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Explosions and equations: How learning persists for Myanmar’s displaced children

Near the border in Mae Sot, Thailand, migrant children gather early in the morning to wait for the school bus. Many come from distant, makeshift homes on construction sites, factories, and farms, where they live with their parents. Photo: Jittrapon Kaicome/HaRDstories

As the conflict in Myanmar drives more refugees across the border, Mae Sot’s migrant schools grapple with the challenge of providing education and protection for the growing number of displaced children.

 

An explosion rumbled in the distance across the Moei River, the tributary that separates Myanmar from Thailand’s Tak province, but the students at Min Thu Won school were too preoccupied to look up from their desks. It was an exam day.  

Their families had fled from Myanmar in droves, taking their children with them, to escape the ruthless persecution under the junta that seized power in February 2021 and the civil strife that followed. With their formal education coming to an abrupt end, many of the displaced children are relying on initiatives like Min Thu Won school for some semblance of learning during the formative years of their youth. 

“I can see my own past in the lives of these kids,” school co-founder Johny Adhikari, who spent years of his adolescence as a stateless person in Thailand, said as he watched the students scribbling away on their exam papers. “The way I grew up wasn’t so different from theirs.” 

Min Thu Won and other similar programmes dotting the border district of Mae Sot, where tens of thousands of people from Myanmar have found refuge. They are hoping that basic education would not only equip the children with necessary knowledge and skills, but also save them from human trafficking, a scourge that stalks the vulnerable migrant communities along the borderland. 

But as the recent fighting around the strategic town of Myawaddy forced more people to flee across the Moei River into Mae Sot, these networks of charity-run education centres – already underfunded and understaffed for years – are facing an even more dire challenge than ever. 

At the same time, migrant rights workers interviewed for this story said, the Thai authorities continue to be unresponsive in their legally mandated duty to provide the young refugees with education, despite a declaration in Thai law that education has to be accessible to all. The advocates point to cases of migrant children being denied basic education, and even a prosecution of a Thai civil servant who tried to remedy the problem. 

“What’s happening in Myanmar is affecting the people on this side of the border, too,” Siraporn Kaewsombat, director of Help Without Frontiers foundation, told HaRDstories. “If they have access to education, the children won’t fall prey to the human traffickers, and they won’t be exploited as child labour. And if they do become victims, they would know how and where to get help.” 

From potential victims to students

Communities of refugees have been straddling the Thai-Myanmar border for decades, having been driven out of their home by violence, poverty and human rights abuses in their homeland. But the 2021 coup in Myanmar, which has since escalated into a full-blown civil war, has sparked a displacement crisis that saw many more people seeking relative safety in the town of Mae Sot.  

The United Nations refugee agency estimates that the ongoing rounds of fighting in Myanmar may push the number of internally displaced people (IDP) to at least 2.3 million in 2024, with women and children making up half of them. Tens of thousands of such displaced people were believed to have crossed into Thailand in the past few years, according to estimates from migrant rights observers. 

When HaRDstories visited Mae Sot earlier this year, the struggle between the combined rebel forces and the government troops for control of Myawaddy had reached a new, deadly intensity. The tremor and sound of bombardment have become an everyday experience for the residents in this town on Thailand’s western fringe, while its roads are thronged with Myanmar families on the run from the war, many of them with children in tow. 

Without access to education and crucial life skills, rights workers warned, these children are at risk of becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty, low wages, or even downright exploitation by their employers – not to mention the ever-present threats of human trafficking. Migrant learning centres were founded to address these risks. 

“Our goals are these: the children must be safe from the traffickers, and they must be free from exploitative labour practices,” Johny, the co-founder of Min Thu Won School, said. 

“Many of these kids weren’t even vaccinated, because they were born in remote areas.,” he continued. “Having access to education is also access to healthcare. That’s why I think education is an important key to their future.” 

Unlike in the earlier years, migrant learning centres (MLCs) in Mae Sot like Johnny’s school are no longer operating in the shadows. They are officially registered with the provincial Primary Educational Service Office, a body that answers to the Ministry of Education, though the recognition does not translate to accreditation of their degrees or monetary support. Each MLC is responsible for its own funding. 

