Education International
Education International

Beyond Burma: Lessons in hope for refugee children

published 20 March 2009 updated 20 March 2009

Mae Sot, THAILAND — He has the quiet, professional demeanour of a man who prefers the educational sanctuary of the classroom to the dangers of revolutionary politics. Yet Burmese teacher Htay Hlaing spent nine-years incarcerated in a notorious torture prison in his military-ruled homeland for the so-called “crime” of helping his students draft a letter asking for peace and reconciliation.

“I felt as if I was in hell. My life was taken away. Sometimes we were watched all day and all night. If they said sit, you had to sit. If they said stand, you had to stand. There were five of us crammed into a tiny cell,” recalled the 51-year-old Physics and Chemistry teacher. Although Htay – pronounced “Tay” – wasn’t personally tortured, he told how other political prisoners in infamous Insein jail on the north-western outskirts of the Burmese capital, Yangon, were beaten to near death and locked in leg irons by prison guards at the merest hint of defiance. “The Burmese government is like the devil. The whole world should know how they treat the people,” said Htay, who fled to neighbouring Thailand with his wife and four of their five children last year soon after his release. Still reeling from last May’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, Burma has been at civil war for 60 years and oppressed, since the mid 1960’s, by a succession of military regimes. An estimated three million Burmese citizens are now in exile, the vast majority slaving as undocumented migrant workers in Thailand and throughout South East Asia. Around 350,000 Burmese have fled to the Mae Sot border city area, where most live in sprawling refugee camps and struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children. Today Htay -- although without legal papers -- has found employment and relative freedom at a remarkable school for the children of Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, some 400 miles north west of the Thai capital, Bangkok. Founded in 1999 by head teacher U Khaing Oo Maung, the Boarding High School for Orphans and Helpless Youths has 300 pupils and 20 staff. Sixty of the children are orphans and live at the school, sleeping in classrooms that double as dormitories, playing in a dirt courtyard shared with a flotilla of ducks. Although facilities are ramshackle and rudimentary, the school has found an educational pathway that leads away from war and repression. The spirit and enthusiasm for learning and teaching amongst the children and staff are truly inspirational. And a number of the school’s graduates go on to universities in Australia, Canada, Germany and Thailand, through United Nations scholarships and education programmes. For the orphans what little the school can give means a lot. “When I arrived I was very happy and grateful. They gave me everything. I didn’t have any clothes so they gave me clothes. They gave me soap, toothbrush and slippers, everything I needed,” said 15-year-old Ne Aung Moe, who is rarely seen without a smile. The school’s oldest student, 20-year-old Kyain Ye Shet, who was disabled by botched medical treatment back home, said: “We got pressure from both sides, pressure from the military and pressure from the opposition, so we had to run away. But here I am safe. When I finish my education, I’m going to return to my Burmese Lahu tribe and work for them.” It’s a declaration of service and sacrifice echoed by many students. U Khaing’s adoptive daughter Yatanar, aged 9, wants to be a doctor and “would like to treat poor people free of charge,” while 13-year-old May Thet Aye aims to be a teacher “to teach what I learned here to other children.” From a nation divided by ethnic and political strife, the school is a microcosm of Burma with pupils coming from all the country’s religions and ethnic groups. “Here there is no ethnic or religious discrimination. This is very important for the future democracy of Burma,” stressed principal U Khaing. “We should have human rights without discrimination among the ethnic and religious groups. In future, some students will be medical doctors, engineers, university teachers. They will be leaders. They will lead us in our country.” Proudly wearing a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the face of imprisoned Burmese pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 70-year-old U Khaing has all the wit and charisma of a born teacher. For six years, he too was jailed and tortured by military intelligence agents, before escaping to the border region after Burma’s failed 1988 uprising. He then taught at a school hidden in the jungle. Another teacher and former pupil at the orphanage school, 25-year-old Si Si Htwe, also witnessed atrocities committed in her home village by soldiers of the State Peace and Development Council, the official name of the ruling military junta in Burma. She told EI: “When I was in my village of Khaung Chi, SPDC soldiers were attacking and burning other villages in the area. One man tried to return to his village but he was caught by the soldiers. They cut off his head. They cut off his hands and legs and spread the body parts all over.” Despite its great successes, life remains tough at the orphanage school. “All of us, the teachers, the principal and all the students are illegal. So we are concerned about our security all the time,” explained deputy head teacher Chang One. “If I go into Mae Sot centre and meet a policeman and he asks for money, I have to give it to him. If I don’t I will be arrested and sent back to Burma.” A grant from an Italian NGO feeds the children twice a day, but the school remains desperate for funding. And its status is uncertain as Thai authorities only recognise it as a “learning centre” and not as a legal school. Moreover, because of their precarious status, the teachers can’t form or join a union. The school can only afford to pay its teachers around US$100 a month. Even principal U Khaing is paid only US$30 a week. “We need many things: clothing, computers, school transportation,” stressed U Khaing, “We have no government, no country under the military leadership, so I deeply request international donors to please come to our school and check up what we really need.” By David Browne.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 29, March 2009.