The human face behind Burma’s broken education system

Access to education for Karen children is compromised by lack of schools, poverty, conflict, displacement, and low or no wages for teachers. Makeshift schools on the Thai Burma border often offer the only chance for young Karen to get an education.

The sound of teenagers chanting in English and Karen echoes off the tin roof as teachers point to symbols on whiteboards. Striped tarpaulin separates the large room into four classrooms. In a small, open brick porch outside the teens room, a teacher guides younger children through their lessons.

An old man squatly rests on a bamboo chair under a large wooden building in the middle of the playground. The man is Kwe Kha Baung, the principal and founder of the school that carries his name.

Kwe Kha Baung puts down his phone and says.

“If the Karen people are illiterate we will be stuck as servants and we cannot become the leaders of our own people.”

The story of Kwe Kha Baung School dates back to 1984, with a Burma Army attack on a village in Kaw Moo Rah, Karen State. The villagers fled for their lives, becoming refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. K says we Kha Baung

“It was not easy for refugees to work for their livelihood. They have to run away often due to conflict and with fear for their lives,” he said, “Those first two years after we fled I saw thousands of kids not able to go to school. Many children in Mae Sot town would be running around collecting rubbish and plastic, they would often be forced to become thieves or robbers. So I opened the Kwe Kha Baung Karen School.”

Kwe Baung started the school in 1990, with the help of three teachers. In the 22 years since then they have taught thousands of Karen children, and now have many more teachers, and hundreds of students.

Thou Tha Thaw is seventeen, studying 10th grade, and dreams of the day she will become a nurse to help at Mae Tao Clinic, Mae Sot.
“I left Burma three years ago to start learning at the school because I can’t learn communication Skills, Thai and English back home,” she smiles.

Thou Thaw now lives at the school and only gets to visit her parents back in Burma once a year. “Yes I get very homesick, but the travel back home is only 1 day by car, so it isn’t too hard.”

Her parents sent the 350 Baht (about US $10) to buy her school uniform. The school has to charge minimal fees because funds are scarce. The books are free for all students.

Figures released in 2010 by the Karen Teaching Working Group, a community-based organisation, stated that there are at least 1,081 schools, with 4,337 teachers and 93,842 students in Karen State. There are as many as 145,000 refugees, that live in camps on the Thai-Burma border.

Saw Adu, 30, from Pa’an, has taught Biology at the school for the last four years. He had been a teacher in Burma for more than five years, but had to quit.

“The salary was very low, the government forces teachers to work in the holidays with ‘training’ courses, even if they don’t want to attend, against their will.”

Saw Adu says that in 2001 teachers in Burma were earning 5000 Kyat a month, around (around US$5).

Overworked and underpaid, Saw Adu says this is the common predicament of teachers in Burma, but it is especially bad for ethnic people , “we can’t teach our own language, culture, or history in Burma”, he says.

What’s worse, civil servants that quit their jobs in Burma aren’t usually allowed by Burma’s government to go back and work for the civil service. “But if there is freedom someday” he says shyly, “I would like to go back and teach at a private school.”

18-year-old Dah Dah Thu has been at the school now for three years, she’s now in grade 11 and her dream is to one day be a Karen soldier, but she is studying to become a doctor as this is her parents wish.

“There are no opportunities in Burma, you can’t freely practice your culture, but here we can practice our culture, and wear our Karen dress. All the young people left from my village, the Burma Army would come monthly and demand the people become porters for them, so people left.”

“My sister works at a restaurant in Bangkok [to pay for her school fees] so I can go to school,” she says, breaking into tears. “My parents need support, but it is very difficult to get home and visit them, I only can do it once a year – it takes 2 days by boat, on foot and by car to get home.”

When Dah Dah Thu visited her family last October she was stopped at a Burma Army checkpoint near the Thai border.

“I forgot that my watch was set on Thai time, not Burma time… the soldiers at the checkpoint said ‘We don’t trust you!’ and interrogated me for 3 and a half hours. They interrogated me in the hot sun with no shade on purpose, they ordered me to reset the time on my watch and made me pay 3000 Kyat”.

“This is a daily occurrence in Burma ” Dah Dah Thu says, “so my personal ambition is to become a soldier for the Karen, because I have experienced innocent people being oppressed by the Burma Army.”

According to a recent report by the Karen Human Rights Group, the Burma Army continues to disrupt and abuse ethnic people’s access to education. On February 19th, 2010, Burma Army forces shelled the Tru Hta displaced people’s camp. A mortar landed near a school during school hours, killing one student and injuring two others. Another incident on the 23rd of July saw Burma Army soldiers burnt the school books and classroom furniture after students and teachers had fled, in Tha Dah Der village, Karen State.

Kwe Kha Baung School, and others like it, teach Karen youth about their culture, as well as Thai, English, Science, Maths and History. Students say without these migrant schools, they would never have a chance to learn such subjects.

“The Karen are being oppressed in many different ways.” Kwe Baung claims. “When the Burmese troops come into a village they take people as porters, and the Burma Army has raped many women… Burmese troops destroy Karen peoples livelihoods.”

Kwe Baung sees his school as a place to train the future political and community Karen leaders.

Kwe Baung is sceptical about Karen National Union ceasefire talks with the Burma government.

“The Burma government, whatever they do, will not make decisions for the benefit of ethnic people, only the military. So we must look to the youth for future hope… Freedom, you have to build it.”

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