Third Story Project is a social enterprise creating books for children across Myanmar. Over 100 languages are spoken in Myanmar, and Third Story Project has created books in over 13 of them, in some cases printing in languages only spoken by small pocket communities in far-flung areas of the country.
With an emphasis on promoting peace, the name of the organization reflects the intention of not offering merely one or the other side of a conflict, of not engaging in argument, but instead promoting ideals that we can all agree are worth striving for.
Sampan Travel has long been a supporter of Third Story Project. Recently we sat down with Project Director Rhi Rhi to find out more about the work the organisation does, and how travellers in Myanmar can support them.
We began by asking her to introduce the project ….
Third Story Project creates books with positive messages. At first we produced children’s books about peace, diversity and tolerance. Now we also produce books about women empowerment, the environment and child rights. We have now created 38 children’s storybooks. We also provide storytelling training for teachers, volunteers, and adolescents, and we create story books written by children and youths.
Most of what we are doing is distributing these books free of charge for children in rural areas and IDP camps. Since we are a not-for-profit social enterprise we also sell our storybooks to the people who can afford them, and all the profits go back to the Third Story Project so that we can create more books.
How did the project start?
Some of us came together in 2014. In Myanmar we have a lot of conflicts in different places and all we could do was donations and fundraising [mainly] to Kachin and Rakhine States. But we found that donation is not a solution, and that we should do something better for peace. At that time whenever we visited the monastic education [centres] we donated books to the children because they need to read. We believe in reading. But we couldn't find any good books. There are English books but they cannot read the books. So we thought, why not produce the books by ourselves? This is the group idea—creating books that talk about essential topics like peace in a fun and creative way. The critical thinking questions at the end of the books allow children to discuss these issues with their parents and teachers.
Who writes the books?
At first our authors were from Myanmar Storytellers [a project producing books retelling the ancient folktales of Myanmar in an effort to increase the understanding of and respect for other religions and ethnicities among children]. Later we put out a call for authors and a lot of people submitted their stories. Recently, we have produced 16 stories written by participants, including children, from our workshops.
Discussions around peace, tolerance, and diversity in Myanmar can be politically charged. Are there certain subjects that are regarded as taboo?
We don’t use words like peace, tolerance and diversity directly in the books so that they aren’t preachy about what children should do. This also means that adults don’t see them as a threat. They are just lovely stories with positive messages and children catch on quickly to what we are trying to convey.
We would like to produce books for sex education, and for protecting against child abuse, especially sexual abuse, but for that kind of issue we are trying to find the right story, and the right terms, because some people won’t accept this. We are trying to produce but we are still afraid.
Except for this, other topics are OK.
But I imagine it is hard to write about the military?
Yes, but we did!
We have the story ‘Robot Footballer’. It was written by a child from Shan State. We had a two-day training and on the second day in the morning we were talking about how to write a story addressing child rights. So this boy wrote a story about boys playing football, and one kicks the ball far away. When one boy goes to collect the ball, he is arrested by soldiers, and he becomes a child soldier. It was very difficult and he was forced to fight, but he didn’t want to. He saw a lot of other kids becoming soldiers and some dying. This is the story he wrote. It was heartbreaking. Later, his friends recognized him and reported the situation to their teachers. Then many of the children were freed. He was happy when he was released.
Despite progress on this issue, a lot of children are still recruited as soldiers and still dying in wars. We couldn't produce that exact story due to sensitivities so we got creative and changed the characters to robots and made it a picture-only book with no words. Children still understand the concept and can create their own stories to accompany the pictures. It’s quite powerful despite not having any words.
What is the biggest challenge you face as an organisation?
We have transformed from a grants-based organisation to a social enterprise and so we are really focusing on sustainability. It’s obviously very challenging for our team to learn business and marketing skills. Additionally, in Yangon our books may be affordable at 1500 MMK [just over 1US$] but in other places in Myanmar this is still expensive. We also need to educate parents on the importance of reading and why they should buy our books and encourage children to read storybooks and not just their school work. So selling is the most difficult thing.
What is your favourite part of the work?
When we get new books. We’ve experimented with the new books. Some have information about culture or the environment, some have puzzles, some are rhyming. What we put in the storybooks makes me excited, because not only do the children read the story, they also get other knowledge.
Another thing is how much children love our storybooks. We get feedback from children and this is beautiful. Even when we are promoting child rights, even if there are no words, two-year-olds and three-year-olds can understand. And when they then talk about our stories, when they understand them, it makes me excited. We have one story with a cat who gets sick from eating litter. The children remember this and they do not litter anymore.
Why do you think that books and reading are important?
Some people just give their phones to kids because it makes them quiet so that the parents can concentrate on what they are doing. But I would suggest that for a very young age, like under six years old, they shouldn’t use phones. I think books are more important than TVs and phones. Everyone needs to read. Developing a love for reading at a young age, will develop lifelong readers and learners.
Online can be a little dangerous for children. Some parents just allow the kids to use Facebook. Facebook has a lot of good things and bad things. And children are easily influenced and it is hard to protect them online.
What suggestions do you have for travellers who would like to support what you do?
When you are traveling you may encounter children asking for money, or chocolates, or sweets. We want to erase this. We don’t want to encourage travelers to give money or toys to children, because we do not want our children to see strangers and tourists this way. If they have this habit, it is dangerous.
But if travellers want to support the community, they can bring some books and give these to the communities. We have a donation program where tourists can buy our storybooks and we can ensure they get directly to the neediest of communities.