Oct 13, 2012

Thailand - Educating the next generation of Myanmarese children

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Aung Kyi Oo was smiling saying that he only scored 390 on the mock-up TOFEL test recently. "I have to work harder to get higher score next time." The 19-year-old boy from Kaya ethnic group hopes that with a better mark he would be able to continue his education further. "I want to help my people."

Aung Kyi Oo is also preparing for the GED (General Education Diploma) exam next June in Bangkok. Passing the standard GED examination gives students the equivalent of a high-school diploma from the formal education sector. If he passes the GED examination, he then can compete for scholarships to study in local or overseas universities. Like many other students before him, to take the examination he will have to arrange a safe round-trip to Bangkok from this provincial town. It is not cheap - just the examination alone cost US$600 or Bt24,000.

He is one of the 60 students from a Learning Centre for Migrants operated in Mae Sot by the Education for Friendship Foundation, formerly know as the Minmahaw Education Foundation - one of the 74 centres spread throughout this provincial town at the Thai-Burmese border. This centre, set up in 2007, is unique because it gives an international standard of English education. Several thousands of young students from undocumented Burmese migrant families and those residing in refugee camps along the 2,400-kilometre border receive some forms of non-formal education both in Burmese and English languages. These centres are operated and funded by foreign donors and teaching volunteers. However, the Ministry of Education oversees their overall programmes.

Of late, given the ongoing reform inside Myanmar, these learning centres are urging the Ministry of Education to administrate a Thai standard high school test in English, similar to the GED, so that the students can continue their higher education within Thailand or broader Asean. As Asean is moving towards a single community in 2015, many students would benefit from such a standard test in English. These high school students, albeit studying in make-shift class rooms and with inadequate teaching aids, have attained a surprisingly high caliber of learning. Over the year-long education schemes, they have gone through vigorous studies and trainings similar to high school curriculums in American schools, taking up subjects such as English language and arts, writing, reading, social studies, science and mathematics. Depending on the personal skills of foreign volunteers, who have come from around the world with myriads of experience, the students receive extra tuition of skills and knowledge - sometimes on a one-to-one basis.

Indeed, a visit to the learning centre run by Education for Friendship Foundation revealed the high degree of students' general knowledge and self-confidence. So much so that some of the Thai families in the neighbourhood have asked the Foundation to include their children in the programme because of the English education. It is not an exaggeration to claim that these students have better English education than normal Thai students. In normal circumstance, to receive an English education such as this one but with a proper set-up and environment would cost parents several hundred thousand baht a year. These students study for free. As part of their community service standards, English language tutoring will soon be given to the Thai children living near the learning centre. Several young graduates of the centre have already been hired as English teachers at local Thai high schools, following the Ministry of Education's new mandate to promote English language as part of the preparation plan for the Asean Community.

That explains why these learning centers want a standard test in English so that the students can further their education without hindrance. The 60 students at the center of Education for Friendship Foundation come from nearly all the large minority groups in Myanmar, including Karen, Mon, Kachin, Kaya and Shan. Other learning centres also share these similarities.

As the students are preparing for an uncertain future outside their country, nearly four million migrant workers continue their lives in Thailand. They also must prepare for the transitional period coming in next few years. Both Thailand and Myanmar need to work out coordinated policies and programmes to facilitate their returning to their homelands or help those wanting to settle down in their adopted country. The reason is simple: Thailand continues to need migrant workers for its industries, especially in the fishing industry.

At the moment, Samutsakorn alone has half a million Burmese migrant workers. They are spread out in nearly 4,000 factories, and this has generated the second highest provincial GDP in the country after Rayong, with more than Bt160,000 per capita annually. For instance, in 2010 the factories in Samutsakorn hired more than 150,000 Burmese registered migrant workers, while only less than 350 Thai workers were willing to do the same job. This discrepancy suggests that migrant workers are still needed in the future because the Thai workers shun these manual labour jobs. In a survey of 140,000 Burmese refugees in camps situated in Tak, Mae Hong Son and Kanchanaburi along Thai-Myanmar border, 20 per cent wanted to stay in Thailand, 30 per cent wanted to return home while the rest wanted to be settled in the third countries. The oversea resettlement option is becoming smaller in view of the swift changes inside Myanmar.

As such, the Thai government needs to come up with a comprehensive plan to prepare the refugee and migrant workers and their children for a smooth transition if they choose to stay. One of the several projects, which were approved during the Democrat-led government, was to establish a special economic zone on both sides of the border to ensure the continued economic growth so that workers would be employed. But somehow the project was not given much attention under this government. The other one is the ongoing three-year project to rehabilitate the 160-kimlometre road from Myawaddy opposite Mae Sot to Moulmien facing the Andaman Sea. At the moment, the section toward Kawkariek remains a single lane, which has slowed down the traffic. It normally takes nearly three weeks to transport goods from Laem Chabang to Myanmar or India by sea through the Straits of Malacca. If it is completed next year, the land transportation route would shorten the current delivery timeframe from three days to a mere one day from Mae Sot to Moulmien.

Suriya Prasatbunnittya, governor of Tak province, told the author over the weekend that Mae Sot is currently the gateway to Myanmar, and more investment on infrastructure should be forthcoming from the Thai government. He argued that while the Dawei Deep Seaport sounds good in the long run, the Thai economy would benefit more from Mae Sot-Moulmien route for the next ten years. "We should not wait for the Dawei project to become a reality. We must do what we can now to build and use the existing facilities," he reiterated. Land price in Mae Sot has increased steadily in the past years since the reform pledges last March by the Thein Sein government.

As Myanmar receives a lot of attention from all over the world, the refugees, migrant workers and their families must not be left out. One of the best way to prepare them for the new Myanmar is to make sure the young generation of students inside Thailand at this moment receive their education without disruption and be given proper recognition so that they can become creative forces in their own society or in their adopted one.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

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