Ethnic minority children in Myanmar robbed of education by an unending war

Most readers of Mercator probably live relatively tranquil lives, protected by stable governments which enforce law and order, provide services, and defend them against possible adversaries. We may be outraged by the brutal conflicts in Ukraine and in Gaza, but we only see them on TV and in newspapers; we don’t experience them.

Not everyone is so lucky. Mercator correspondent Antonio Graceffo is currently on the ground in Myanmar and Thailand reporting on the situation in refugee camps on the border during a savage civil war. He sent this dispatch.

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The old saying goes, “Truth is the first casualty in war.” One could also argue that education and childhood are among the initial casualties of conflict. The war in Burma is in a constant state of flux, with intensifying fighting in some areas and diminishing activity in others, creating an ebb and flow that is constantly shifting.

When war reaches a village, schooling comes to a halt, forcing the inhabitants to flee to the jungle and wait. Depending on the intensity and duration of the conflict, they may eventually return and resume their studies. However, if the army remains in the area for an extended period or if the fighting is too intense, they may have no choice but to escape to Thailand.

Children's lives are uprooted, and their education is disrupted. And the situation has worsened since the military coup of 2021, with the Burmese Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army) specifically targeting schools.

In some cases, families remain in Thailand for years, enabling their children to attend school. Others may return to Myanmar, moving back and forth across the border multiple times during a child’s life. Some families navigate between various internally displaced people’s camps or refugee camps. Access to education varies; sometimes it is available, sometimes not. Moreover, the language of instruction can be Thai, Shan, English, or Burmese.

After roughly 70 years of war, entire generations, millions of people from Burma, are growing up with incomplete education.

There are 135 ethnic groups in Burma, and they have been the primary victims of the conflict between the ethnic armies and the Tatmadaw, which is predominantly composed of the Bamar ethnic group. Since the commencement of the war, in 1948, millions of refugees, predominantly from ethnic minority groups, have sought refuge in Thailand.

Khru Chang, a 58-year-old ethnic Shan from Shan State in Burma, has dedicated his life to educating as many children as possible amidst this upheaval. He serves as the principal of Luk Taeng School, also known as Khru Chang School, a primary school catering to refugee children from Burma. These children hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds, with the majority being Shan. He was the founder of the school and has been its administrator for 27 years.

On the day we met, it was Shan New Year, and the children complained, suggesting that Khru Chang should have closed the school. However, his rationale was that the school served students from various ethnicities, each with its own New Year celebration. If the school were to close for every ethnic New Year, the children would experience interruptions in their education spanning several months.

Khru Chang explained that most of students lack official documents, and in many instances, their parents lack legal status in Thailand. However, in recent years, the Thai government has shown increased willingness to collaborate with individuals like Khru Chang and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to facilitate the issuance of ID cards for these children. Without identification, he emphasized that “the kids can feel alienated. With ID, they can have the right to live, study, and work.” Through the education provided at the school, he envisions a pathway for these children to improve their lives.

One more major improvement is that the Thai government now permits undocumented children to attend public school. However, due to their undocumented status, they are ineligible to receive a diploma. “You can gain knowledge, but not documentation” he remarked.

At times, while an undocumented student is attending classes, their parents successfully attain legal status in Thailand. Consequently, the children also gain legal recognition, allowing them to continue their education and earn a diploma. However, the studies they completed while undocumented are not recognized, necessitating a restart. “Sometimes the kids have already progressed to a higher grade, like grade 6, and yet, they find themselves having to start over from grade one” Khru Chang lamented.

Another notable improvement is that Luk Taeng School, once following a Shan curriculum, has transitioned to the Thai national curriculum. The primary medium of instruction is Thai, with English and Shan language as mandatory subjects. The principal smiled ironically, stating, “In Burma, it is not permitted to teach Shan language, but in Thailand, it is OK.” The school is currently acknowledged as a branch of a government school. Consequently, the children benefit from the fact that credits and certificates earned at Luk Taeng School make them eligible to continue their studies in Thai middle school.

 

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Despite the opportunity to extend their education beyond the sixth grade, most parents cannot afford to pay school fees. Boys often have the alternative of becoming monks, entering a monastery, and pursuing further education. For girls, the options are more limited, although there is an NGO school for refugee girls in Chiang Mai that could accommodate some of them.

Khru Chang expressed his hope for the future, envisioning that the children can establish stability in Thailand and achieve financial security. In pursuit of this goal, the school places emphasis on teaching the children about Thai culture, facilitating their integration into Thai society. He further elaborated on the grim reality faced by the undocumented, stating “'You know there are lots of kids who have come to the school and ended up in jail because they were arrested for crossing the border illegally. Sometimes, they get pushed back to the other side, but they can't live in Myanmar. They can't survive there. So, that's they sneak back in.”

He pointed at two larger children, mentioning that they are 13 years old but are still in grade two. “It’s because the parents may not trust the government-funded school. But at this school, we speak the same language and come from the same ethnic group.” Observing the kids playing during recess, it was evident that they spoke Thai in the classroom but conversed in Shan with one another outside of class. On average, though, Shan refugees tend to learn and speak Thai extremely well due to the cultural and linguistic similarities between the two peoples. This has consistently served as a distinct advantage for Shan over other Burmese ethnic groups attempting to integrate into Thailand.

This school, along with other refugee schools, receives funding from NGOs and governments. However, the money is never enough to cover books, clothing, and food for the children, plus the salaries for the teachers. And most of these schools cannot offer transferable credits and certificates as Luk Taeng School can. Funding for these schools varies, and in some cases, donors become weary and cease financial support. Additionally, the status of refugee camps differs, with some enjoying more official and permanent standing than others, leading to potential relocations for entire communities.

On the whole, Shan and other ethnic minority children from Myanmar endure lives of uncertainty and privation. Worse still, many children in these camps in Thailand and internally displaced peoples’ camps (IDP) in Myanmar are orphans. Some qualify as orphans because the war geographically separated them from their parents, while others are true orphans, whose parents have been killed, often in front of them. Factor in malnutrition and physical wounds from landmines and shrapnel, along with PTSD, and it is remarkable that they are able to laugh, play, and learn at all.   


Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: photo supplied / the author teaching yoga to refugee children in Luk Taeng School    


 

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