In a way, Cho Cho Lwin's story starts with a young boy in a small village in her home country of Burma, now known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. It was early 2004 and Lwin, a travel consultant at the time, was guiding a wealthy Swiss hotelier named Peter Gautschi by request through the type of rural setting seldom trod by tourists from the Western world. Myanmar's people had been under the reign of a military government since 1962, when General Ne Win led a successful coup against Prime Minister U Nu, and the country had suffered from years of political corruption, anti-government riots and repression. Education was in particularly dire straits by 2004, the same year a power struggle ousted a new prime minister and saw him placed under house arrest. Government-run public schools were brutally underfunded, and despite rapid regrowth in the 1990s, Myanmar's centuries-old monastic school system remained financially dependent on impoverished rural communities and suffered from a lack of suitable infrastructure.
During their trip beyond the crowded city of Mandalay, on the way to a high-altitude town once known to British colonists as a "hill station," Lwin and Gautschi stopped by a tiny school in the village of Ohn Chaw. Even Lwin, a well-educated woman who had attended university and studied English, had never set foot in a monastic school before. What they saw were more than 100 students of various ages sitting on the ground or in trees, watching with rapt attention as Buddhist monks worked through lessons on mathematics, Burmese and English. Gautschi was touched by the scene. Then he met the boy.
Lwin remembers the boy being about 9 or 10 years old. He was hoping to undertake shinbyu, or the novitiation ceremony required for Burmese boys to become novice monks, but Lwin quickly learned that his parents could not afford the robes and other materials necessary for the rite. Gautschi offered to cover the costs and sponsor the boy.
Lwin still has photos of the ceremony on her laptop, along with scores of images of the Ohn Chaw school children seated in clusters on the ground. That moment in 2004 quickly brought her and Gautschi together, and demonstrated for her Gautschi's selfless spirit. His goodwill didn't stop with sponsoring the boy's novitiation. After the ceremony, Lwin and Gautschi continued their trip, yet Gautschi insisted on stopping by the school again on their way back. They spoke with the abbot, who explained that despite the monastic mission to educate impoverished rural students, schools like his receive no financial backing from the government—hence the lack of sheltered classrooms.
"So Peter took all his money out, which is in the mixed currency of U.S. dollar, Singapore dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Burmese dollar, all total valued about $2,200 U.S." recalls Lwin, who now lives in Missoula with her husband and two children. "He said, 'What can we do with that? Can we help with the classroom, or should we help with uniforms or stationary?' Then the abbot said, 'Okay, we can help with classroom.' That's what was needed. So Peter handed money to me and then he left. He went back to Hong Kong."
Just like that, Lwin became the first Myanmar-based volunteer for the Studer Trust, an organization Gautschi founded in 2002 with the goal of building schools in China. She oversaw construction of the new Ohn Chaw classroom, a 43-foot-long open-walled shelter complete with benches and tables. When the project was done, she had $100 of Gautschi's money left. With it they hosted an opening ceremony—what would prove to be the first of 60 for Lwin, Gautschi and the Studer Trust in Myanmar to date.
The 366-mile highway stretching between the Burmese cities of Yangon and Mandalay has developed a reputation for danger since its completion in 2011. News reports from the region commonly refer to it as Myanmar's "death highway," a critical strip of infrastructure initially ordered by the military junta in 2005 and completed in what engineers have since admitted was a rush job. Officials have recorded more than 470 crashes there in the past four years. In 2013 alone, such accidents resulted in 546 injuries and 100 deaths.
Among those deaths was Studer Trust founder Peter Gautschi.
Gautschi had arrived in Hong Kong in the early 1950s to take up a position as a junior executive for the famed Peninsula Hotel. The cigar-smoking, golf-playing Swiss native eventually rose to the presidency of the company, and expanded his portfolio even further by founding the luxury Swiss-Belhotel chain in 1987. As he explained in a 2010 interview with Forbes magazine, which had just named him one of Asia's "heroes of philanthropy," Gautschi kicked off his retirement in 2001 with a $40,000 donation to UNESCO for a school project in China's Hunan Province. But when he visited the school himself to gauge the effectiveness of his investment, he felt his money had been wasted. He saw Western-style flush toilets with no piping, radiators without boilers, and more than 200 fewer students than he'd been led to believe.
"I thought I could do better myself," he told Forbes. And so the Studer Trust—named for Gautschi's mother—was born.
Until he met Lwin, Gautschi had never considered expanding his organization's scope beyond China. But the work was hardly complete on his first school in Ohn Chaw before construction began on a second Myanmar school, Aung Ka Bar in the village of Gway Gyi Kone. The classrooms were simple, open-air structures at that time, but the Studer Trust's design quickly evolved to include fully walled buildings, two-story schools, even a classroom on stilts in Pauk Par. And it didn't take long for Gautschi to drum up financial support from friends and other philanthropists, including fellow Swiss-born Hong Kong transplant Walter Wuest.