Kathleen Thein is a professional educator and community service volunteer. She is involved in a variety of educational and philanthropic projects in Myanmar and is a voice for the Hindu community, especially women.
I grew up in a very big house in Tamwe Township, Yangon. All my brothers and sisters and cousins and I attended the same school near our house. All my brothers and sisters were very smart, top of the class. I’m not like them, although the teachers did notice me.
My father had a small coffee powder factory called Hanuman Coffee Powder on 51st Street. We weren’t rich but we didn’t need to worry about money. He was the president of the Hindu Central Board and a youth leader, not only for Hindus but for Buddhists too. He was very well-known in Hindu society.
Our neighbourhood was 90% Buddhist. They were large, well-educated families. There were only two or three Hindu households but we all got on happily. We used to go to the Hanuman Temple near Kandawgyi Lake every Saturday evening. Our parents insisted.
I went to university to study English and graduated in 1983. After graduation I heard they were short of English tutors at Yangon University, so I got a job as a part-time tutor. All my siblings are doctors and officers but I thought that teaching was the best and most noble position for me as a woman.
I stayed there until the uprising of 1988. Then all the universities closed for two years so I was out of work. My father wanted me to work in his coffee factory but I told him I wasn’t interested in business. Then, in 1990, he passed away. I was so depressed.
I returned to work when the university reopened the following year. Things were very different. The students were not as happy as they had been. Nobody felt free. The events had clearly had an impact on the students and their education.
I was transferred to Sittwe University, in Rakhine State. I was not happy at first. There was no electricity except for a few hours in the morning, so we had to rush to cook. I used to get homesick but it wasn’t easy to travel to Yangon. The air fare was very expensive as all the airlines were government owned. Even if you had the money you sometimes couldn’t get a ticket.
My father wanted me to work in his coffee factory but I told him I wasn’t interested in business. Then, in 1990, he passed away. I was so depressed.
All the students liked me very much and helped me a lot, not only the Hindus but the Rakhine and Muslim students too. I got more used to living there after two or three months, and after a year I had settled down. Things were still unstable though. There were regular closures due to uprisings and we, the teachers, had to stay in our hostels. This was happening all over Myanmar.
After I left Sittwe I worked at the Indian Embassy School in Yangon and then at ES4E Language and Training Centre. I joined another international school, YIEC, in 1999. There were only 50 students at that time but now there are two or three thousand. I taught there for six years.
The teaching methodologies used in private schools are very different from those at university so at first I had some difficulties. It took me a long time to plan lessons.
In 1997 I became one of the co-chairs of ELTeCS (English Language Teachers Contact Scheme) organised by the British Council. I attended Sunday workshops every month and gained a lot of knowledge. I attended all the courses at the British Council and at the American Centre and collected a stack of certificates. After four or five years I had the confidence to give presentations to junior teachers.
All the students liked me very much and helped me a lot, not only the Hindus but the Rakhine and Muslim students too.
I was selected to attend a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference in California in 2004. I had had three or four sleepless nights before I went. I was so scared. Would I get lost or miss my connection? But in the end some Hindu friends looked after me. My colleagues at the conference envied me.
Going to that conference totally changed my life. I was the only Myanmar teacher among teachers from all over the world. My experience at the British Council was so useful for that. It gave me the confidence to mingle with international educators.
Now I travel every year, often to Thailand but also to other countries. My sisters and some of my relatives often ask me ‘don’t you feel scared to go alone?’. But I’m used to it now.
My mother passed away in 2008, after Cyclone Nargis. I wanted to get away so I went to Canada to study at Queen’s University. When I came back I established a small classroom.
I follow religious conflict and often represent the Hindu point of view at interfaith dialogue events. I specifically want to be a voice for Hindu women.
My parents always did a lot for the community and the same seeds have been planted in me. I gave free English classes twice a year at monasteries, for religious and youth groups. I believe young people are ambassadors for our country. I gave them leadership skills.
Being a woman I wanted to do something for women. My friend Pan Tee Eain is the director of the women’s organisation Creative Home and she encouraged me to join her organisation. She gave me a lot of opportunities to speak there and I gave them free classes.
I have decided to follow in my father’s footsteps as a voice for the Hindu community. I follow religious conflict and often represent the Hindu point of view at interfaith dialogue events. I specifically want to be a voice for Hindu women and so I created the Hindu Women’s Organisation, and I am a core member of the International Women’s Peace Group.
I am dedicated to continuing my community work, as my father did, on behalf of Hindu women in Myanmar.