Time to integrate Myanmar's displaced

Time to integrate Myanmar's displaced

This file photo shows Myanmar students at Sauch Kha Hong Sar learning centre in Mae Sot district of Tak province. (Photo: Damrongkeit Mala)
This file photo shows Myanmar students at Sauch Kha Hong Sar learning centre in Mae Sot district of Tak province. (Photo: Damrongkeit Mala)

In the bustling border town of Mae Sot, Julia smiled when I asked her about her new job. "I am very happy with my position," said the young woman who recently completed her Bachelor's degree in Communication Arts from Bangkok University.

Today, she is helping her alumni from Minmahaw School, which educates underprivileged youth from Myanmar. "I want to help and pay back my communities," she said. Those communities comprise Myanmar refugees and migrant workers who have been living in Thailand in the nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border for more than three decades.

Born in Myitkyina, northern Kachin State, she was seven when she fled to Thai soil, where she was raised in Tak province's Mae La camp, the biggest of nine camps along the border. Now Julia is 24 years of age and has embraced her Christian name given to her by a pastor.

Today, there are 77,000 people living in the nine camps, with Mae La having a population of around 30,000. The remaining refugees, or displaced persons as they are also known, are divided among eight other camps -- Ban Nai Soi, Ban Mae Surin, Mae La Uon, Mae Ra Ma Luang, Nu Pu, Umpiem Mai, Ban Don Yang and Tham Hin. These camps are in four provinces -- Ratchaburi, Tak, Kanchanaburi, and Mae Hong Son.

Julia said her life changed completely when she attended Minmahaw School, an English immersion boarding school for underprivileged students of Myanmar's diverse ethnicities aged 17 to 23 years. For the past 17 years, the school has enrolled hundreds of students like Julia from varied educational, social and economic backgrounds. Over half of them come from refugee camps at the border, while others are from small village schools and other migrant schools on the Thai side.

The school is run by the Education for Friendship Foundation, a non-profit organisation, with its main objective to ensure its students can pass the GED (General Education Development) or any other higher education programme with internationally recognised accreditation. The school has an English-language curriculum taught by volunteers from around the world.

Each academic year, hundreds of Myanmar students from border camps attempt to get into higher education centres set up by nongovernmental organisations and various education foundations. These informal schools are lifesavers for young students to prepare themselves for university.

The Migrant Education Coordinating Centre (MECC), set up in 2012, has been assisting these informal institutions, which currently number over 60 with different levels of education, ranging from kindergarten to secondary to higher education schools. MECC collaborates with government agencies and education partner organisations so that marginalised refugee and migrant children can be better educated.

Places, though, are limited. For instance, for this academic year at Minmahaw School, there are only 45 seats for 170 applications. Due to the high competition, student enrolment is based on various criteria including education and age, family structure and siblings, family income and support, ethnicity, years of living in Thailand, and documentation. While the majority of applicants are from major ethnic groups such as Bamar, Karen, Mon, Kachin, Chin, Arakan and Lahu, this year's admission included two students from the Naga ethnic group and another of Thai-Indian origin.

Given the border and camp environment in which they have been raised, the students, who are now living and studying together, must learn how to communicate and help each other. Besides the core subjects of English, science, mathematics, social studies, computers, arts, and the Thai language, extracurricular subjects include intercultural sensitivity, world history, peace around the world, art and drama, sports, and music.

The Minmahaw School's management and teaching staff are proud of their accomplishments as their students have been able to pass the GED exams and continue their higher education both in Thailand and abroad despite their limited resources. Chiang Mai University, Bangkok University, Rangsit University and Asia-Pacific University have enrolled and provided scholarships for their students. Due to the strong bond nurtured during their student years, some of Julia's classmates also return to Mae Sot to help their communities.

Minmahaw School, an English immersion boarding school for underprivileged Myanmar students, has operated for 17 years. (Photo: minmahawschool Facebook page)

Not only Minmahaw School but other schools along the border are hoping that peace and normalcy will return to Myanmar so their students can have a normal education and life. Most importantly, their families can return to their homelands.

For some long-term refugees, hopes of a brighter life elsewhere have been dashed as third-country resettlement is no longer an option. Since 2004, when the resettlement programme was initiated and ended last year, a total of 128,786 persons were successfully resettled in 15 countries. For the record, the US has taken in 101,111 people, Australia 15,575 and Canada 5,162.

In addition, since 2014, with assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Thailand and Myanmar have been working on a voluntary return programme, but so far, only 1,039 people have been successfully repatriated to their villages inside Myanmar. The Thai authorities hope to continue the voluntary process when the Myanmar crisis ends. For now, at least, repatriation efforts have stalled.

Over the past two years, Mae Sot's economy has boomed, with new restaurants, shopping centres and marketplaces springing up. The Thai-Myanmar border trade in Mae Sot is the highest among the four trading posts, the other three being Sangkhlaburi in Kanchanaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Ranong. Last year, the total border trade on the eastern flank was worth 257,000 million baht and is expected to increase threefold over the next few years. Mae Sot has had an international airport since 2014.

Given the current situation and future trajectory along the Thai-Myanmar border, it is recommended that the Thai government adopt immediate and positive steps to integrate those displaced who have been in the camps for decades. The government should retain the voluntary resettlement plan. Continuing to leave them out at the border without integrating into the larger social fabric of Thai society could cause unforeseen circumstances. If they instead became part of Thailand's economic and social development, they could contribute to the country's stability and prosperity.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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