Civilian-Led Programs the Answer for IDP Students in War-Torn Rakhine

By Moe Myint 12 June 2019

YANGON—As school around the country reopen for the new academic year, a group of Arakanese activists in northern Rakhine’s Mrauk-U have been using social media to reach out with offers of help to Grade 11 students living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). They have also been calling for donations of textbooks from both individuals and organizations.

Ko Khine Murn Chun of Mrauk-U Youth Association (MUYA) said they have already connected with about 50 students, from grade 10 and 11 living in a number of camps around the town. The group estimates each boarding student’s expense for the whole year to be 800,000 kyats (US$524).

“We are trying to set up a boarding school for Grade 11 IDP schoolchildren,” said Ko Khine Murn Chun, referring to the internally displaced youth who should be returning to school for a new term.

Why is this necessary?

Wednesday should mark the 10th day of the official 2019-20 academic year for students in Myanmar, as announced by the Ministry of Education. But more than 1,000 students from northern Rakhine State have not yet packed their school bags as life has been put on hold while armed violence between the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and Arakan Army (AA) rebels has forced school gates to remain shut.

Mrauk-U, the former capital of the Arakanese kingdom, is one of the towns that has been experiencing armed violence since early this year. Although Arakanese civil society groups there had voiced concerns about impending challenges IDPs will face during the monsoon season—inadequate education, shelter and healthcare—neither proper IDP shelters nor school registration for IDP children have been organized by NLD-appointed Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu.

As of Monday afternoon, Rakhine State’s education department had no information about the total number of students living in IDP camps nor the number of schools that will not re-open this week. A senior department official, U Sein Hla Tun, did not provide specific information, saying data collection is still ongoing on the ground.

As well as northern Rakhine, neighboring Chin State’s Paletwa Township saw the closure of almost 200 schools. During the military clearance operations which caused over 700,000 Rohinyga to flee across the border to Bangladesh in the latter part of 2017, hundreds of schools also shut down and have remained empty since.

Empty classrooms   

According to local relief group Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) which works on gathering up-to-date information on armed violence in Rakhine, between 150-200 schools in Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Buthidaung townships have empty classrooms as of the second week of the school term.

REC member Ko Shwe Baw Sein said that more than 410,00 IDPs are currently seeking refuge at 70 makeshift camps, including at monasteries, community halls or temporary thatched-roof tents in paddy fields. As the size of the IDP population increases, local volunteers and relief groups like REC have not been able to figure out the number of out-of-school IDP children.

A civil servant from Rathedaung Township’s education department told The Irrawaddy under the condition of anonymity that 22 schools could not properly open as the school teachers are still afraid to return to the villages. He said the township education department has not received a full report about schoolchildren registration yet, as most of the schools in rural areas only begun registering students on June 2. In Myanmar, students must register with the school they will attend every year before the academic year starts.

“As you know, the situation of Yae Soe Chaung Village is unstable and some teachers do not want to teach there, so these schools have only partially resumed,” he said.

The government school in Kyauk Tan Village in Rathedaung Township, for example, was the scene of a two-week long interrogation session of 275 villagers who the military detained on suspicion of having ties with the AA. At least six locals were shot by military soldiers inside the school compound on May 2. Kyauk Tan schoolteacher Daw Moe Khin said that her students are hesitant to come to class since the killings as the classrooms were where the medical examinations were carried out on the dead villagers.

“Students cannot concentrate in class as they are overwhelmingly concerned about similar horrific shootings happening,” said Daw Moe Khin.

The instability of the situation in rural parts of northern Rakhine has led to some parents to registering their children at schools in Rathedaung town, but those are usually only families who can afford to pay education expenses for a whole year, she said. It costs parents at least 1.6 million kyats per year to send their children to urban schools. Students who attend village schools are usually from poorer families. Last year, more than 200 students attended grade 10 and 11, a number which has dropped to less than 50 this year.

Children attend class in a school in northern Rakhine State. / Min Aung Khine / The Irrawaddy

One Grade 11 student called Ma Han Thein who has to study in the village told The Irrawaddy over the phone, “We are terribly frightened of soldiers. They have killed villagers in our school.”

