For children in exile, school's a lifeline

For children in exile, school's a lifeline

Sauch Kha Hong Sar, a learning centre for young Myanmar immigrants in Mae Sot of Tak province. (Photo: Damrongkiat Mala)
Sauch Kha Hong Sar, a learning centre for young Myanmar immigrants in Mae Sot of Tak province. (Photo: Damrongkiat Mala)

It's 9am, before classes start, and children's shouts and squeals of laughter fill the air around three cottages in a school compound, a hilly area not far from the centre of Mae Sot, a northwestern city on the border with Myanmar.

The school is like many others, but also different. It is among the more than 65 schools in Tak province that many children of exiles and others who fled Myanmar after the 2021 coup go to.

While these have catered mainly to the children of migrant workers and people from Myanmar who had sought refuge in Thailand in past decades, the number of students has spiked in the continuing exodus of people from Myanmar.

"I wasn't happy when I just arrived but felt happy after I started attending school," says 11-year-old Toe Toe, who is in Grade 4. "Now I can't decide whether I want to go back or live here, because there is some crisis still in Myanmar. But I miss my relatives and friends sometimes.

"I didn't have any income. So I sent my children to migrant school, like other displaced persons," said a mother who arrived with her teenage daughter and 11-year-old son. After finding a suitable school for her son, who was struggling with being away from home, she added: "Now he's happy, and I'm also relieved."

Seeing their children get some education is a huge relief for many parents. Schools also provide social support, keeping young people busy in six-hour class days and allowing normal interaction in the local community.

At the same time, a mother in her late 30s, living here since the end of 2021, worries about her son's future if and when their application for refugee resettlement is approved. "My son has to learn the subjects in Burmese, and I'm afraid that he can't catch up," she said.

Some schools in Mae Sot provide elementary classes, while others offer more levels, from kindergarten to high school, and take in students from three to 18 years old. Burmese is the language of instruction. Some schools have language classes in Kayin, given the ethnicity of many people from Myanmar here, and Thai.

Some Myanmar teachers have been in Thailand for years, and some are teachers who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement soon after the coup. Others are foreign volunteers.

Schools follow Myanmar's education curriculum for kindergarten to primary students till Grade 8. For Grades 9 to 12, the schools use the General Educational Development (GED) programme, whose completion equips students with high-school qualifications they can use to apply for university.

Some schools collect fees, while others do not. Parents pay from 300 to 2,000 baht monthly for each student, apart from one-time admission fees.

International schools take in Thai and foreign students, but their fees of some 6,000 baht a month are too steep for many Myanmar families.

Before the coup, there were 65 migrant schools and some 13,000 Myanmar students in Tak, says Daw May (not her real name), a senior manager at a school for migrant students. Most students are from Kayin families who arrived a decade or more ago, but many are Kachin, Kayah, Mon and Bamar too. Myanmar parents talk of a handful of schools, perhaps two or three, that have opened post-coup.

There is a long queue of children waiting to register for the 2023-2024 school year, which starts in June. More than 10,000 school-age children and students have arrived in town since the February 2021 coup, estimates Daw May.

"About 5,000 students won't be sure to get registration for the coming school year because every school in Mae Sot is full," she said.

Her school, which takes in up to high-school students, had 30% more students than it usually has in the last (2022-23) term. It had more than 1,000 students, compared to the usual 700 or so. It can no longer accept new enrollees in the coming term. (Most schools have 100 to 500 students.)

Humanitarian funding helps keep the schools going, but education managers say that schools' resources have fallen by 50% to 70% since the end of the last school term. "We face the need for infrastructure, learning materials, teaching honoraria and fees. We also have headaches about the cost of gasoline for school buses in the coming year," Daw May added.

While education has been disrupted by Myanmar's conflicts through the decades, the disruption after the February 2021 coup has been much more widespread -- given the political, economic and humanitarian crises along with armed conflict and anti-junta resistance across the country.

These come on top of the limited access to learning since the school closures of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

As of October 2022, at least 3.7 million young people out of the total 12 million learners prior to the school shutdowns during the pandemic "have not had access to organised learning for two years -- initially due to Covid-19-related measures and now due to the current crisis," Frehiwot Yilma, communication specialist with Unicef Myanmar, said in an email interview.

The State Administrative Council (SAC), as the junta is called, reopened schools for in-person classes in June 2022. But there is a far from conducive environment for learning in Myanmar, where most regions are now affected by conflict, including in the Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Sagaing and Magway regions.

In its April update, Unicef Myanmar said of the continued rise in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), including children, in north-western Sagaing: "This disrupts children's opportunities to learn safely." As of 15 May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says there are 763,100 IDPs in Sagaing. A total of 1.5 million remain displaced since the coup, it adds.

A total of 5.5 million children need humanitarian help, Unicef Myanmar said.

Still, some communities are bent on keeping avenues for learning open.

"Children in our region already had poor opportunities before. If we can't give them some access to education, this [situation] will get worse," a volunteer teacher in Kayah state said. "The main challenge is security, and the second is not having enough food."

"Although we face difficulties and dangerous situations, we have to send our children to school. The teachers are our local residents and not good enough as teachers. But all the children in our village and other villages go to school," explained a father in Sagaing.

"The current political situation is blocking the future of children's education," said Daw May. "Some teenagers in the border areas are only interested in earning money for survival, and some have joined ethnic armed groups."

Maung Maung, six and a half years old, said: "When I ask my mum about going back to Myanmar, she always replies that it's not time to go back and that it's very dangerous to do so."

"I want to be an artist one day," said Pu Tu, a Grade 2 student. He added: "I want to have a dog, but my mum said it's not the time to have a pet in these hard times. I'll buy a dog when we are stable here or in the place we are in later on." ©Reporting Asean

May Soe is a contributor to the Reporting Asean series.

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