According to data compiled in March by the office, there are 64 MLCs across Tak province, with 15,139 students, 708 displaced teachers from Myanmar, and 83 Thai teachers – a staggering number that has strained the existing network of educators, according to the people interviewed for this story. 

“We have to take care of so many children right now,” said Mahn Shwe Hnin, the director of the Children Development Centre, one of the larger MLCs in Mae Sot. 

Staffed with 53 teachers, the centre offered secondary education to 1,180 students throughout 2023, he said. Many of the children who completed their primary education in other MLCs continued their studies here. 

A makeshift school bus

Every morning, Johnny and U Tay, a former resistance fighter from Myanmar who is now the headmaster of Min Thu Won School, drive a pickup truck to pick up their pupils scattered across the many farmlands and orchards around Mae Ku Nuea village, the closest settlement to the school. To prevent the remoteness from posing obstacles to the children’s learning, they pick up and drop off the students with their own car for free.

“They live with their families in the fields,” Johnny said, gesturing to the farmlands all around the pickup truck. Migrant families here are mostly farmhands who get paid as low as 120 baht per day. 

“There’s no such thing as minimum wage here, because they don’t even exist in the eyes of the law,” U Tay said of the migrants.

As the students piled into the pickup truck, U Tay said some of them would have to quit school as soon as they are deemed to be old enough to help their parents in the fields. They would also have to leave when their families moved to find farming work in another area, causing another disruption in their learning. 

“And if they don’t have a job, they don’t have money, so the school would have to help them,” U Tay said, adding that each family typically has three to five children. 

In the past, most learning centres followed the curriculum preferred by the Myanmar education ministry; although their accreditation from Mae Sot wasn’t recognised back home, the students could still transfer their grades to a school in Myanmar when they moved back, allowing them to pick up their studies relatively seamlessly. 

But that arrangement is no longer possible due to the turmoil in Myanmar’s bureaucracy amid the ongoing civil war, and many of the displaced people can’t even foresee when it would be safe enough for them to return home. A growing number of MLCs have adapted accordingly to the new situation, including Min Thu Won. 

“Nowadays, more children are learning Thai, because they have no home they can go back to any more,” Johnny said. “This is their home now.” 

 

Blood Oath 

Min Thu Won School currently has 120 students and five teachers. Most walk to school each morning, while U Tay drives out to pick up those who live farther away, covering a distance of 30 kilometres per each roundtrip. U Tay makes two such trips in the morning, and two more trips in the evening when he drops off the students after school is out.  

Around 8 o’clock in the morning, the students gather in front of the flagpole and sing the Thai National Anthem, just like students in thousands of other schools across Thailand. After the raising of the Thai flag, the pupils would join in a chorus of Thway Thitsar, or Blood Oath, a song that came to be associated with the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar in the wake of the bloody uprising in 1988 – the momentous event that their headmaster also participated in as a young student. 

“We used to have the kids sing the Myanmar National Anthem,” U Tay said, adding that he later changed his mind because the anthem’s promise of equality rang hollow. “In reality, those things never came true in Myanmar.”

Although the children appear to coexist in spite of their many ethnic groups, ages, and religions, Johnny and U Tay said they noted that many of them bear the mental scar that they carried from the fighting in their homeland. 

“If we let the children live with their trauma like this, they’d grow up with negative minds,” Johnny said. “I want our school to be a safe space for them, and give them freedom to use their mind to the fullest of their creativity.” 

 

Lifelong quest for education 

Johnny and U Tay first founded the school together back in 2011, out of the conviction that the classrooms would save the children from human trafficking and child labour, as well as increase their chance of earning some kind of documentation or legal status in the long run, which would allow them to live in Thailand with proper access to healthcare and other rights.  

Johnny also set up a network of Parent Teacher Association (PTA) between the school, the families of the children, and the community. Its goal is to encourage the parents to keep their children in school, and rely on the community’s help to safeguard against the exploitation of the migrant children. 

