Thandar Aung won the 2014 IELTS Prize to study overseas. She is currently doing a Master’s in International Health at the Charité, a large teaching hospital in Berlin, Germany. Her ambition is to help transform Myanmar’s health system.
I was born in Yangon in 1991 and when I was seven I moved with my mother to Bago to live with my grandmother. My father was a civil servant and stayed in Yangon. After school I used to enjoy playing football with my brothers and cousins, but my mother wouldn’t let me until I had finished studying.
When I was nine I started attending classes at the British Council. This meant travelling to Yangon three evenings a week. I loved my classes. They were totally different from my classes at the government school, where all the learning was by rote. I remember the things I studied out of interest, like a book on physics from the British Council. I don’t remember learning anything at my government school.
The other main difference was that at my government school you were discriminated against according to your family background. That didn’t happen at the British Council. Even if I was wearing the poorest clothes I would still be praised if I did well.
At home we didn’t discuss politics. We were an ordinary family, we just lived our lives. We were told not to talk about political things. My mother used to worry that sending me to the British Council meant that my father might lose his job.
There were only two TV channels. One was from the military and the other from the government, which was the same thing. We used to watch Chinese soap operas with Myanmar subtitles. Later, when the government changed, we could borrow taped Hollywood movies like Titanic.
I remember going to a public library in Bago. Most of the books were locked away and the only ones that were available for children to read were torn and dirty. When I started at the British Council I began to read more English books. Myanmar books were expensive to buy.
I graduated from high school in 2007, the year after I had finished at the British Council. My grades from both schools were good and I went to study medicine at university because my parents wanted me to.
One day we went on a field trip to a rural area. It was the first time I’d seen real poverty. I got more and more fascinated in social factors. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something about the systems.
I graduated in 2014. I decided to study International Health in Germany and won an IELTS scholarship. It was hard in the beginning. I had never learnt anything to do with research before. I went on to take two modules in health financing and health workforce, the two main building blocks of the health system. I’m interested in the issues we face around the world, especially in developing countries.
My studies were in English but outside I would speak in German. I already knew a bit of German from classes at the University of Foreign Languages and the Goethe Institut. I had also learned a little French. Learning these languages opened my mind because I saw the world not just through an English lens. I began to understand the different ways people think.
Before I left for Germany I’d never been on a plane before. Now I’ve travelled all over Europe. I love travelling. There’s one German word I love: ‘Fernweh’, which is the opposite of homesickness. I feel that all the time. The only thing close to travelling would be reading. But when you’re reading you don’t really see things for yourself. When you’re travelling you really learn from being in that environment, the social interactions on the way.
Now I’m doing an internship on Health Policy and Planning in the Karen Department of Health and Welfare in Mae Sot. After Mae Sot I will need another eight months of work experience to graduate. I really want exposure to other ethnic people in the country.
My vision to reform the healthcare system in Myanmar hasn’t changed since my undergraduate studies but my approach might be different. I’m still discovering my strengths. I also don’t know how to bring my studies abroad into the government system. If there is no mechanism for me to work inside the system then there will be other opportunities with NGOs and international agencies. I just want to work where I can make a difference.
If I could work as an advisor then that’s what I would ideally love to do. I honestly don’t understand the political power struggles that take place, not just in Myanmar but everywhere. I don’t understand how people love to hold onto power while ignoring the situation of people on the ground. But if there’s no leadership then I would do whatever needs to be done.
I think my parents are proud of me but my mum still wants me to do clinical work as a back up plan. But you can’t do clinical work as a back up plan, you have to devote yourself to it. I keep telling my mum that to improve public health you need to get to the root causes.
You can give a patient paracetamol but you can’t use it to treat poverty.