From rags to reading: Myanmar’s library hero

From rags to reading: Myanmar’s library hero

Zaw Zaw was a poor villager from Mandalay, whose insatiable hunger for books drove him to Yangon. There, his love for reading bore fruit and brought smiles to bookworms from underprivileged backgrounds.

Zaw Zaw was a poor villager from Mandalay, whose insatiable hunger for books drove him to Yangon. There, his love for reading bore fruit and brought smiles to bookworms from underprivileged backgrounds.

YANGON: Zaw Zaw arrived in Yangon nine years ago, desperately hungry for books.

As he later discovered, however, bookshops were almost non-existent and owning books was a luxury for the likes of him, a poor villager from Mandalay with little in his possession.

“I came to Yangon with a pair of cheap slippers and 4,000 kyats (US$3). And I wanted to read so badly,” said Zaw Zaw inside his rented room, a tiny space in Hlaing Township that has become something of a local institution.

It is here that Zaw Zaw began spreading his hunger for reading to people in his neighbourhood by introducing them to his very first library, called Mandalay.

It was by no means smooth sailing, however. Life has been difficult since he could remember. Things may have improved recently but a day rarely passes for the 28-year-old without some kind of struggle. For most of his life, he was always hungry, for food and knowledge – two things he was short of while growing up.


Since he was a boy, Zaw Zaw dreamt of reading Myanmar literature but grinding poverty at home made it impossible for him to buy it. The closest he got to enjoying books was through stories and anecdotes about literary legends, related from memory to him by his grandfather. And in his hometown of Kyaukpadaung, there were no books for him to borrow after he had finished primary school and started working on a farm.

Despite years of hard labour, his hunger for knowledge never went away. In 2007, Zaw Zaw left his family for Yangon, where he hoped to bury himself in public libraries and read as much as he wished.

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“Books were too expensive. A small one then cost about 2,500 kyats (US$1.8). And when I went to libraries, they were often closed. The staff didn’t even let me borrow books because I was just a poor villager in their eyes. The poor couldn’t afford to buy or read books.”

Zaw Zaw did not stop there. His growing thirst for books drove him to clean toilets, wash dishes and wait at a bar for a meagre return. Yet, it was enough to let him save.

By 2008, he had already quit his job at the bar and started selling grilled fish on the streets of Yangon. He had also become a proud owner of several books, which he bought with a daily budget of 3,000 kyats (US$2).

The habit quickly grew into an obsession. And in the same year, Zaw Zaw turned a corner of his room into a small library to store and share the growing collection.

“I set up a library so other people don’t have to face what I experienced. There weren’t so many libraries in the city but beer bars were everywhere. And that was sad,” he said.

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Today, some 40,000 books fill his library in Yangon, many of them donated. The facility is open every single day from noon until night. And everybody is welcome.

“People can borrow books free of charge. There is no membership or requirement for ID cards. I’m not worried about books not being returned; I’m more worried about young people not reading them.”


Since Zaw Zaw started Mandalay Library, his dream has changed. He does not only want to read but also help his country transform its education sector so children can easily gain knowledge and access reading materials.

His determination has pushed him to acquire more books and open more libraries in rural areas. Besides the original branch, Zaw Zaw is running six more – three in Mandalay, two in Sagaing and one in Ayeyarwady – all bigger in size and boasting larger volumes of books.

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“Education is the foundation from which a country develops. So I decided to plant seeds of education, which are libraries, around the country while I’m still alive.”

Zaw Zaw's libraries do not only provide books of all kinds but also guitars, which he said poor children hardly have a chance to play.

However, there is a condition: “They don’t have to pay me to play the guitars. They just need to read something before or after playing them.”


In Yangon, his readers vary and so do the choices of books they borrow. Young children often go with cartoons and translated books for teenagers.

“Those with dyed hair and three earrings tend to borrow romantic novels and modern literature.”

Mandalay and his other libraries are funded by his income from selling grilled fish. And as his reputation continues to grow, countless books have found their way from across Myanmar into his tiny library in Yangon.

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Zaw Zaw described it as a distribution centre, where he dispatches tens of thousands of books to the other libraries and remote villages every month.

The librarian also provides a book delivery service for disabled people, the elderly and those in isolated areas. “I do it for people who feel they’re not important,” he said.

Yet, his work is not without challenges. And the major one is the fact that he does it all by himself.

“I don’t have friends and I have to distribute books to all parts of the country from here. So, sometimes I feel very tired.”

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It did not go unnoticed. Last year, his hard work won him the Citizen of Burma Award (CoBA), which recognised his outstanding contribution to society. He was also honoured by State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi in July for striving to equip Myanmar people with knowledge.

In fact, apart from bookshelves, the walls of his rented room are covered with certificates, newspaper clippings and photographs documenting his achievements.

“I struggle all by myself. But I’ll say the harder it is, the bigger success I achieve. I’m not afraid of anything and I always do my best.”

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Source: CNA/pp