“When some of the kids were sold, or lured by the human traffickers, the PTA would alert us and work with us, and we’d rescue them,” Johnny explained. “If we don’t educate the parents, too, they wouldn’t see why education of their kids is such a big deal.” 

Johnny, 38, counts his lineage to the Gurkhas, who were originally from Nepal. His grandfather was a Gurkha who followed the Allied troops into Burma during the Second World War and settled there after the country won its independence from British rule. 

However, the military coup that deposed a fledgling democratic regime in 1962 and the subsequent ‘Burmanisation’ campaign barred Johnny’s family from citizenship, effectively turning them into outsiders in their own land.

Born in Kachin State, Johnny and his family were soon driven from their home by the repression and persecution of ethnic minorities and fled into the Thai side of the border, in Mae Sot. Although neither country formally recognised him as their citizen, Johnny said he considers Mae Sot to be his true home. 

“When I was kid, I had to live in the jungle along the border. I remember having lessons under the stars with a teacher, who was also a displaced person like myself,” Johnny recalled his childhood. “Once we burned through two candles, we’d go to bed.” 

As a teenager, Johnny set out from Mae Sot to Bangkok, picking up whatever jobs he could find, and gradually climbing the social ladder; he’s worked as a waiter, a restaurant manager, and a textile seller. Johnny taught himself language skills as much as business know-how, practising English with his customers. 

He finally had a formal education in his early 20s, when he returned to Mae Sot and attended classes with a learning centre run by a local NGO. The experience brought him closer with the civic groups working in the area, and introduced him to the many problems that other migrants such as himself were facing in Thailand.

But his passion had always been education, and his wish to offer other migrant children a similar path to learning was finally realised in 2011 when Johnny, at 25 years old, founded a small MLC together with his friend U Tay in Tak’s Phop Phra District – which later grew to be Min Thu Won School at its current location. 

“We just built a simple hut and put migrant children there to learn how to read,” U Tay spoke of the school’s early days. “We are truly a grassroot school.”

 

Knowledge is a weapon

Prior to his current role as an educator, U Tay was a former activist who joined the popular uprising against the Burmese junta in 1988, when he was only a high school student. The ruling clique crushed the protest by using deadly force and conducting mass arrests, forcing him to flee to the safety of a Karen-controlled territory in eastern Myanmar, where many of the activists regrouped.

Like other former students who participated in the democratic protests, U Tay took up arms and joined a militia that fought against the Burmese military. In 1996, U Tay was captured by government troops and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was freed after just 77 days, thanks to his parents, who paid a large sum of money to a lawyer that helped secure his freedom.

“My parents signed an agreement that I would never get involved in politics again,” U Tay said. “After I was released, I decided I couldn’t stay at home any longer.” 

He first met Johnny in 2006 when the pair was working in a Myanmar migrants assistance group. By then, U Tay had renounced all kinds of armed struggle, and in the following year he began working with Johnny on founding a learning centre based on his belief that education would benefit everyone as a whole. 

“Not only do Thai children deserve the rights to education, but stateless or migrant children who coexist with us do as well,” Johnny said. “If we don’t give these children education, it’d be like harming our own house, too. Because when children go to school, they learn to respect the rules in the school, and they’ll continue to learn. They will grow up to be good citizens.” 

The forbidden fruit 

The migrant learning centres have been operating in Mae Sot since the late 1990s, spearheaded by migrant rights workers and NGOs as a remedy to the lack of access to formal education among the thousands of displaced children on Thailand’s border. The result was a ‘parallel education’ for young migrants in Mae Sot, supported by donations and grants from civic, religious and political groups. 

After years of campaigning, the Cabinet in July 2005 approved a measure to affirm universal access to education regardless of nationality status. The resolution was followed by an edict from the Ministry of Education formally welcoming migrant and stateless children into its fold. 

Under the ministry regulation, all children in Thailand may enrol in primary and secondary education anywhere in the country even without forms of identification – the bane that has haunted communities of displaced people for years – while any associated expenses that arise from accepting these undocumented children will be reimbursed by the state coffers. 

