The chatter of four teenaged Buddhist monks dressed in bright saffron robes breaks the silence of the morning peace, as they walk hand in hand the short distance from the Wat Nong Bua Burapha temple to a cluster of ramshackle buildings known as the New Blood School.
Located in Nong Bua village on the outskirts of the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot, the school provides education for the children of migrant workers, from nursery school to grade 11. Its name – New Blood – symbolizes the creation of a new generation of educated young people.
Zaw Lwin Oo, headmaster of the school, refugee and victim of the country’s former military dictatorship that came to power in 1962, founded the school in 2003.
“I worked as a teacher [in Myanmar]. The military government wanted all teachers to support their position, and they asked me to sign [an agreement], but I did not sign and I was fired,” said Zaw Lwin Oo, 48, a graduate of geography, explaining the cause of his departure from Myanmar.
“I was involved in politics and I was forced to flee to Thailand because of the fear of arrest by the military government.”
Zaw Lwin Oo says generation after generation of Myanmar’s young people, including those who have been forced to migrate, have fallen victim to the country’s failed education system.
International humanitarian organizations say the same thing, indicating that the government has failed to apportion adequate resources to the education sector.
UNICEF stated in a 2013 report on Myanmar’s budget allocations that government spending on education remains low in comparison with other members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“For FY 2012-2013, as a percentage of total government spending, budgeted spending for … education was 11 percent. As a percentage of GDP, this amounts to 1.46 percent for education,” the report states.
In the years following the coup by General Ne Win in 1962, Myanmar’s successive military juntas put curbs on education in an effort to control student protests, including the closure of Yangon University and the relocation of university campuses to outlying suburbs.
Decades of military rule have also taken a toll on Myanmar’s economy, making it one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia and driving hundreds of thousands of workers to seek employment abroad.
A recent report by The Border Consortium, a coalition of 10 international NGOs, states “there are around 3 million migrant workers in Thailand, of which an estimated 2.3 million are from Burma/Myanmar”.
An estimated 200,000 migrant workers with some 30,000 school-aged children reside in and around Mae Sot. In order to address the needs of migrant children, Zaw Lwin Oo founded New Blood School on a plot of land belonging to a local Buddhist temple.
It began with just 50 students and now educates 610 children, with about 30 percent of them living at the school as boarders, Zaw Lwin Oo says, adding that many boarders come from broken homes or local orphanages, for which the school provides food, shelter, clothing and school supplies.
New Blood employs a rigorous daily routine that begins at 5am with the preparation of breakfast for students. For many of the boarders, who attend classes from 8:30am to 3:30pm and who contribute to the upkeep of the school by tending the gardens and caring for livestock, New Blood feels like home.
“I feel happy staying here,” says Youn Shwe Hlwar, 19. “It feels like my second family. It’s one big family.”
The school has generated interest among local Thai residents as well as international groups who have provided financial and other material support.
Porntip Suwan, 46, told ucanews.com that she has made monthly donations to the school for the last two years and has also offered guidance on higher education and employment opportunities for graduates.
“I support [the school] with rice, other food and sport [equipment] for them. The children are very poor. When the children grow up I want to support them to have higher education. If someone does not want to study at a higher level, I will help them find a job.”
Other donors to the school include the Thai Children’s Trust (UK), the Room to Grow Foundation and the National Catholic Commission on Migration.
Zaw Lwin Oo says that while many individuals and groups fund the school, getting enough money to keep things going is a constant struggle.
“Running this school efficiently costs three million baht per year, but we only get one million baht per year from donors,” he says.
“The shortfall is made up by contributions from students, their parents and the migrant community. Every day we have to spend about 50 baht per student.”
Zaw Lwin Oo added that while the Thai government does not provide any funding or assistance, it does allow the school to operate.
“The [Thai] government hosts us and gives us an opportunity to be here and they take care of us well. Sometimes they come and spray anti-mosquito liquid.”
In addition to funding, the school also faces a shortage of qualified teachers. Zaw Lwin Oo says that most of the teachers come from Myanmar and have never studied at university.
Kyaw Thi Ha, 20, teaches at the school and says educators struggle to keep on top of all the subjects.
“I teach many subjects: physics, science and English,” he says.
Language poses another challenge for teachers, as the students at New Blood come from numerous ethnic backgrounds, including Karen, Karenni, Mon and Burman, all of whom speak different dialects.
“For me here, it is how to help the children understand what I teach. I’m not good at Burmese, so sometimes it is difficult to explain [things] to them,” says another teacher, Khun Johny.
Zaw Lwin Oo acknowledges that the quality of education at New Blood needs to improve by the addition of better-trained teachers, but that this will take time. “We cannot compare with Thai schools because Thai schools have a very concrete background with its government’s support.
We do not have sufficient support, but we believe that our school is not behind any other migrant school,” he says.
He adds that New Blood offers education comparable and in many ways superior to what is available in Myanmar.
Kyaw Thi Ha, 20, a student at New Blood, says that children from impoverished families in Myanmar have few educational opportunities.
“My family is very poor, and I cannot attend school in Myanmar. So I came here because in Thailand they have free school for students,” she says.
Many of the school’s students excel and go on to Thai schools, headmaster Zaw Lwin Oo says.
“This year, we sent 105 students who are undocumented orphans and outstanding scholars, to Thai schools,” he says, adding that 10 other students have gone on to Thai universities.
This success notwithstanding, Zaw Lwin Oo sees the New Blood school as filling a vital educational gap in Myanmar and creating new opportunities for Myanmar students.
The aim, he says, is to equip Myanmar students with the necessary skills to further their studies in universities in Myanmar or further afield.
“After I finish school I want to teach here for one year and after that, I will go back to Burma to continue my education at a higher level. If I pass the entry exam for medical school, I want to be a doctor,” says student Youn Shwe Hlwar.
Teacher Khun Johny says he has passed the entrance exam for a Myanmar university and is just waiting to hear back about a scholarship.
The future for New Blood students is bright, says Zaw Lin Oo, but only if a culture of education is promoted and that families make it a priority for their children.
“Our challenge for the future and for migrant children is that they cannot pursue their education alone. To overcome the challenges, we need the cooperation of parents and all of the community.”