, gaining 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats up for election. This time, they were allowed to take their rightful roles. Only one year ago, she traveled outside the country for the first time in 24 years, finally allowed to visit Norway to collect her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Later that year, she traveled to the U.S. to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

The six are adamant in their support of Aung San Suu Kyi’s bid for the presidency. Attorney May Thu Myint, 28, who gives legal help to farmers and acts on their behalf in court, summed up their feelings, “I believe that (Aung San Suu Kyi) will win the presidency, so we will try for this cause.”



 “In Burmese politics, unity is the key to success,” asserted MP Thein Swe. “If all people, including the government and ethnic groups, work together for the best interest of the country, we will see progress and succeed in our nation building process.”

There is much to be done, according to the six. Sitt Aung, 26, NLD office staff member assisting Aung San Suu Kyi, said he believes education is a top priority for Myanmar. The others cited different critical issues: reforming the 2008 constitution, building peace, encouraging economic development, and instituting a legislative, executive and judiciary government.

While here, the six are maximizing their learning opportunities, not only with the English language. In early June they watched the Wisconsin State Legislature in action as politicians debated the budget. The scholars also observed committee hearings, toured the capitol and learned about state governance. Currently, during WESLI's weeklong mid-summer break, they’re in D.C. learning about the U.S. political system and policymaking.

“I am very much interested in the US’s political system and the government that protects democratic principles and basic human rights of all citizens,” said MP Thein Swe. He noted he is especially intrigued by the balance of power between the states and federal government, as well as a system that encourages the citizenry to share rights and responsibilities. “American people are very lucky,” he concluded.



As for life in America, the group feels that Madison is beautiful, quiet, peaceful and safe – a place where people follow basic rules and regulations, such as traffic laws. Noting that while life here is expensive and a culture shock - the food is particularly different, and expressing oneself in a foreign language is difficult - the group remains upbeat. They said they have felt welcomed here by “open, goodhearted” people and are enjoying their stay.

Farmer and MP Aung Soe, from a small village in the south, has been especially impressed with the Dane County Farmers’ Market. “I like the market idea which allows the farmer to sell the produce without any tax,” he said.

MP Aung Soe expressed his desire that the American people “will continue supporting the causes for others,” and concluded, “I would like to say thank you to the American people who helped us to come and study here.”

According to Walker, trip facilitator, the program was sponsored by The Richardson Center on Global Engagement. “The Richardson Center has been active in Myanmar, providing parliamentary trainings and people-friendly investments,” she said.

MP Min Thu summed up living in a foreign country while studying English at age 52. “I have no hard things for me here, because compared to the life in the prison it is an easy life for me.”           


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