However, many migrant workers and refugees in Mae Sot still hesitated to send their children to public schools, social workers say, one of the main reasons being the school officials’ reluctance or even outright refusal to accept Myanmar children, citing risks of increased costs for the administration. 

By 2007, the migrant learning centres received some respite from heavy-handed law enforcement when the provincial Primary Educational Service Office began its registration of the schools for migrant children in the area. Since then, the authorities have been mostly tolerating the programs with a quiet acceptance, and disavowing them whenever the political climate demands a tougher stance. 

“When the NCPO staged the coup in 2014, our school got in trouble, too,” Johnny said, referring to the junta’s formal name, the National Council for Peace and Order. “The Thai authorities were cracking down on undocumented migrant workers, and our school got caught up in it, too, because the parents of our students didn’t have legal status in Thailand.”

He added, “We had been telling the children that they had the right to be here, and there was nothing for them to fear, but what happened in those days made what we taught the students fall to pieces. Their parents ended up being arrested. But we kept fighting on, and we’re still standing today.” 

Backed by the law, banned by the law

Despite the existing legal backing for universal education, human rights workers and migrant welfare advocates told HaRDstories that the Thai officialdom continues to deny educational access to migrant children and treat them with mistrust, even in Mae Sot, where communities of Myanmar displaced people and Thai residents have been mingling together for years. 

In a recent case from 2023, Tak province’s Primary Educational Service Office issued a statement banning public schools in Mae Sot from extending admission to refugees or people displaced by the fighting in Myanmar; “aliens who entered the country illegally;” and migrants in the borderland communities who do not have Thai citizenship.  

Activists say the ban not only effectively disbars war refugees from Thailand’s education system but also potentially violates the ministry’s 2005 regulation, which extends the rights to education to all children, whether undocumented or not. 

“This kind of measure is one factor that schools are generally afraid to accept children displaced by the war [in Myanmar],” said Siraporn, the director of the Help Without Frontier foundation. 

Primary Educational Service Office director Pilat Udomwong defended the decision as a necessary measure to solve the problems of a shortage of teachers and lack of funding from the central government, which saddled local schools with increasing costs. 

“We’re seeing fewer teachers but more students, and the facilities are already stretched thin,” Pilat said in an interview with ThaiPBS. “If we don’t set up some kind of a bar, and if we still let in a large number of students, it’ll cause severe problems in managing our education. Instead of maintaining quality, the current students would lose their potential.”

While Siraporn acknowledged that the shortage of teachers is a real and persistent problem that plagues public schools in Tak province, she insisted that it’s the state’s duty to find adequate resources and provide education for all, as mandated by law.

“Children deserve protection and access to education,” she said. 

Despite the legal mandate, some migrant students who were already enrolled in public schools have faced abrupt expulsions, and a school director was even criminally investigated for offering education to displaced children.

“No teacher should ever be prosecuted for providing education to children,” Siraporn said.

Shutting the door 

The ongoing uncertainty and occasional crackdown have convinced many public schools to be fearful of accepting migrant or stateless children, despite the law’s explicit mandate on universal education with no barriers, Siraporn and others interviewed for this story said. 

“I don’t see them as Myanmar or Thai children,” the foundation director said. “Children are children. They must be protected.” 

Surapong Kongchantuk, a scholar who advises the Ministry of Education on issues relating to migrants and disadvantaged children along the border area, said a major long-standing problem is the lack of understanding among officials from various agencies about government policies and laws on education, leading to an uneven and confusing implementation on the ground. 

“In reality … if you don’t provide education to children, you are liable to be prosecuted for negligence of duty,” Surapong said. “It’s illegal.” 

The shortage of education staff in Mae Sot also contrasts with the influx of former teachers and other educators from Myanmar who fled the growing violence back home. One of them is Daw Aye Aye, who used to teach science classes at a school in Yangon and is now employed as a teacher at one of the migrant learning centres in Mae Sot. 

Daw Aye Aye said she joined many of her fellow teachers in Myanmar in the Civil Disobedience Movement, a nationwide resistance campaign that saw public sector workers across Myanmar’s bureaucracy – from railway workers to judges – engage in a mass strike to protest the 2021 coup. The brutal repression by the junta regime that followed convinced her and others to leave Myanmar.

