Ethnic Issues

In Remote Karenni State, a Place of Diversity and Learning

By Lawi Weng 14 November 2014

DEMOSO TOWNSHIP, Karenni State — A peak inside the Dawbozee Monastery compound at lunchtime reveals a cheerful scene, as novices and lay children play together under the watchful gaze of a handful of Buddhist nuns. But it’s not all fun and games here: There’s also learning to be done.

There are no chairs or tables at the school in Dawbozee village, consigning education materials and pupils alike to the cement floor when lessons are in progress.

The monastic school offers free education to children from a cornucopia of minority groups in the region, from Padaung and Kayan to Kayar, Kayaw, Pa-O and Shan. Many children are brought here from remote areas of Karenni State where families are unable to afford to pay for their education. There are 188 students that call the school home, taking meals and sleeping in the compound after class is out.

The school teaches students from first grade to seventh grade. Those who graduate from the seventh grade must enroll in a government school if they wish to continue their studies.

There are six monastic schools in Karenni State, according to Badhanta Thondhara, who is abbot at the Dawbozee Monastery. His school has eight schoolteachers, and Badhanta Thondhara hopes next year the school will be the first in Karenni State to offer high school instruction.

“Our school will be the first to become a high school next year,” says Badhanta Thondhara, who is also the school’s founder.

He started offering monastic education in 1996, at the time teaching some 60 students brought in from across the diverse state with the intention of offering them a reliable study routine.

“By studying here, children can have regular times for instruction. In local areas, it is very difficult to find schoolteachers. Children do not study at home after coming back from their schools. By living here, they have full time to study at night, while schoolteachers teach them during the daytime,” says Badhanta Thondhara.

“During free time, we teach them how to work with volunteer jobs. For example, students in the third grade, they do not know how to wash their clothes. So, we let fifth grade students wash clothes for the younger children. This is teaching them how to serve in the community. And also we teach them how to pay respect to each other. If we teach them well, they will understand how to serve the country when they become adults,” he says.

Badhanta Thondhara, 68, has spent more than 20 years in the monkhood, after retiring from the Burma Army. He is ethnic Bamar, but says that his school does not accept children who are Bamar because the area is populated by a variety of ethnic minorities.

“We found most of our Burmese kids did not understand the customs of ethnic people. When they do not know how to deal with customs here, they are not happy at the school,” Badhanta Thondhara says.

Many students have to forego study beyond the seventh grade, according to the abbot, as their parents want their children to work. It is for this reason that the abbot is trying to start high school instruction next year.

“For local children, when they become older, their parents want their children to work and drop out of school. It happens a lot locally,” he says.

The monastery has been offering schooling for nearly two decades. The abbot acknowledges that there have been many difficulties over the years, such as how to provide food, schoolteachers and education materials for the children, though he says the first three years were the hardest. Donations have since increased, and with it, the quality of the children’s education and living conditions has risen.

There’s a chance things could further improve with financial assistance from the government, which last year said it would put 3 billion kyats (US$3 million) toward monastic education in Burma. But with more than 260,000 students enrolled in monastic schools across the country, those funds may not go a long way toward bolstering a system that relies almost entirely on donations.

“Our intention is to breed more educated people,” says the abbot in Dawbozee. “If one student becomes well-educated among a hundred, I am happy enough.”