Among the Impoverished Kayan, an Activist Puts Teachers in Schools

By Lawi Weng 10 June 2014

LOIKAW — The Kayan people, who live in southern Shan State and Karenni State, are one of Burma’s smallest ethnic minorities and one of its poorest. Their villages in the isolated, hilly interior of eastern Burma are affected by decades of conflict and often lack basic education facilities. But Kayan activist Pedu is determined to change that.

“We found that almost half of the 470 villages [in Karenni State] need volunteer teachers. Based on the local needs, we offer teachers,” he said during an interview in Loikaw last week.

Pedu, 30, is the chairman of the Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY) based in the Karenni State capital Loikaw. From here he oversees an ambitious program that aims to bring primary education to understaffed schools in remote villages.

KNGY plans to provide 250 primary schools in Kayan communities in Karenni and southern Shan states this year with teachers from its training program, according to Pedu, adding that the program costs about US$100,000 annually, roughly half of which is provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The program accepts applicants—mostly young men and women—with 10 years of education and puts them through a three month teachers training course, said Pedu, who goes by only one name.

“Those who were trained are placed at the government schools where it is needed,” he said, adding that state schools often lack a sufficient number of teachers to properly educate pupils, while some 50 unofficial villages in Karenni State lack a primary school.

“The government is often only able to provide one teacher although there are many children at the schools. Some teachers could not share their time with each child, and some children could not study full-time,” he said.

“The unofficial villages have a very small population; the government could not provide a teacher there.”

Since 2013, KNGY has trained about 200 teachers, each of whom is paid about US$40 per month.

One female training participant said she would be sent to teach in her native village in an area east of Loikaw, near the Lawpita hydropower dam.

“After the training, I will serve as a volunteer teacher there. But I do not want to serve in another area where there is no mobile phone network,” she said, in a comment that highlights why remote schools often struggle to retain teachers.

“I have busy days now, but I am very happy because of what I do for the community,” said Pedu, adding that the Karenni State Education Department is supportive of the project, even though the KNGY teachers are not officially qualified to teach in state schools.

Government rules state that primary schools teachers should have completed higher education, but few prospective teachers in Karenni State meet this requirement.

Athanasio, a KNGY trainer in the program, said, “It is very difficult to find educated people in our area; if someone studied at university and graduated, he is the greatest person in the village.”

“They [authorities] understand the situation, the local needs, and agreed with us whenever we asked them to place our volunteer teachers at their schools,” Pedu said.

His relations with the government were not always this good, however.

As a Kayan activist, he was persecuted by the former military government and in 2008 he was sentenced to 34 years in prison for organizing a campaign against the military-drafted Constitution, which centralizes political powers in the ethnic regions in the hands of the Burma Army.

After spending four years of his sentence, he was released in 2012 under an amnesty signed by President Thein Sein, who has initiated dramatic political reforms since taking office in 2011 and signed bilateral ceasefire with over a dozen ethnic armed groups, including the main Kayan rebel group.

After his release, the former political prisoner quickly resumed his activism, opened the KNGY office in Loikaw and began providing training to promote democracy, human rights and education in his region.

“We are not a group that only criticizes the government, but also we provide help to fill the gaps in government [services],” he said, adding that KNGY was also prepared to stand up to the government to protect the rights of the Kayan people.

“This is just a project based on the needs of the community—we prepared it for them,” he said.