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Teaching physiotherapy in Myanmar

In June I went on an unforgettable trip to Myanmar, where, during my two-week visit, I took in the most breathtakingly beautiful places and also taught at Yangon’s physiotherapy school.

The British colonised what was then Burma in 1885, and in so doing, brought Westerners to this land of spectacular golden pagodas and extensive teak forests. They built a glorious and fabled city around ancient royal pagodas, Rangoon (now Yangon), which was written about in dreamy tones by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, both of whom fell in love with the place. The glorious colonial city is now neglected and decayed, and suffers from too many people and too many motor vehicles. The cars hoot constantly in the sweltering humidity, weaving between hawkers and pedestrians attempting to cross the endless stream of traffic. So, on first encountering modern Yangon it is difficult, but just possible, to see why it was once called the ‘New York of Asia’.

Yangon may be difficult but it is lively and good-natured. If you ignore the smell of the durian and the drains, the people are beautiful. The women decorate the streets like butterflies in their brightly coloured traditional dresses, moving effortlessly under their parasols. The men are also very handsome, wrapped in their longyi and Western-style shirts, so much so that I am surprised longyi have not caught on among young men in Australia. Buddhist monks and nuns in their spotless wine-coloured and pink robes move easily among the populace, part of the everyday fabric of life rather than the apparent anachronism that they might seem to the Western eye.

People in Myanmar visit the temple every week on the day on which they were born. The degree of quiet devotion is humbling, as is their adherence to the belief that by doing good, merit is accrued from which the individual, the family and the community benefits. For Buddhist people in Myanmar, their particular brand of Buddhism is their greatest treasure. It is usual to see people giving freely to beggars on the street, rather than walking by as we do here. They do not give because they feel guilty—they give because they feel it makes them a better person and they earn merit for doing so. The people believe that the more merit you earn in your life, the less suffering you will encounter in a future life. A monk passed us on the street and pointedly offered us the opportunity to give him money; we gave it and then he motioned to the novice behind him, so we gave him money also. In Australia, I would have felt manipulated by that monk but in Myanmar, I didn’t. In Yangon, people are very unselfish and infinitely patient. Even the mangy dogs and cats that roam the street are fed, thank goodness.

About 12 months before visiting Yangon, I contacted the University of Medical Technology, where the physiotherapy course is taught, thinking that I might be able to offer some teaching while my husband taught ophthalmologists on behalf of a charity with which he is involved. My correspondence was with Dr Myo Thuzar Khin. After some communication, we decided that I should design a one-day workshop on clinical research skills and a three-hour lecture set on orthopaedics. In the lead-up, I confess that I wondered why I had signed up to this: I had no idea what to expect and was anxious about pitching too high or too low, too fast or too slow. However, Myo looked at the material I had prepared, thought it was fine, and she was right—the level of English is actually quite good at the university.

I was taken to the university by Dr Twei, a delightful 20-something with a freshly-minted PhD from Thailand. Twei was such good company. The drive to the university takes her up to 1.5 hours, which she deeply resents because, although the distance is not that great, the traffic is terrible and ill-disciplined drivers frustrate her. I enjoyed it, of course, because she pointed out all of the landmarks and chatted about the culture of Myanmar. I arrived and was astonished to find a hall bedecked with flowers and a stage with a velvet curtain declaring the workshop name and date. The rector opened the day (in impeccable English) and I had to give a speech and exchange gifts. Then we had breakfast. I felt hugely honoured.

The workshop went very well and the feedback was excellent. The participants were master’s degree students from both Mandalay and Yangon, as well as some senior clinicians and university staff. I had chosen to include five breakout sessions with embedded quizzes at the end, which they loved—so much so that Twei advised me, very matter-of-factly, that I should include lots of quizzes in the lectures on the following day. The local culture is not one of questioning teachers, which is something that the faculty is trying to change, so I was glad to have built-in some devices that enabled the participants to feed back to me, and to each other, without the need for overt questioning. The feedback from the course was that they wished it had been longer—even five days.

The next day was much easier: we were all more relaxed and I reflected on the fact that I was not the only one who didn’t know what to expect. I was talking to the final undergraduate year as well as some of the master’s students who also wanted to attend. I took Twei’s advice and built in lots of quizzes. I thought it would take about an hour-and-a-half, but Myo was right again—I talked for three hours, with a break, and at the end, the students wanted photos and to chat a little. It was so nice.

After a wonderful lunch with the rector, Dr Myo, Twei and some other staff, I bid my farewell. Now I am wondering how to encourage other physiotherapists to visit Myanmar and take the opportunity to impart some of their knowledge to these marvellous people. The faculty is charming and receptive, the students bright and enthusiastic to learn. Myanmar is very poor at the moment but is keen to elevate itself and the people are very aware of what the world is doing. University funding is not yet sufficient to support scholarships and assistance is needed from nations who are better funded. Australian physiotherapists could play a role in helping our Myanmar colleagues to ‘re-join the world’ after so long in the shadows. Think of all that merit we could earn.

Teaching in Yangon was one of the highlights of our visit to the country. If anyone would like contacts or information, please email me.

Diana Perriman, APAM, ACT Branch President


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