It was in 1997, during his second term in prison, when U Thet Naing came up with his audacious plan. He was serving a seven-year sentence after leading fellow garment workers in a protest for better pay and conditions.
Many of U Thet Naing’s cellmates were old friends, students arrested during the national uprising in 1988. They had spent a long decade behind bars since those fateful days when they joined thousands of others throughout Myanmar demanding the ouster of the military government.
U Thet Naing hated to see his old friends languishing in jail and decided that after his release he would try to help them. “Most (of the prisoners) didn’t finish their education,” he said. “If I have a chance I want to set up a school.”
During the 1988 uprising, U Thet Naing was in his mid-twenties and working at a primary school as an assistant mathematics teacher. He led a group of student protesters in his home city of Bago, about 50 miles (80 kilometres) northeast of Yangon, but managed to evade arrest in the bloody crackdown that crushed the uprising and lay low for a couple of years.
In 1990, U Thet Naing was given a four-year sentence after leading a protest against the military government’s refusal to accept the outcome that year’s election for a constituent assembly in which the National League for Democracy won 392 of the 485 contested seats. The protesters also demanded the release of students arrested during the uprising.
After the popular uprising, the government closed universities to neutralise the threat of student-based political activities. Some never re-opened. Others were deliberately built at isolated locations outside city centres.
U Thet Naing’s dream of opening a school in Myanmar was to involve a long and arduous journey over many years before it was realised.
A year after being released from his second prison sentence, in 2004, he fled to the Thai border after learning that the government planned to re-arrest him.
It was in Mae Sot, a small Thai border town nicknamed “Little Burma” because of its large population of Burmese migrants, where U Thet Naing began acquiring the skills needed to fulfill his mission. He took a job as the principal of a migrant school that offered computer and English classes.
In 2007, after the government suppressed the monk-led protests known as the Saffron Revolution – triggered by a surprise government decision to sharply increase fuel prices – many activists began fleeing to the border.
U Thet Naing knew many of the dissidents arriving in Mae Sot. They helped him to open his first Knowledge Zone centre. The higher education school for adults that offered basic and advanced English and computer classes would later become the prototype for the school that opened in Myanmar.
Although U Thet Naing was happy with his achievements in Thailand, he could not forget his former comrades back home. “I thought about the students still in Burma and decided if I had a chance to return I would set up a school in my native town,” he said.
In the second half of 2012, opportunity knocked on his door.
“Our new civilian government invited those in exile and international academics to cooperate on education,” U Thet Naing said.
After securing the necessary travel documents from military intelligence in Myawaddy, the Myanmar border town opposite Mae Sot, U Thet Naing travelled to Bago. Within a few weeks he had hired eight teachers, rented a building to serve as a school and equipped it with eleven computers.
“Since 1962, up to now, education has been really bad, but after reforms there is a chance to rebuild.”
On October 22, 2012, the second Knowledge Zone began classes for 232 students, the high enrollment an illustration of a widespread hunger to learn.
Many of U Thet Naing’s friends and relatives have long backgrounds in education and they provided an invaluable network on which he relied to get the school up and running so quickly.
“In Burma most of the people don’t know how to use the computer,” U Thet Naing said, adding that even university computer professors have enrolled in the school’s basic classes to learn how to type. “They may have a degree in computer science, but they don’t know how to use a computer,” he said. Government university computer classes focus on theory and it’s common for students to have few opportunities to use a computer while they complete their degree.
Dr Arkar Hein, a physician, learned how to use a computer when he began classes at Knowledge Zone two-and-a-half years ago. As well as acquiring computer skills he is also learning English.
“We don’t have many opportunities to learn English or study computers … the government doesn’t want to use money for education or health,” Dr Arkar Hein said.
Spending on education and health in Myanmar is among the lowest in Southeast Asia. A UNICEF report in late 2013 said the government was spending only about 2.3 percent of GDP on health and education, and that was after budget allocations had increased by three times since reforms began in 2011.
Since Knowledge Zone opened some former political prisoners have become students.
U Thet Naing has also started offering mobile classes for those unable to attend the school. Weekly classes are being held at a Buddhist monastery, at a private home, for public servants, and for staff at the Bago General Hospital.
U Thet Naing says all of these efforts are just a beginning. He says improving the education and health sectors will require more cooperation among the government, civil society groups and international non-government organisations.
“Since 1962, up to now, education has been really bad, but after reforms there is a chance to rebuild,” he said. “Our government has spent a lot of money on military to buy weapons from abroad. They need to spend a lot of money on education and health, instead of the army.”