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English helps sow the winds of change in Myanmar

Maryknoll Father James Kofski's language classes look to ensure youth are at the forefront of a new beginning

English helps sow the winds of change in Myanmar

Adults and young together learn English in Hlaing Tharyar, a shantytown of Yangon. (Photo by Sean Sprague/Maryknoll Magazine)


September 12, 2016

If the values of the students in Maryknoll Father James Kofski's English language classes are typical, the future of Myanmar looks bright.

"They invariably tell me they are studying English to find a good job, to earn enough money to provide for their family, to do something for their country and to care for their parents when they are old," says Father Kofski.

Father Kofski, who for the past seven years has been doing pastoral ministry and teaching in Yangon, works with his students individually on their speaking and writing skills.

The La Salle English Center, where Father Kofski teaches, challenges its students to develop critical thinking — an essential skill in Myanmar's newly emerging democracy — as they wrestle with material varying from Hamlet to A Christmas Carol and even to the ill-fated flight of Icarus in Greek mythology.

Father Kofski sees his role as a teacher in Myanmar as integral to his vocation as a Maryknoll missionary. "We can't always evangelize directly," he says. "But we also preach when we share our gifts with others and help them discover their own gifts."

La Salle student Thi Han Aung, 18, says he moved to Yangon from southern Shan State to improve his English. "It is a special privilege for me to have one-on-one discussions with a native English speaker," he says.

Another student, 23-year-old Julia Bawk Myaw, says Myanmar is opening up to the outside world after decades of isolation, and new opportunities are emerging. "We can't carry on communication with foreign companies if we don't learn English," says Bawk Myaw of Kachin State. "Opportunities lie ahead for young people with foreign investments coming in, such as in telecommunication, but we need to be professionals."

Increasingly informed by the internet and foreign media, students in Myanmar, are growing up in a society slowly emerging from the closed military dictatorship imposed in 1962 by General Ne Win.

Voters in general elections in November 2015 overwhelmingly elected the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The party garnered more than 80 percent of the vote and obtained a supermajority in the national parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred from holding the presidency, ostensibly because her late husband and her two children are British citizens, is the country's de-facto leader and holds the posts of foreign minister and state counselor, a position similar to prime minister.

"The need for quality education, health care and economic opportunity will remain a challenge despite the changes in Myanmar," says Father Kofski, 70, who besides teaching is an administrator for various projects funded by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, ranging from education, nutrition and leadership training to assistance for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Father Kofski also assists Father Marcian Thet Kyaw, pastor of Yangon's Epiphany Church. Father Marcian says missionaries to Myanmar are not only a help to the local church but can help build a missionary spirit among the laypeople.

The Catholic Church in Myanmar has about a half-million followers, making up barely 1 percent of the country's 51 million people, 89 percent of whom are Buddhist. In November 2014 the church marked the 500th anniversary of Christianity in the country, and in February 2015 Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon became the country's first cardinal.

"There are many tasks to be carried out in Myanmar and missionaries can contribute," Cardinal Bo says.


Father James Kofski blesses a Catholic household in the Hlaing Tharyar shantytown of Yangon, where families such as this one relocated after Cyclone Nargis. (Photo by Sean Sprague/Maryknoll Magazine)


Maryknoll missioners have been working with the people of Myanmar since the early 1990s, starting with helping Burmese refugees in Thailand fleeing political violence.

Father Kofski began living and serving in Myanmar in 2009 as the government became more open to foreign residents.  

His students in Myanmar are hopeful about the future of their country with the return of democracy after 50 years of military rule, but they are realistic about the problems the country still faces.

"Discrimination and human rights violations still persist in ethnic areas, so I have a lot of concern about it despite changes in the country," says Bawk Myaw.

In Bawk Myaw's native Kachin State more than 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced since renewed fighting between the military and Kachin rebels in 2011 following the breakdown of a ceasefire agreement.

And Thi Han Aung says that even as opportunities emerge in the new openness of Myanmar, new problems arise as well, such as increased drug use among the country's young people.

"We can easily get drugs in the cities, so it is a hindrance for our futures," Thi Han Aung says.

Still, Father Kofski has faith in the people of Myanmar, from the younger generation's continued focus on family to the older generation's praying side by side regardless of faith tradition. With a new majority party poised to better articulate people's desires, the time seems ripe for change.

This is an edited version of the article that also appeared in

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