Shelter first  

U Shwe Baw Sein acknowledges that most local charity groups, including REC, prioritize issues like food, shelter and water supply systems for the IDPs.

As long as there is no proper IDP camp, classrooms for IDP children are more likely to be established in monastery compounds. But local CSOs continue to have issues with finding volunteer teachers for each camp and whether the education department will officially accept the results of state exams taken by students at the temporary schools. If rejected, the students will have lost out on a whole academic year, said U Shwe Baw Sein.

Another Rakhine based CSO group, Wunlark Foundation’s founder U Khaing Kaung San explained that most of IDPs abandoned their villages in fear of arbitrary detention, as army columns have stationed on hills and in forests nearby. Living in camps and relying on supplies from donors destroys the dignity of the IDPs in the long run, he said, and in order to prevent such negative impacts, IDPs are demanding for the army columns to leave their villages or avoid stationing themselves near villages.

“IDPs not only seek refuge from armed clashes, but they are also frightened of being killed by military columns who raid the villages, as in the cases of the Kyauk Tan and Say Taung shootings,” he said.

But the IDPs’ demands remain distant possibilities as the Myanmar President Office’s spokesperson U Zaw Htay recently told the reporters that his office had given the nod for the army to use airstrikes during their operations against the AA. Moreover, the state government has requested financing for a 3.3-billion kyats shelter project from the Union government and called for tenders last month. Three local companies won the tender and have been building structures on the ground, according to state minister of electricity, transport and industry, U Aung Kyaw Zan.

Minister Aung Kyaw Zan said that companies must complete the project within 45 days. He declined to reveal the names of the companies, the number of structures or size of the project over the phone. Local relief groups say they are aware of a local company implementing a shelter project in Buthidaung Township.

Rakhine state Minister U Win Myint has said that 710 structures to house approximately 33,000 IDPs in six townships and the structures for a remaining 10,000 IDPs is unclear. In Mrauk-U, where there has been a lack of contribution by the state government, local CSOs recently donated some bamboo shelters to Tein Nyo IDP camp.

An IDP camp in rural Kyauktaw Township, Rakhine State. / Kyaw Hla Myint / Facebook

U Khaing Kaung San criticized the government’s lack of coordination with locals CSOs, despite the latter warning authorities of a humanitarian crisis since early January.

“They (authorities) are not ready to oversee IDP schoolchildren’s education,” he said.

Lessons learned from Kachin

The obstacles currently facing displaced Arakanese schoolchildren in Rakhine State are the same as those experienced by ethnic Kachin when a peace agreement between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Tatmadaw collapsed in 2012. Fierce battles forcibly displaced more than 120,000 people across the state and a vast majority of those IDPs continue to live in temporary accommodation eight years on.

Daw Mary Twan, a member of Kachin CSO Joint Strategy Team (JST) and director of Wunpawng Nignthoi (WPN) has been tackling the IDP education dilemma in both government- and KIA-controlled areas for years. She recalled that for some years, many Grade 11 schoolchildren—an essential level for Myanmar students to pass in order to attend university— failed their exams due to physiological distress.

She said that they had to build primary schools in the camps and provide boarding for a total of 4,000 students in middle and high-school.

“We were able to assist less than 20 percent of total IDP student population,” she said.

The students living with their families in the IDP camps could not properly concentrate on their studies, as for instance, there was no electricity and their parents are uneducated and cannot help them. Thus, her organization developed study sessions with volunteered coaches in the camp in the evenings.

“We have learned that the high school pass rate in [Kachin] IDP camps apparently improved last year,” said Daw Mary Twan.

As for Rakhine IDP schoolchildren, Daw Mary Twan suggested the civilian government or education ministry and responsible actors including the United Nations urgently create a safe condition for the schoolchildren where they can study freely and safely. Otherwise, the number of educated people in the country will reduce unnecessarily.

“We are still facing negative consequences of wars until this year. Children are innocent and entitled to be allowed to study safely,” said Daw Mary Twan.

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