School in Thailand Provides Haven for Burmese Children

By Migrant Workers, Thein Lei Win 17 September 2013

MAHACHAI, Thailand—It was 6:30 in the morning. School wouldn’t be starting for another two-and-a-half hours. Yet there I was, on the back of a pick-up truck as it bounced along bumpy roads.

Despite the early hour, the two dozens kids we were picking up were fresh-faced and very chirpy. Dressed in white tops and an eclectic mix of bottoms—an attempt to copy the white- and green-uniformed students in Burma—they ran up to the truck with big smiles on their faces.

Some tried to nap on their friends’ shoulders but most chatted and played during the hour-long trip as the truck weaved in and out of neighborhoods of Burmese migrant workers.

“He’s always late,” one boy commented as we waited outside a multi-storey apartment block. “You should be up at 6 like the rest of us,” he scolded the latecomer, half-jokingly, when he jumped into the truck. The new arrival grinned sheepishly.

This particular pick-up—one of three that happen over the course of a morning—starts early for a reason: the driver, a Burmese migrant worker, is a volunteer. He rushes to work after dropping the kids off.

Transport is free at this primary school, the only school so far to teach the Burmese national curriculum in the Burmese language. So is lunch, prepared by Burmese migrant workers.

There are no school fees, only a one-time registration cost of 500 baht (around $17). The school has been operating for eight weeks solely thanks to the concerted efforts of migrant workers from Myanmar—who donate money, time and materials—and the generosity of a Thai monk.

Missing Out on Education

Under Thai government policy, all children have a right to primary education, regardless of their nationality or status. But in reality, only a fraction of the estimated 200,000 children of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are enrolled in public schools, mainly due to financial and language barriers, rights groups say.

Some attend learning centers operated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“In our eyes, children should start school around age 5. But because the parents can’t afford it, they end up just staying at home or sometimes working,” Aung Kyaw, head of the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network (MWRN), which first had the idea for the school, told me.

“So for these children, if they were to go back to Myanmar, they’d have difficulty getting an education or being employable,” he said.

That would have been the fate of Kyaw Lin Tun (video here), a lively 12-year-old who lives near the school. In the five years since arriving in Thailand, he went to school just once. It was too far and his mother couldn’t afford it, he said.

Now, despite having to start again at kindergarten, he relishes learning. “I want to be educated,” he told me. “I’m happy now.”

MWRN lobbied the Burma government to give its blessing to a Burmese-language, Burmese-syllabus school. There are also plans to request official recognition from the Thai government, which none of the migrant schools has at present.

Huge Needs

On July 1, the school, offering classes from kindergarten to the end of primary (known as fourth standard in the Burmese education system), opened in the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Mahachai on the outskirts of Bangkok.

MWRN says there are around 300,000 Burmese migrant workers in Mahachai, mainly working in the seafood industry, and about 8,000 to 10,000 migrant children.

The number of students jumped from 41 on its opening day to 115 in six weeks, underlying the huge need and desire for education. The school has no signs outside advertising its existence and the students share an open room on the first floor of a building. Statues of Buddha sit on one side.

On the day I visited, droppings from pigeons that have settled on the ceiling beams prompted the kindergarten students to move away from their low tables and practice their writing standing up.

But the boisterous atmosphere remained, punctured by the three teachers telling the kids to behave.

Tin Htay Yi, a veteran teacher with 18 years’ experience in Myanmar, is the principal, handling the older kindergarten students and the second and fourth standards. Five years ago, she came to Thailand to work in a factory processing sardines.

The teachers receive $230 a month as an allowance—without a permit yet, the school cannot call what the teachers receive wages—but it wasn’t the money that attracted them. They could make the same amount working in a factory for 15 days with overtime.

“It’s like a footballer who can’t resist kicking when there’s a ball in front of him,” the principal told me. “We want to teach when we see a school and students,” she said. “We want to use our skills to nurture them.”