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EDUCATING THE SHAN: REFUGEES WITHOUT A CAMP

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The military dictatorship which has ruled Burma almost 50 years, since a coup in 1962, has been widely criticized for frequent violations of human rights, including rape, forced labor, forced relocation and land confiscation.

Many Shan people have been forced to flee to Thailand because of frequent violations of their human rights by the brutal regime.

Many Shan children have been deprived of an education in Burma. So, their families try to get their children into school in Thailand, if they can afford it.

“The youths do not know what to do to bring back peace to their land. Their elders are unable to give much advice except telling them to go to Thailand. So they came to Thailand, the land of their cousins, to find the answer,” Khuensai Jaiyen, Editor Shan Herald Agency for News.

Shan refugees are not permitted to establish legally sanctioned refugee camps on Thai soil, unlike other Burmese ethnic groups, including the Karen, Karenni and Mon. They are forced to live in illegal makeshift camps.

The Shan in Thailand become refugees without a camp, and cannot receive international aid because the Thai government classifies them as “economic migrants”.

Shan leaders worry that without an education, Shan children are at risk of being lured into the sex trade and drug addiction.

However, the Thai government passed a law in 2008 allowing Thai schools to accept refugee children even if they don’t have identity cards.

It can be a problem for young adults to get into Thai universities if they have not graduated from Thai schools first.

Sai La Shwe is a 30 year-old refugee with two children, an 8 year-old daughter and 3 year-old son. His daughter cannot go to Thai school because the family cannot afford the fees on their wages as daily laborers.

Instead, she goes to a refugee school near the border where they do not have to pay for school supplies.
“In some Thai schools, a first year middle school student has to pay 1,000 baht for school fees, plus the cost of text books, school bus transportation, and food. However, many children are very interested in studying, even though they cannot attend Thai schools,” he said during a recent interview.

Schools for Shan Refugees is a charitable organization started in the United States established to help Shan refugees in Thailand get an education. The NGO’s teachers provide training in English, Shan, Thai and Basic Math.

Bernice Johnson is teaching English to Shan refugees who have fled to Thailand.

“Our goal is to help Shan refugee children get an education,” she said. “When I visited migrant camps near Chiang Mai, I realized how poor the migrant parents were and that many of them could not afford to send their children to school, so we have been trying to help them. Also, because the camps are very dismal places for the children to live, we try to brighten their lives by having schools there for them to attend.”

She said, there are 20 children in the migrant camp school. Because of the world economic crisis, they were only able to support one school in 2010 and it will be the same in 2011.

However, the charity can provide scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford to send them to nearby Thai schools, which require 600 baht per child to buy uniforms, shoes, books and some school equipment. It provides more than 50 scholarships each year, as well as supporting eight orphans in Mae Fah Luang.
Ms. Johnson also wrote a book called ‘The Shan: Refugees Without a Camp’, about Shan people who have faced suffering and fought to overcome the difficulties in their lives. It was published in the United States in 2009 and in Thailand in 2011.

“When I taught English, all of my students wanted the world to hear their stories. There is very little news about Burma in the United States. People who read my book will have a better idea of what is happening there and how the Shan people and other ethnic groups are driven off their land,” she said.

“I plan to support education for Shan refugee children and to return to Thailand to oversee our programs as long as I am able, not only because I see great need among Shan migrants, but also because the Shan students seem to have a great capacity for turning a little bit of help into something very important to their lives. For instance, most of my former students now have good jobs and are looked at as leaders by younger Shan.”

She remembered how a group of six or eight Shan young people lived together until they could all find jobs to support themselves.

“When they first graduated from migrant school, they didn’t have enough money to eat well. Only one of the young men, 22 year-old, Hark Murng, had a job. He shared his salary with all of his friends who lived together. My friends and I gave them a stipend of $75.00 U.S. dollars per month for two or three years. Then they all found jobs. Now they are successful”

She also said, “I feel that continuing what I started (helping Shan refugees) is the right thing to do with my life.”

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