LinkAge has been a feature, albeit a partly hidden one, of Seik Kan Thar Street since 2011. The restaurant is small, cosy, and serves some of the best Burmese food in Yangon. The restaurant is also a social enterprise, housing, supporting and training marginalised youth of the city.
Ma Khin is the director of Forever Humanitarian & Development Projects; LinkAge is just one of those projects. She is also the sole ChildSafe agent in Myanmar, training those in the tourism industry in how to protect children from abuse.
Sampan Travel met her at LinkAge to speak about the origins of Forever, the work the organisation does, and how tourists can have a positive impact on the lives of Myanmar’s most vulnerable.
Please introduce LinkAge.
LinkAge is a training restaurant that we started in 2011. We train street and marginalized kids in cooking and then in waiting as well. Those who are not interested in cooking, if they wish to continue their further studies then we let them study. We connect the children back to their families so that they can have their family links and then after the training sometimes they go back to their families. Sometimes they quit before finishing.
What about children who are still young enough to go to school?
According to Burmese law, from 15 years old they can start vocational training. The kids here that are 10 or 11, they are not training, they go to school, and this is like their home. They live here for some time because their parents are still living on the streets. When it is school season they can go on Sunday to meet their parents - their mothers especially - and their younger brothers and sisters. Currently there are seven living here. Two are still going to school.
How did you get into this line of work?
I come from a broken family in Yangon, so I also started working around 13, working as a waitress in a cold drinks shop. Every summer I worked.
When I was 16 I worked at a hotel reception and there I met some people from the Himawari [Japanese] Scholarship Foundation. At that time, I was studying French at the French Institute in Yangon. The people from the Scholarship Foundation asked why I was studying French, so I said, maybe one day I can work as a tour guide or study in France. Then they proposed the Scholarship.
In 2002 I left for France for 4 years. I did an Associated Degree in Business Administration, and then a BA in Economy and Management, and from there I came back here. I worked here for 1 year, then when my mum passed away I went to France, and then Thailand, and studied an MA in Rural Development Management.
Then I came back to Myanmar at the end of 2007 and from 2008 to 2012 I worked at the French Embassy as a Humanitarian and Development Affairs Officer. I was then promoted to the Political, Social and Public Affairs Officer but after 6 months I did not like it and quit. Then I became a tour guide until 2015.
And when did Forever start?
In 2010 while I was at the French Embassy. Since 2004 - since I came back from France - I had been doing things with a group called NOW. We put our money in for one activity at a time; when there was an immediate need only. That it why it is called NOW. There were many people, lots of people in NOW and it is still going today. But I wanted something to last for a longer period of time. And that is why I named Forever, ‘Forever’.
We started with the prize money of 15, 000 Euros from the French Government Human Rights Prize: Prix des droits de l'homme de la République Francais. Today our funding comes from individual donors, the restaurant, and before it was my own money too.
There were five of us when we started Forever, but little by little, I am alone.
And what are the Forever projects?
At first we gave loans to HIV patients, most of the time we lost money, because often they could not work. Little by little we phased this out. We now have Women Saving Groups. We started with 7 members in 2010 and now there are 55. There are 2 main groups and every 2 weeks we have meetings. It is like accounting; and it is like a revolving fund. So they save their own money, and then they can get loans, and the interest is only 2%. Outside it is like 20 - 50%. We in the beginning give training: how to save money, what are unnecessary costs, betel [areca nut], alcohol, cigarettes, the lottery. We do it in remote Shwe Pyi Thar, a suburban area of Yangon. Those areas are mostly affected by poverty because people come from other places hoping to get good jobs but to come and live in Yangon is not easy. They don’t have skills and so they end up in the suburban area with not enough water and car-sized houses for 6 or 7 people. They will do daily labour and their money ends up in lottery and gambling and alcohol. Even women drink in that area.
How successful is this programme?
Before it was a struggle for them. We had people who had lots of debts; before they may not send kids to school but now they send their kids to school and even run small business.
Are there any other projects?
We started to give tuition because in suburban areas if the child fails at school for maybe 3 years continuously the parents take them out from school and put them in the factories. So last year we wanted them to continue their studies so we help with their studies. Because sometimes the parents also did only two or three years at school, so when their children have done 4 years, they cannot help with their studies.
Apart from supporting LinkAge, what can tourists, tour guides, and tour operators do to help families such as these?
There can be much impact if we make tourists aware of the real situation of Myanmar. And not buying things from children. And not visiting orphanage because it creates more orphans. And also just because you speak English well, that does not mean you can be an English teacher. Can children really learn from you? Can you share your knowledge?
How big a phenomenon is Orphanage Tourism in Myanmar, whereby orphanages are promoted as a tourist attraction?
There are some. Even in Yangon area. Some are really well connected too. You will sometimes find the management of the orphanage is very wealthy, but the children are not very well nourished so to be able to be shown as poor children to tourists.
What is the situation in Myanmar now and for the future in terms of the dangers of tourism?
Not only we should make tourists aware, but also local people should be made aware of the dangers. Local people think that ‘white’ equals ‘dollar’. That mindset should be changed.
When I was first a tour guide we visited orphanages and schools, even when the tourists have only a dozen pencils [to donate]. We were not aware that this makes children and their families connect tourists with free things; and wanting more from tourists. We did it. Only when we are aware, then we started to know how to protect.
The example we give is this: two households, one puts their child in school, while the other is selling postcards. The second may earn a lot, and then later the first household will take their child from school to sell postcards too.
Child labour is endemic in Myanmar. What can be done to help the situation?
It is really difficult. Just now I went to a teashop and there are 3 kids working there, really young kids. I think we need an effort from the government side. Last year we applied for a grant to inform teashops owners of child rights, how they should and should not treat them. But we didn't get the grant.
The role of parents is very important here. Some women in the suburban area, they do not work, they will take money with a loan, play the lottery, and then end up in debt. And then they take kids out of school, send to teashops, and take out a 6 month salary in advance. So whether or not the child is well-treated or not, or well nourished, they just don’t know.
In Myanmar tradition and beliefs, if you work for your parents, you gain merit. So then the cultural thing and religious is linked. Nationwide we need to talk about what is happening.
Final advice or request to tourists in Myanmar
Not to do things that they would not allow foreigners to do in their own country. Not to buy from children, for example. And of course, do not go to orphanages. Do not go. Know that the money given can keep the children poor.