“I couldn’t stay there anymore because I was opposed to the military dictators,” Daw Aye Aye said. “I decided to flee to the Thai side of the border last year. But no one would let me rent a place to stay if they found out I was a teacher from Yangon.”

Due to the lack of proper documentation, migrant teachers are sometimes subject to extortion and demands to pay bribes by local law enforcement officers, activists told HaRDstories. 

In Mae Sot, Daw Aye Aye spoke of her belief that providing knowledge to a new generation of Myanmar children is yet another form of peaceful struggle against the tyranny back home.

“I can still fight without any weapons,” the science teacher in exile said in an interview. “Even though I’m here, I can still fight for these children. Science is my weapon. I can give these children knowledge and opportunities in their lives.” 

Integration as a solution? 

“Can you hear that?” Johnny prompted a reporter as he stood watch over the students during their exam in Min Thu Won school. 

Another series of explosions erupted from somewhere across the River Moei, their sounds akin to the bass tones played from an old stereo, but none of the students appeared to pay them any mind, as though the fighting had become yet another everyday occurrence, too commonplace to notice. 

“If a fire breaks out in our neighbour’s house, and we don’t help put the fire out,” Johnny said darkly. “One day, the fire will spread to our house, too.”

While Mae Sot has always been a multicultural crossroad, due to its place in history as the thoroughfare of many people and cultures – Thais, Burmese, Karens, Mons, Gurkhas, Dais, just to name a few – the recent arrivals of people from Myanmar seeking safety from the junta’s persecution has unmistakably and firmly transformed the town into “Little Myanmar.” 

“Mae Sot is changing all the time,” said Siraporn, who’s lived in Mae Sot for 18 years. “Nowadays, Myanmar nationals are employed in all kinds of services. They can communicate with Thai people now. They’ve even stepped up to be managers alongside their Thai colleagues. A lot of businesses also rely on these foreign workers.”

Like other rights defenders interviewed for this story, Siraporn maintained that providing education to the displaced and migrant children is a noble and important pursuit, but she also believes that a more permanent solution lies in the integration of these new generations of people from Myanmar into Thai society. 

Such integration effort could be led by granting legal status to the children, in order to solve the problem at its roots. There are also many schools in rural Thailand with a drastic decrease in attendance in recent years, thanks to Thailand’s plunging birthrates, which could be adapted to accommodate the growing number of displaced children from across the border. 

“We won’t have to chase after the problems about stateless people, and solve them case after case anymore,” Siraporn said. “We just have to overcome our prejudice that’s born out of history.”

Already, Siraporn said, many refugees and their children expect to remain in Thailand in the long term, since they do not see when their homeland would be safe enough to return in the foreseeable future. 

Some learning centres, including her own, have adapted their lessons accordingly: more focus is being placed on Thai language, career skills, and relevant knowledge about living in Thailand to promote an easier integration. 

At Min Thu Won school, Johnny said he also believes that if they were given a place in Thai society, the students at his school would prove to be upstanding citizens with aspiration for education. 

“The children have changed in a positive way,” he said. “Even the younger kids have learned how to read and write. Some of the older kids even managed to find enrollment in universities. It’s going in the right direction now. Once the students reach that point [higher education], they’ll also become good examples for the younger children who see that there is a future.”

Surapong, the expert on displaced children, agrees that granting proper legal status to the migrant children would benefit Thailand in many ways, whether in the aspects of human rights, economy, and dynamics of workforce.

“If we come up with a systematic solution about the statuses of these people, the security of the state would also benefit from it,” Surapong said. 

 

Edited and translated from Thai by Teeranai Charuvastra

Veerapong Soontornchattrawat is a freelance writer who explores social issues through the experiences of individuals. He focuses on human interest stories, particularly the effects of historical and social conflicts. 

Jittrapon Kaicome is an independent photojournalist born and raised in Chiang Mai. His projects focus on issues in his hometown of northern Thailand and nearby countries in the Mekong region o Southeast Asia. 

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