A vocational school set up in Myanmar with German help almost 40 years ago has survived all the country's political turmoil and upheavals over the past four decades.
When the former students of the Industrial Training Center Sinde (ITC Sinde) in Myanmar met for their reunion this year, the venue was filled with joyful faces, laughter and people eager to talk. The participants of this year's gathering dressed up: Almost all of them wore traditional Longyis (wrap skirts), complemented by white shirts for men and colorful blouses for women.
Shortly after 10 AM, the moderator urges the alumni, who are assembled in small groups, to start on time, although he appears empathetic that some are overwhelmed to see old friends again after many years.
The participants of the alumni meeting (about 350, including family members), near Yangon's famous Shwedagon Pagoda, also celebrate in a way one of the most successful projects of German development cooperation in Myanmar.
Kyaw Lwin, a former teacher and school principal from Sinde, who came to Germany in 1977 for one and a half years and was trained near Mannheim, among other places, says at the event: "It was and is a wonderful project which, with German help, has produced many very well-trained students." In total, more than 4,000 vocational students have so far graduated in Sinde.
At the end of 1970, the education minister of the socialist government of Burma asked the German embassy in Yangon to examine whether a model project for vocational training could be launched there with German assistance. He said his research had shown that the dual education system with a focus on practical training was the best in the world. The German federal government agreed.
However, the project was not implemented until years later. Only after Maung Cho, a military official who was trained by the German company Fritz Werner, took charge of the newly created ministry of heavy industry in 1975, were the plans put into practice.
He chose Sinde, 300 kilometers north of Yangon on the Irrawaddy, as the location for the school. By then, there was already a factory for agricultural machinery in Sinde built with the help of Fritz Werner. With support from German teachers, 24 Myanmar teachers taught 108 vocational school students in the first year. Some of these teachers, like Kyaw Lwin, had undergone training in Germany. The vocational training lasted three years.
Setbacks and new opportunities
"The vocational school developed slowly and organically," Myanmar expert Hans-Bernd Zöllner wrote in a study on ITC Sinde. By the end of 1985, the Germans had completely transferred the responsibility for the institution to the Myanmar government, although they continued to provide financial support and help with the procurement of teaching materials.
This ended abruptly in 1988, when the German government stopped development cooperation after the military took power in Myanmar. Still, the school continued to exist, even though the "golden years" were over. Gradually the training was shortened, initially to two years and then finally to one year.
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The machines and the teaching material became visibly obsolete. In the end, the training was forced to be scaled back to include just the theoretical part, which had previously accounted for only a fifth of the entire course.
At the same time, however, the military government opened the country to foreign investment and allowed graduates from Sinde to go abroad or become active in the private sector, which was not possible before. Abroad, many of the Sinde students developed their full potential, as most were overqualified for the domestic labor market.
A new start
The school's fortunes went uphill again in 2012, after the military handed over power to a nominally civilian government and a by-election brought Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament for the first time. After the lifting of the EU sanctions, the ITC Sinde was the first point of contact for the resumption of German-Myanmar development cooperation.
In fact, Germany was the first Western country to become active again in Myanmar after the end of the sanctions — partly because of its good ties to ITC Sinde.
How lastingly effective the project has been to this day is evident not only by the rapid resumption of cooperation with Germany, but also by the meetings of alumni. At the ceremony, donors who have made a special contribution to the organization of the alumni or through donations are honored. The life of the entrepreneur and chairman of the alumni association, Ye Htoot, is a good example for the success of the school.
Launching a career
Ye Htoot was part of the first batch of the ITC Sinde. After completing his education, he was transferred to a state-owned enterprise in Yangon in 1982 as a junior engineer. After a popular uprising brought an end to the socialist era in 1988, Ye Htoot joined the protesters and founded a union with his colleagues.
Following the suppression of the demonstrations, the new military regime gave him a choice: give up unionism or lose your job. Ye Htoot, like many other educated men and women who participated in the uprising, decided to leave the country. But as the company was commissioned to install equipment in several hospitals, Ye Htoot finished that task first.
Ye Htoot left for Singapore, where he worked for six years and graduated as an industrial engineer. In 1999, he returned to Myanmar to start his own business. "I wanted to contribute to the development of my country," he told DW. He launched the Multi Power Engineering Company (MPEC), which specializes in the manufacture of electrical circuit boards and panels for large-scale projects. Starting with only seven employees, the MPEC now employs around 120 people, including 23 former Sinde students.
"Everything I've achieved so far is based on the Sinde work," Ye Htoot said. "There were many who knew more than me, but I was able to apply what I had learned," he added.
Ye Htoot is of the view that many university graduates in Myanmar are knowledgeable but they cannot put that knowledge to work. "Talking is not enough; it is important to practice and gain practical experience," he said.
The next generation
Ye Htoot's company is a permanent training center for students from Sinde. The students, who wear the same blue uniform as they did 39 years ago, look to the future with great confidence, as the reputation of the vocational school continues to be outstanding.
A student from the Shan state says that she wants to continue learning even after the completion of her studies. Ye Htoot believes that this spirit and enthusiasm have a lot to do with curiosity and discipline.
Zoellner, who is researching Sinde, believes the success of the project is multifaceted. "Motivation is key for these students. Also, it is a combination of the German knowhow and Burmese traditions and ideas."
The vocational school will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year. Ye Htoot believes that even if Sinde's success cannot be copied, it will continue to inspire people for a long time.