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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Visiting the Country of Change, Part 2

Apr. 19, 2016

Japanese high school students travelled to Myanmar in March to witness the country's historic transition to democracy. They met with newly elected ruling-party lawmakers and children who are struggling to survive.

With 40 percent of people living in poverty, there are hopes that economic development will improve social conditions. But the reality is, many citizens currently make a living without the benefit of a secure job, and work as day laborers.

As part of their tour, the students from Japan visited a church in Yangon.

Every weekend, the church invites children from the slums surrounding Yangon and offers them support.

"Their parents are vendors. They are very poor and the church is helping with their education and supplying school materials, some rice, and nutrition," says Dorothy Colney, the senior pastor and president of the Church of God in Myanmar. "We want them to become educated and then we want them to stand themselves."

Twin sisters Yukari and Yuka Yamazaki are especially enthusiastic about participating in the tour. Their father is Japanese and their mother is Burmese.

When their parents divorced, they had to move to a children's care center near Tokyo because their mother was too ill to look after them.

Last year, they visited their mother's hometown and had a moving experience. Impressed by a group of orphans whose parents had been lost in the long-lasting civil war, the sisters have been inspired to help needy children.

"Until I met them, I had never had any dreams," Yukari says. "The children’s smiles were totally different from the expressions we wore at our facility. It was an eye-opening experience. I want to build an orphanage so that I can spend time with these children."

With a dream of setting up their own orphanage in Myanmar, they wanted to find out what is needed for children who live under the harsh conditions.

They went to a suburb of Yangon that’s home to the children who go to the church, and met a girl named Lin Lin Myat. She lives with her parents and an older brother.

Many families in the area make their living as street vendors and day laborers.

Lin Lin Myat and her brother, who wants to be an engineer, have been studying hard, but living conditions are becoming more and more difficult. They may have to start work instead of continuing their studies.

“Has the transition to democracy had any effect on your daily lives?” Yukari asks Lin Lin Myat's family.

"Absolutely not -- instead of staying the same, our lives are getting worse," the girl's mother replies.

Yukari later reflects on what she saw in their home.

"I couldn't help being surprised when I visited their room, which was about 35 square feet, and saw that they were cooking, eating, and sitting on the floor studying, all in this small space," she says.

Every weekend in Yangon, members of the ruling NLD party deliver essentials like food to poor neighborhoods. The party has to face up to the economic gap between rich and poor and try to improve the situation.

The students next visited Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, to see how the historic transition to democracy was unfolding at the assembly buildings.

During military rule, it was hard to get close to those buildings because of tight security, but now even tourists can go inside. In late March, a new government, steered by veteran democracy activist and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was inaugurated.

The students had a chance to meet with lawmakers of the National League for Democracy, or NLD, and started to ask questions right away.

"What do you think is the most important issue to change the conditions of the average Burmese in your country?" one Japanese student asks.

"I think freedom of thinking... and freedom of speech is the most important," replies NLD lawmaker Tin Tin Win.

Many of the lawmakers have been fighting to seek freedom and democracy. Now they have to respond to their countrymen’s calls for change.

"The right thing to do is to give people the opportunity to respect each other and live as equals regardless of their age, race, and status," NLD lawmaker Ohn Kyi tells the students. "This is a universal need, and the work to fulfill it is close to my heart."

"People want the government to be reformed from the bottom up. Achieving this goal will require the voice of the citizens of Myanmar to be heard," says NLD lawmaker Nwe Nwe Aung.

Lawmaker Shilar Nandawn asked the twin sisters to get involved in politics themselves.

"The Japanese people are more developed than us. You can help us. You can write a letter, you can phone us and send email," she says.

The 5-day trip seems to have established great steps for the future.

"Through this tour, I've got to think from various points of view. Now, I am 18 years old and am able to vote. So I will try to raise my voice through politics, thinking of people under various conditions," says Ayu Miyamoto.

For the students in Myanmar, the exchange with their Japanese counterparts was a great opportunity to express their hopes and desires for a better future.

“I learned that the level of education in Myanmar has a long way to go to reach that of Japan," says Po Po Htwe. "I want to learn to voice my opinions freely, like the Japanese high school girls do.”

Meanwhile, the sisters who visited the slums and saw the harsh conditions children there face became more determined to pursue their dreams.

“I was shocked to hear a mother say that democratization has changed nothing," Yukari says. "I plan to open an orphanage in Myanmar in the future, but at that moment I realized I want to do whatever I can to bring about democratization.”

After their journey to Myanmar, the twins were inspired to study harder to make their dreams come true. So now they are thinking of going to university on scholarships to reach their goals.