Analysis: Why the Rohingya Teaching Assistants Project is Facing Opposition

By Moe Myint 20 September 2018

YANGON—In order to alleviate language barriers in schools in Rohingya-dominant northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw District, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government began recruiting Rohingya teachers last week and the district education department has already received more than 1,000 applicants as of Wednesday.

Government schoolteachers across Myanmar use Burmese language and materials in their classrooms but this proves tough for Rohingya children who most commonly speak a Chittagonian dialect. Sometimes they cannot interact with teachers even in simple conversations. In the Maungdaw area, there are a very limited number of Rohingya with civil servant jobs and this rare offer from the Ministry of Education has drawn the attention of the Rohingya community.

The head of Maugdaw District’s education department, U Khin Aung told The Irrawaddy that they have already received more than 1,000 applications from Rohingya as of Wednesday— within one week of the call for applications.  He said 400 applications from Maungdaw and 600 from Buthidaung townships respectively were submitted. The education official used the term “teaching assistant” rather than “schoolteacher.”

68% of Rohingya students now in Bangladeshi camps

It’s unclear as of yet how much funding the Ministry of Education will allocate to this pilot project and whether the government has plans to hire more applicants in the future or not, as final decision is in the hands of the higher authorities. U Khin Aung said that the ministry will pay the teaching assistants salaries of 50,000 to 150,000 kyats in cash per month.

According to him, more than 130 Muslims are currently serving in the education department of Maungdaw District and a small number of them retired last year.  It’s unclear whether the qualified candidates will have opportunities in the future to be promoted to schoolteacher positions when they have sufficient experience for the position.

Approximately 500 government schools—including primary, middle and high schools—were serving more than 140,000 Muslim students and some non-Muslim students before the violence broke out in August 2017 and ultimately resulted in 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

Most of the schools are now empty as ninety percent of the Rohingya population were ejected by the violence and more than 200 Rohingya villages were reduced to ashes. The Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have been working out a repatriation process since this early year but not a single refugee has returned through official channels as of today.

U Khin Aung acknowledged that more than 80,000 students in Maungdaw and more than 60,000 students in Buthidaung Township were studying at government schools in early 2017.  Today, the size of the population of Muslim students in the entire Maungdaw District has declined to 60,000—approximately 20,000 in Maungdaw Township and 40,000 in Buthidaung Township.

Rohingya children tending cattle in northern Maungdaw’s Maung Hnama Village in 2016. / Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy

These numbers indicate that at least 68 percent of the Muslim students of Maungdaw District—a number of about 80,000—have been sheltering in neighboring Bangladesh in muddy refugee camps without any access to education. The figure for displaced students does not include deaths and the missing.

A rare career for Rohingya    

Some of the Rohingya who did not join the exodus, like Abdul Wahid from Rathedaung Township who is currently sheltering with his relatives in Buthidaung Township, told The Irrawaddy that job opportunities are an incentive for the displaced people as they have been in financial hardship for months.

He said that five people from his village applied for the positions via the Nyaung Chaung village superintendent.

“They are happy with the [call for] recruitments as it can become a professional career for them. At the same time, it can [provide for] their daily life,” said Abdul Wahid.

However, the fate of their applications are uncertain as local authorities have announced that Rohingya applicants from Buthidaung and Maungdaw are preferable for the posts.

“The applicants were unhappy when they heard about the government’s preferences but they are still hopeful”, said Abdul Wahid.

Objections from nationalists

Although the education department says this is just the initial stage of a pilot project, more challenges are imminent as serious objections have already been voiced to the government from Myanmar’s nationalists.

Nearly 200 representatives from Buddhist religious orders, Rakhine political parties and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as well as civil society groups held an urgent meeting in Rakhine’s capital of Sittwe this week which focused on objecting offering the positions to Muslims from Maugdaw District who are high school graduates. Anti-Muslim activists have said they will send a letter of objection to the president’s office.

Arakanese nationalist U Than Tun, who joined the meeting told The Irrawaddy that the previous government under U Thein Sein had made the same offer to Muslims in 2013 but the positions was clearly labelled “volunteer teacher” positions at the time. The current NLD-led government officially stated “teacher assistant” and “educational staff” in its recruitment letter. He argued that current Myanmar laws only grant civil servant positions to citizens, not non-citizens.

As for the nationalists drumming-up objections, U Khin Aung said “There is no discriminative policy in the government education system. We civil servants are implementing what the ministry instructed on the ground.”

