Myanmar’s Karen Education Group Sounds Alarm Over Sharp Cut to Funding

By Lawi Weng 30 January 2020

A Karen education group, the Karen Teacher Working Group (KTWG), has called on international partners to urgently reconsider decisions to cut funding to the Karen education system, asking them to stand with Karen schools and teachers and saying that a key funder plans to cut 80 percent of the funding that KTWG uses to support the Karen Education Department (KED).

KTWG works to secure funding for KED, which is under the administration of the Karen National Union (KNU). In a statement issued last Friday, KTWG did not name the funder but said that the reported cuts will impact 160,000 ethnic Karen children and put the Karen education system at risk of collapse.

KTWG later identified the funder as the Myanmar Education Consortium (MEC), an international NGO that works with UNICEF to support education in Myanmar, including ethnic and monastic education systems.

“[MEC] came to tell us that they do not have enough budget for this year [2020-2021],” KTWG Deputy Director Saw Kholo Htoo told The Irrawaddy. According to KTWG, MEC will cut the group’s budget by 80 percent from June 2020 until March 2021, when KTWG’s current grant will end.

MEC, however, says that there have been no changes to its grant to KTWG and that it will extend funding to the Karen group through March 2021.

“MEC have been supporting KTWG since 2017, with funding due to end in December 2020,” MEC director Bethany Ericson told The Irrawaddy in an email on Thursday. “There have been no cuts to agreed funding, instead the agreement period of the grant is coming to an end. However, additional funding to KTWG was provided for an extension until March 2021, to provide more continuity through the 2020-21 school year.”

KTWG, however, maintains that MEC told the group funding would be cut by 80 percent from June 2020 through March 2021. MEC is the main donor for KTWG and Saw Kholo Htoo said he is worried about the upcoming year for the Karen education system and how they will be able to run it if his organization can’t find a new partner for funding.

Saw Kholo Htoo said the group doesn’t yet know about funding after March 2021, but MEC’s decision to cut the group’s budget for nine months means KTWG isn’t sure if it can trust MEC to continue funding in the future.

MEC told KTWG about the upcoming changes late last year but KTWG waited to issue the statement until last week and the group is worried it may be too late to secure replacement funding.

“We thought a lot before we issued our statement. We did not want to blame [MEC] for not being able to support us, but we need to find a new donor,” he said. “We issued our statement a bit late.”

KTWG says it has three other small donors, but they will not be able to cover the KED’s full budget.

“We have to provide salaries for our schoolteachers and we have to buy supplies for schools too for teaching, so we will not have enough budget to run our school projects,” Saw Kholo Htoo said.

According to KTWG there are 1,586 Karen schools and 11,219 teachers providing training and education assistance for its programs across Karen and Mon states and Bago and Tanintharyi regions.

KTWG says MEC told it to save funds from its current budget in order to cover costs in 2021-22. However, Saw Kholo Htoo said that doing so would mean stopping the organization’s activities, such as training for schoolteachers.

“One big problem is that we have to throw out our plans for the current year, even the things we have planned already,” he said. He added that it wouldn’t be good for KTWG to tell people the group can’t hold training sessions because it doesn’t have enough funds, and that doing so would hurt the organization’s image among its partners and communities.

If KTWG isn’t able to secure enough funding, the group says that the KED will have lay off office staff, and Karen schoolteachers in Karen State won’t receive their full salaries. According to KTWG, if teachers aren’t paid properly, they will have to find other jobs and the quality of Karen education will diminish. Karen schoolteachers’ salaries from KTWG are the equivalent of about US$28 per month.

If KTWG is unable to provide school supplies, students’ families will have to buy supplies for their children.

Saw Kholo Htoo says that for groups based on the Thai-Myanmar border who work in ethnic areas, like KTWG, pressure from international NGOs is common.

“[International NGOs] tell us to work inside the country. But we told them that the KNU is involved in peace negotiations with the government and they do not have a peace agreement yet, so we cannot trust the government,” said Saw Kholo Htoo.

MEC was founded by World Vision, the Burnet Institute and Save The Children International.

KED operates mother-tongue schools for ethnic Karen in areas under the control of the KNU, and the Myanmar government doesn’t yet recognize the group as an official organization.

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