A source of inspiration in Lao PDR

A Buddhist monk reflects on the power of education

Kongkham Thongsavanh, Novice monk at Wat That Foun and  Bounthan Keoounkong, Monk at Wat That Foun.
UNICEF/2021/Bart Verveij
08 December 2021

Formed in 1946 in response to the horrors inflicted on children during World War II, UNICEF celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Many of those we worked with in our early years now have children and grandchildren of their own to whom they can impart their knowledge and experience.

The Wisdom Project was created to share this priceless knowledge with the world. We asked young people across Southeast Asia to interview elders on their experiences living through periods of huge social change and the eradication of devastating diseases which have been mirrored so tragically by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Buddhist country of Lao PDR, as across many countries in the region, monks play a central part in their local communities, educating children for generations. More recently, they have been assisting health professionals in the fight against the virus.

A monk is sat down with another monk being interviewed
UNICEF/2021/Bart Verveij
14 year old novice monk Maninsitthi Sengdouangheuang asks questions to Bounthan Keoounkong, Monk at Wat That Foun.

The great respect in which they are held has been key in combatting issues such as community non-acceptance of those who have contracted COVID-19 and the dissemination of core health messages to local populations.

Maninsitthi Sengdaoheuang, 14, is a novice monk currently studying at Song Khua Luang Lower Secondary School. As part of The Wisdom Project, he and fellow novice monk Kongkham Thongsavanh interviewed Phra Acharn Bounthan Keoounkong, 47, the abbot of Phoxay Monastery in the Laos capital of Vientiane. In an interesting and topical exchange, the abbot focused on his early experience of and views on education, the vital role the teachings of the Buddha have played in his life, and his advice to the younger generation.

“I still remember my first day at school,” reflects the abbot. “I felt very happy as I got to see all my friends and fellow monks. My favourite memories from when I was a boy were going to school and learning from my teacher. I loved going to school.”

In remote areas, monastic schools are perceived as the only option for accessing education for boys from poor families. To protect children in monastic schools from cluster infection, UNICEF's Child Protection programme provided necessary COVID-19 hygiene materials and learning/recreational kits in monastic schools in Luang Prabang in 2020 and 2021 through the partnership with the National Commission for the Advancement of Women, Mothers-Children, Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare and Friends International.

A novice monk asking questions
UNICEF/2021/Bart Verveij
Maninsitthi Sengdouangheuang asking questions.

While education has improved greatly since his school days, Laos still faces considerable problems with the abbot himself facing the same challenges many children in remote rural communities still must deal with.

“I think the world has changed much since I was a boy. I come from a poor rural family and was ordained as a monk in a temple far away from the city, so I did not really have access to education or learning materials compared to most people. Nowadays, I think education is much more widely accessible and there are definitely more books and learning materials readily available.”

But, he says, a wider variety of learning materials would help further spark the imagination of students.

“I think the variety of the learning materials we have is still not enough to respond to the needs and curiosity of the younger generation, particularly in libraries and schools.”

Portrait shots of the two monks
UNICEFNICEF/2021/Bart Verveij
Maninsitthi Sengdaoheuang, 14 [L], and Phra Acharn Bounthan Keoounkong, 47 [R]

The disastrous disruption to children’s education globally caused by the pandemic is well known. The World Bank has estimated a loss of $10 trillion in earning for this generation of students, while the Asian Development Bank has approximated $1.25 trillion in losses for potential earnings of students in developing Asia.

Those suffering most are the 80 million without access to remote learning across East Asia and Pacific – the same children already hit hardest by poverty, disability, migration, and issues associated with being part of ethnic minority groups.

In response, UNICEF has been supporting the Lao Government by setting-up the digital teaching and learning platform ‘Khang Panya Lao’.

The online and offline platform was set-up during the COVID-19 response and also facilitates easier access to official learning materials from pre-primary to Grade 12, as well as a host of local and global learning resources for use by students and teachers alike.

Monks posing together for a photo outside a temple
UNICEF/2021/Bart Verveij

The challenge of learning

Unfortunately, in Lao PDR there is still low access to quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) programmes, and children in school are not mastering the necessary literacy and numeracy skills needed for further learning owing in part to poor teaching skills and lack of teaching materials.

Lao PDR is an ethnically diverse country with a high proportion of students who do not speak the official language of education instruction, particularly in rural midland and highland areas further affecting their effective learning. 

UNICEF Lao PDR’s education programme has a special focus on children facing inherent disadvantages and those living in remote areas, with the goal of providing quality early childhood and basic education to every child. UNICEF supports the Ministry of Education and Sports in improving access to and quality of education, supporting schools meet quality standards, enhancing the skills of teachers to teach, and providing learning materials, including as part of COVID-19 response.

Monks walking together
UNICEF/2021/Bart Verveij
Novice monk Kongkham Thongsavanh [L] interviews Phra Acharn Bounthan Keoounkong.

In remote rural areas where there are more non-Lao speaking children, UNICEF is supporting the expansion of a Community-Based School Readiness Programme and engagement of parents and caregivers in young children’s schooling.

“I think a lot of young people today are still prone to acting without foresight or rashly at times which could be related to inadequate education,” says the abbot reflecting further on the country’s problems. “I think they could benefit not just from improved formal education but also from using the teachings of Buddhism in their lives.”

Concluding his interview, the abbot sees solutions to the issues Laos faces lying in a combination of practical steps and faith.

“My greatest source of inspiration has been the teachings of the Buddha which have inspired me to develop compassion for my fellow human beings and try to do my best to alleviate their suffering in whatever way I can. When I was younger, I wanted to become a monk, to manage the administrative affairs of a monastery and, more importantly, to help educate novice monks and develop their capacity.”

“I want to pass on the Buddha’s wisdom to the younger generation of both monks and the general public, which I hope can help them live life more compassionately and treat others magnanimously.”