A rare chance to learn

For 10 years a unique school has offered Myanmar migrant workers a chance to get a semblance of an education, writes Achara Ashayagachat

Dear Burma does not exactly sound like a typical school name, but it is here that 10,000 migrant workers from Myanmar have been taught life skills and learn about others and themselves.

Myanmar migrant workers knuckle down to study hard during the short classroom lessons they get each week.

Every Sunday, students of the Dear Burma School head for classes held in the morning and evening at the Sammachivasilp School near Hua Chang Bridge in the Pathumwan area.

The school has been the centre of Myanmar migrant workers' non-formal education for 10 years.

The school, which celebrated its 10th birthday earlier this month, offers a classroom learning experience that is new even to some adult workers, for whom education was a luxury back home.

The school offers morning and evening classes of one to two hours, in which workers learn to read and write Thai and English. Also offered are courses on basic computer use.

Myint Wai, director of the Dear Burma School, said in the beginning it was hard to imagine the school would stay in business, let alone thrive.

Currently, 1,070 students regularly attend classes at the school. About 80% take both Thai and English classes.

In the 10 years it has been open, more than 10,000 Myanmar workers have studied and graduated from the school.

Headmaster Myint Wai, 54, a former student who fled the military crackdown in 1988, has been a source of hope and offers help to fellow Myanmar citizens in need, including migrant workers.

The school empowers many Myanmar workers, said Myint Wai, the endearing kru yai or headmaster to his students.

Apart from training in languages, the classes also teach the students about their basic rights and the law, he said.

The students need to know the law so they can avoid situations in which people take advantage of them.

The classroom is also a test of tolerance. With a mixture of ethnic minorities in the class, the students have to study together and make concessions where necessary.

It is a small, early litmus test of how well national reconciliation can be forged in Myanmar, he said.

Myint Wai said students of minority backgrounds interact amicably with one another.

"This is important for the future of Myanmar, since the migrants are not only skilled workers but they also are fully aware of their rights and have a democratic mindset, so they could become quality, active citizens when they return home," he said.

Because much of their working life is spent in Thailand, the workers are likely to maintain a positive feeling and harbour a sense of gratitude to the country.

"This will be a foundation for strong bilateral relations as well," he said.

For the workers of various ethnicities, who live far from the administrative heart of their country, the official language of Myanmar is strange to their ears.

Some of them receive basic English language training by Thai teachers so they can communicate better with people around them.

The courses at the school last for three months. If they pass the exams, they will move on to higher levels. There are six levels.

The school charges the students 350 baht to 400 baht a head to cover three months. Despite the fee collection, the school is faced with limited resources and staff. Teachers are mostly volunteers.

Now, the school is working closely with the Non-Formal Education Office to make a list of outstanding students whose studies at Dear Burma School will be added to their resume to earn them brighter employment opportunities.

Myint Wai attributed the success of the school to the wide range of assistance it gets including from organisations and political groups inside Myanmar which have supported and monitored the work of the school.

A staff member, Aye Aye Naign, 33, said students make merit together in a spirit of unity and solidarity on important religious days, when the school turns into an important social gathering spot.

Laddawan Tantivitayapitak, chairwoman of the Thailand Action Committee for Democracy in Burma Foundation (TACDB), said the Dear Burma School and similar schools teaching Myanmar workers elsewhere in the country provide a contact point where they can exchange views about their rights and are updated on the social and political situation back home.

The TACDB recognised that migrant labour issues should be given priority and must be tackled with urgency.

What must be addressed is the language barrier experienced by the workers.

She said if the workers are fluent in Thai, they can get along with their employers and can defend their rights and welfare better, as well as deal with the police more easily.

This brightens the workers' job prospects and renders the employment system less problematic.

Ms Laddawan said she did not expect Myanmar to do much for the migrant workers.

However, she urged the Thai government to continue paying attention to migrant labour problems.

She said labour unions in many businesses have taken up migrant workers's concerns in recent years.

The unions came to the aid of migrant workers made redundant by factory shut-downs during last year's flood crisis.

Khun Aung Naign, 28, who works at a guesthouse on the popular tourist strip of Khao San Road, said he was eager to read and write Thai.

"What we learn at the school comes in handy as most migrant workers are uneducated and poor people.

"If we are knowledgeable, our lives will improve," said Khun Aung Naign, who crossed into Thailand on foot 10 years ago. He is studying at level two at the Dear Burma School.

Naign felt fewer Thais now look down on migrant workers. The workers also benefit from key government policies, especially the 300-baht minimum wage which will be launched nationwide on Tuesday.

On Dec 2, thousands of migrant workers joined in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Dear Burma.

The party lasted many hours and featured ethnic cultural performances by the students and a concert attended by well-wishers and donors and volunteers.

Tone Tone Tote, 28, a famous singer, flew in from Yangon to perform at the event.

Her message was that no Myanmar migrant workers will be forgotten.

Students concentrate hard to get the most of their opportunity.

The Sammachivasilp School near Hua Chang Bridge in the Pathumwan area is the location of Dear Burma School.

Students join wellwishers to celebrate the school’s 10th anniversary.

Migrants take turns to stage cultural dances during the 10th anniversary celebration of the Dear Burma School.

About the author

Writer: Photos by Kosol Nakachol