„A meaningful way of helping“

The Bettina-Kattermann-Stiftung (BKS) provides postgraduate scholarships for students from Myanmar. The foundation is ready to receive new applicants. How is the situation after the coup d état?


Dr. Vera Kattermann, a Berlin-based psychotherapist and the BKS’s founder, talks with   about her late sister’s legacy and the foundation’s perspectives.

Question (Q): Would you mind to tell us about your sister’s work in Myanmar and the founding of the BKS ten years ago?

Answer (A): My sister, a physician of internal medicine, went at the age of 37 to Rakhine State, Myanmar. She was happy over there. We knew it from her letters and e-mails. She worked with Doctors without Borders. As a member of a mobile team she went to the state‘s small, scattered villages, executed Malaria prevention programs and also treated people as a so-called General Practitioner (G.P.).

Personally, I admired her studying and knowledge of the Burmese language.

Concerning Myanmar’s political situation back then, she wrote very diplomatically. Nevertheless, we could read between the lines about the disadavantaged situation of the non-Buddhist population in Rakhine.

She stayed until 2001 in Myanmar, an exceptional long stay in this work environment, but I think, she simply did a very good job.

Myanmar 2022: Staffers of Doctors without Borders on their way to set up a mobile clinic in Rahkine State, dealing with HIV, Hepatitis-C, and Tuberkolose. More than twenty years ago, also physician Dr. Bettina Kattermann was working in Rakhine State. photo: Ben Small. MFS.
Myanmar 2022: Staffers of Doctors without Borders on their way to set up a mobile clinic in Rahkine State, the place, where also Bettina Kattermann once was working. photo: Ben Small. MFS

Never again my sister found a work so deeply fulfilling like that in Myanmar, even though she continued to work as a physician in foreign countries as well as in Germany.

After her death in 2012, I decided to transform her assets into a project what would be an incentive for the people of Myanmar, thereby connecting it with the core issues of Bettina‘s life.

As a consequence, in 2013 the BKS was founded, enabling graduate students from Myanmar to complete their medical studies with a master’s degree in Public Health or, newly, also in Psychological Counselling in Thailand.

From the beginning on, we were connected to the Stiftung Asienhaus, Bonn. This foundation strongly supported us in all administerial affairs. Indeed, it was Klaus Fritsche, its former CEO, who designed and set up the BKS together with me.

Q: How does the program work?

A: The application process and most of the organizational things including the financial transactions are managed by the German Catholic Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Katholischer Akademischer Austauschdienst, KAAD), which commands stabile structures and has a hugh network over in Myanmar and Thailand.

At this point I would like to stress: The overarching principle of the foundation is that of non-conformism. We are happy to accept students from all confessions and to see diverse applicants.

In any case, those who apply must show that they are in real need of a financial backing. We really like to see people who have already done some commumity-based social work. Those who are engaged have pretty good chances.

Our students are graduates in medical studies. Very recently, we also have accepted two graduates in psychology.

Q: So, how do you advertise your foundation in Myanmar?  

A: This is not easy to do. Word of mouth is a slow process. So we are active on Facebook [Meta]. The KAAD actively recruits, too. We are happy, if people spread the information about our program within Myanmar and beyond.

Q: How much money for how many students are budgeted per year?

Our students get 1.600 € per month on average, and this includes all. To make it transparent: Our budget depends on the university chosen in Thailand. Tuition fees and boarding costs amount to 1.600 Euro per month. Additionally, we give a certain amount of money for living costs, books, and travel money to our students.

We always used to choose just one student per calendar year, but it happens that we have two students.

Experience has shown: It might be easier to cope with the challenges of a foreign environment not  being alone but being in a team of two.

Another innovation is, as I said before, that we now accept students with a degree in psychology. This is for the pressing need of current trauma treatment in the refugee camps on the Thai/Myanmar border, let alone in war-torn Myanmar itself. Of course, this is only a very small contribution, but still, it is one.

Q: Could you elaborate on the idea of cooperating with universities in Thailand, please?

A: Sure. From the start on, our students went to Bangkok, Thailand, to study at Mahidol University.1 The decision came due to the pre-existing cooperation of Mahidol with the KAAD and the high standards of that university.

It is a pity, but the medical universities in Myanmar cannot compete with those standards. Myanmar has lagged behind for too long.

What I would like to stress is: I never wanted the students to boost their careers with the BKS- scholarship for a job somewhere else in the world.

So until recently, our students had been contracted to return to Myanmar. The idea has been that their home country would be the place where they could apply their new competences by, let’s say, conceptualizing surveys on maternal health or HIV-patients. But now, we have to be more flexible due to the political situation after the coup in Myanmar.

The library of Mahidol University, Bangkok. Named after prince Mahidol, the father of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, this university ranks under Asia’s top-institutions in medical studies. photo: Mahidol University

Q: What is the impact of the coup d’état onto your project?

A: In the first place, we had to rearrange our website due to safety concerns.

So we removed all information about our students.

The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and Myanmar‘s health sector are deeply connected. We do not want to endanger anybody.

Also, due to Covid and the coup d’état one of our students had all the courses to do online. But she made it. Well, by the way, nobody ever quit the program, all of our students graduated over in Bangkok with brillant results. We are very proud of them to be successful even under straining conditions.

Studying in a foreign country, somehow leading a good life for oneself and knowing that the own family over in Myanmar might be in severe difficulties, this means an enormous burden to carry.

But all in all, we can proceed with our project as usual, since everything from the start on has taken place in Thailand.

Q: What is the perspective of the BKS, what are your wishes and plans for the future?

A: Well, I think, the foundation’s work is still a meaningful way of helping.

So we have to take care of the future, exactly of the years after 2028/29. Our financial resources are shrinking, we are in need of fresh money. For continuing our program, fundraising will be a topic. Personally, I am dreaming of finding some donors with interest in the country and love for the people of Myanmar.

Mrs. Kattermann, thank your for your time, thank you for this talk. Wishing you well, good bye.


1   A new cooperation recently emerged with the Assumption-University, Bangkok, in order to cover the MA program  in Psychological Counselling.

annotation: The interview took place in Berlin-Charlottenburg on December 29th, 2023. It was conducted in German and taken before the State Administration Council‘ s February-announcement of putting into force the conscription law of 1959, resulting in a new exodus of young people from Myanmar mainly to neighbouring Thailand: https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/commentary/myanmars-youth-flee-and-they-arent-looking-back.html (23.02.2024).

The importance of the work of the BKS is underlined by the current situation in Northern Shan State: https://www.frontiermyanmar.net/en/healthcare-denied-as-northern-shan-communities-return-home/ (22.02.2024).


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