Tha Uke is a physiotherapist and the founder and director of the Eden Centre for Disabled Children. From a village in Chin, the poorest and most sparsely populated of Myanmar's ethnic states, he is a tireless fighter for the rights of children with disabilities.
I was born about 35 miles from Hakha, the capital of Chin State. I am the second of 11 children. My father was a community medical officer, and we used to move around.
After I’d finished school, I came to Yangon to study botany. It was the happiest time of my life. I would spend the holidays at United Christian Fellowship camps, which introduced me to the idea of providing social services to help my country.
When I graduated I returned to Chin to teach in my village. I built a house in the traditional way, and we planted and harvested our food. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
A turning point came when my father saw an advertisement for the newly opened University of Paramedical Science. I had to walk the 35 miles to Hakha to sit the entrance exam (something I wouldn’t be able to do now). I didn’t pass the first time so I took it again the following year.
Only four people were chosen and luckily I was one of them. I started my training at Yangon General Hospital. At that time all the subjects were taught in English and it was hard. But as there were only four of us we had a lot of support. I only had a few shirts to wear, but I never felt discriminated against.
As a new physiotherapist my first posting was in Pakokku, a commercial town not far from the Chin hills. I had a great time as I was given free rein to carry out my work. I loved my job, realising I had discovered what my heart was into.
Soon it was time for marriage. Back at school my father had made me promise that I would allow him to choose my life partner. As the eldest son this is taken seriously by Chin parents. Fortunately my parents’ choice and mine coincided. I got married, had two children and started thinking about my future.
The head asked me how many schools for the disabled there were in Yangon. It was then that I realised how little support there was.
It was a time when many young men were going abroad to look for work. Realising that I couldn’t afford to bring up two kids on a local salary, I decided to go to Malaysia and support my family from there.
It was in Malaysia that I got my first experience of working with disabled children. I volunteered twice a week at the Eden Handicap Service Centre in Penang. The head asked me how many schools for the disabled there were in Yangon. It was then that I realised how little support there was.
He told me I should go back to Myanmar and make a difference. But I still needed to support my family. After a year in Malaysia I moved to Singapore where I could earn twice as much. I worked at a hospital for the elderly.
After two years abroad I finally got some home leave. When I had left my daughter was only seven months old. Now she was two and a half! I was a stranger to her when she saw me – it broke my heart. I only had one week and when I finally bonded with her, it was time to go back to Singapore.
The English winter was so dreary and there I was, trying to recover from the loss of my beloved daughter.
Back in Singapore I was beginning to question the purpose of my life. I missed my family and was not there to see the children growing up. On the other hand my monthly salary in Singapore was equivalent to about two or three years’ salary in Myanmar.
In the end I came back to Myanmar at the end of my contract. I started volunteering, providing services at my own home and the home of my mentor Daw Lilian Gyi, and worked towards setting up my own centre. Finally in 2002, with funding from the Japanese embassy, I set up the Eden Centre for Disabled Children in Yangon.
The following year I learned about the Chevening scholarship programme from the British Ambassador, Vicky Bowman. So as not to leave my centre I thought about applying for a distance learning course. But a friend persuaded me to go to the UK for a one year course in Disability Studies. I needed a 6.5 in IELTS, which was difficult but not impossible due to my background in Singapore and Malaysia.
But fate was really unkind. My daughter passed away a month before I left for the UK. It was so sudden. She had a fever so we took her to hospital but by then it was too late. I couldn’t describe my anguish. The English winter was so dreary and there I was, trying to recover from the loss of my beloved daughter. She was just ten years old.
It was an eye opener for me to think of them from a social perspective, people with dignity and rights.
My studies in England completely changed the way I looked at disabled children. I had always seen them from a charity point of view, that they just needed our support. But the thinking in the West takes a human rights approach, helping them to become independent. There is ease of access in the UK, and many disabled people carry out everyday activities without needing a caretaker. It was an eye opener for me to think of them from a social perspective, people with dignity and rights.
Now I am trying to change the mindset in Myanmar and get legislation for disabled people approved by parliament. I have given workshops and participated in many seminars here and abroad. I was encouraged by the recent amendment in the national education law on equal learning opportunities, for which I had lobbied. I believe strongly in inclusive education.
As for my future, I feel that I haven’t done enough for my people. One day I would like to leave the Eden Centre in the hands of the next generation, and go back and settle in Chin State.