All over Myanmar, but especially in the cities, young people are hard at work trying to rebuild social networks and give those networks purpose in a country where 50 years of dictatorship means they are starting from scratch: The military trashed the education system, banned independent unions and professional organizations, reined in charity groups, and ruled a fractured society with an iron fist.
For example, in a classroom at the British Council (the British government's cultural arm), the English Conversation Club that meets each Sunday afternoon is an exercise in consciousness raising as much as a lesson in vocabulary and grammar.
On a recent Sunday, volunteer teacher Khin Soe Min led a discussion of a simple fictional story the group had read about a tree in danger of being cut down to make way for a mall, threatening the birds, insects, and squirrels that had made their homes in its branches.
Demonstrations, letters to the mayor, and an appeal to the courts blocked the building of the mall and saved the tree. "If you stay silent, nothing happens. If you want something, you have to do something," Mr. Khin Soe Min said. But that was only part of the message he had hoped to get across. The value of trees, and the importance of the natural environment, was another key element, he explained. "I don't just want people to protest. I want them to understand why they are demonstrating, because they have knowledge."
Knowledge is in desperately short supply in Myanmar, where schools are poorly staffed, universities have been repeatedly closed to choke off student unrest, many educated Burmese have gone into exile, and international isolation has starved students of learning material.
But since cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 people and ravaged the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, prompting a wave of volunteers to help with relief efforts, a plethora of nongovernmental organizations has sprung up to provide the sort of welfare and social services the government should provide but does not. Gradually, some of them have expanded their activities into the political realm of civic education.