RANGOON—Mie Nyi Chan Aye no longer needs to run for his life or hide for weeks at a time in the jungle, as he did more than 10 years ago.
As a child, the village boy in northern Shan State fled his home whenever battles broke out between Shan militias and the Burmese army, taking refuge with his family in a nearby forest for several days, and sometimes weeks.
“We had to spend our days and nights in the jungle, running away from the fighting,” the 18-year-old ethnic Palaung told The Irrawaddy recently.
But now, studying for next year’s matriculation exams at a boarding school for ethnic youth in east Rangoon, those fearsome days seem long behind him.
The school, known as Su Taung Pyae, was founded in the early 1990s as a free monastic education center for poor children, but has since become a microcosm of privately run charities across Burma that offer shelter and an education to young people from the country’s volatile ethnic regions, including Shan, Mon, Karen, Kachin and Chin states.
Since Burma’s independence in 1948, most of these areas have seen decades of war between the government’s army and local rebel groups pressing for federalism or autonomy. These conflicts have killed thousands of people, left hundreds of thousands displaced or exiled, and stifled development. Frequent fighting has also forced teachers to forsake their schools.
“Regional insecurity is one of the major factors in the mushrooming of charity schools for ethnic children in Burma,” said Kaung Nyunt, who has trained charity school teachers in the country since 2005. “Nearly 90 percent of monastic schools throughout the country welcome them [ethnic children].”
Nandabivunsa, a Buddhist monk and the patron of Su Taung Pyae school, said nearly 80 percent of his 638 boarding students come from the country’s least developed regions, where communities have been shattered by decades-long civil wars.
“If they stick to their villages, they will finally be recruited by rebels or militias,” he said. “Here in Rangoon, they are safe and become literate.”
As a missionary monk who traveled to remote corners of the country to promote Buddhism in the 1980s, Nandabivunsa was shocked to witness the isolation of ethnic communities.
“They lacked everything—knowledge, education and health care” said the 53-year old monk. “All they had was fear of armed groups.”
After meeting children who had been orphaned by the fighting, he decided to bring a group of them to Rangoon in the late 1980s and put them under his care, unaware that this decision would herald his future mission for years go to come.
“Whenever they saw someone in trousers, the children were very afraid and would run away,” he said of his early days as a caretaker. “The only trouser people they had known in their lives were soldiers and rebels who scared them.”
“I came to realize that only education could make a difference for them, at least to some extent,” he said, adding that most children under his care came from illiterate families and never went to school in their home villages. “Those [uneducated] children were easy prey for forced recruitments by local insurgent groups, having no idea what they were doing.”
Since then, during his missionary trips to the rough terrain of Burma’s hilly regions, Nandabivunsa not only explains fundamental Buddhism to tribal people but also tries to convince parents to send their children to school.
“It’s not an easy task,” he said.
In southern Shan State, an illiterate father responded to his suggestions with anger. “Why should I care?” the father said, after the monk explained why education would benefit his children’s future. When he asked families to send their children for schooling in Rangoon, a worried mother in the north asked, “Are you trying to traffic my child?” A common question he faced was, “Why should I believe you?”
“I persuaded them that their children would be away from them for a while,” the monk said. “And I firmly told them, ‘I guarantee your child’s safety,’ and if he or she is not happy with us, we will send them back to you. Why don’t you give it a try?’”
More than two decades later, with more than 30 university graduates on its alumni list, Su Taung Pyae school is no longer short on students.
Last year, more than 100 students enrolled from northern Shan State, an area close to north Burma’s Kachin State, where recent fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced tens of thousands of people.
“They’re flocking here, giving me a headache to figure out their accommodation,” the patron monk said.
And he wasn’t kidding. During a recent visit by The Irrawaddy, the girls’ dormitory appeared cramped like a wartime hospital. Trunk beds with barely enough space for two sleepers were forced to hold the excessive weight of four occupants, ranging in age from toddlers to young adults in their early 20s.
The charity has been recognized by the government for 10 years, but the monk said it survives on donations from well-wishers at home and abroad. To his relief, starting this year, 25 teachers at the school will go on the government’s payroll.
Still, he needs to stay frugal. Rather than buying most of his food, he farms a nearby paddy field—driving a tractor himself—to feed the children. When the annual rains come, he wears a pair of Wellington boots to transplant the paddies with his students.
“The farm gives me enough rice for six months,” he said. “For the rest of the year, I have to rely on donations.”
After more than two decades with the school, Nandabivunsa is starting to see some fruitful results of his long commitment.
“Most of my high school dropouts have become teachers in their villages,” he said. “Even though they are not qualified to be teachers, they can at least teach children in their villages how to read and write. They’re doing good job.”
To his delight, three students have become government-appointed nurses and midwives in their villages, and one is now attending a government teachers’ training college.
“Children come here and they go,” the monk said. “What they leave behind for me is happiness. What a great pleasure to see them safe and educated!”