Yangon-based organization Gender Equality Network’s founder U Aung Myo Min, remarked that education is essential for every single child. Making this change to the school teaching system could significantly improve the students’ learning potential. Educational opportunities should be offered to kids regardless of racial or religious backgrounds, he said.

“People should simply acknowledge that a kid is a kid,” he said.

U Aung Myo Min recommended that educators who know about sensitive and regional situations would be appropriate teaching assistants or teachers and they should educate students on sensitive issues through the school curriculum.  He emphasized that promoting education in strife-torn regions is a necessity, especially; children should be taught proper education at school.

“Conflicts happen more easily in regions with lower education levels,” said U Aung Myo Min.

U Khaing Kaung San, founder of Sittwe-based Wunlurk Development Foundation, recalled that since armed conflicts erupted in Maugdaw last year, schoolteachers from other areas who had been working in Maungdaw, returned to their hometowns and have yet to go back to Maungdaw as they feel it is still unsafe there. Local authorities quickly filled the gap with temporary schoolteachers. Thus, he agreed that this government approach is realistic and reasonable.

A burnt-out market in a Rohingya village of Myo Thu Gyi in August 2017 which was later reconstructed as a border police regiment. / Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy

Why do Arakanese disrespect other groups’ rights?

Some Arakanese civil society groups have claimed that the majority of Arakanese are not familiar with the concept of basic human rights and sometimes have no idea even about their own basic rights. They do not know the necessity of respecting other groups’ basic rights, and so block or demand a revoke of rights for other groups. Similarly, narrow-minded reactions will only result in negative impressions of Rakhine being relayed to the international community.

U Khaing Kaung San criticized the response saying it indicates how the community is not well informed about basic human rights. He said that people should not connect job opportunities and citizenship matters citing the example of neighboring Thailand allowing job opportunities for Myanmar immigrants though they are obviously not Thai citizens.

Despite some members of the Arakanese community being troubled with longstanding human rights abuses, the number of institutionalized human rights watchdogs or organization focusing on Arakanese are extremely limited. The Irrawaddy asked several social activists from Rakhine State, including members of Kyaukphyu Rural Development Assocaition (KRDA) and Wunlark Development Foundation, whether any human rights institution or watchdogs are monitoring rights abuses among the Arakanese and all of them answered that they have no knowledge of such activities.

The Arakan Human Rights and Development Organisation (AHRDO), established by exiled Rakhine citizens in 2011, was made up mostly of members of the All Arakan Students and Youths Congress (AASYC). The group’s mission was to promote human rights and improve economic and social conditions as well as sustainable development in the state. They jointly conducted some training sessions with USAID in Sittwe in 2013.  Since then it has been no longer active.

KRDA’s coordinator U Tun Kyi said that the Arakanese have lack of knowledge of basic human rights concepts and very a few people are familiar with human rights articles like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He agreed that Arakanese society needs rights-watch organizations.

When it comes to human rights, the Arakanese community often accuse organizations of helping only the Rohingya community, of receiving funding from the international community and of working for foreign governments. Sometimes rights activists are closely watched by the government and for these reasons, even motivated, flexible Arakanese activists are hesitant to establish human rights institutions.

“We refrain from putting our professional work status on our Facebook profile,” said U Khaing Kaung San.

Mindset change necessary for peace

U Tun Kyi claimed there is always criticism no matter what an organization professionally works on.  For the community’s mindset to change, CSOs and rights advocates should regularly hold rights awareness campaigns and knowledge-sharing activities across the state.

Arkanese activists have suggested that rights lobbyists should convince prominent Arakanese politicians, activists, well-respected community leaders and religious leaders to install a new ideology. They suggested for politicians not to further politicize the wounds of the Muslim and Rakhine community.

To improve trust-building between two communities, relevant organization should organize cultural exchange programs by inviting Rakhine and Muslims to come together for community-level dialogue events. In addition, international relief organizations should carry out not only food distribution campaigns for the Rohingya but also encourage a change of mindset towards the displaced Rohingya who have been living in camps for years.

A border police guard near the fence where thousands of displaced Rohingya have lived in encampments since 2017. / Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy

Gender Equality Network’s U Aung Myo Min agreed that mindset change is crucial for social cohesion and a harmonious society and added that a society should be broad and made up of diverse communities which can offer different perspectives in finding solutions. He said if a community refuses to accept diversity, it could lead to self-isolation and a disconnect from the outside world.

“A child is like a blank white page. As they are observing and learning from their environment, they should be properly educated with truthfulness and guidance. Once children are misguided by their community, it can become an infectious disease or cancer,” he said.