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On the run for a better life

Raymond Ross finds out how a Scottish college is helping Burmese refugees to get into university.Khine Maung's studies at a Burmese university were cut short after less than a year when, in 2001, he was arrested for helping to organise a pro-democracy march. After a brutal interrogation, he was denied a defence lawyer and sentenced by a court to five years' imprisonment by Burma's military regime.

Now recognised as a political refugee in the UK, and with support from the Burma Educational Scholarship Trust (a Scottish education charity), 23-year-old Khine has resumed full-time study at Newbattle Abbey College, Midlothian, in order to gain entrance to a Scottish university next year.

"I was 17 when I was sentenced," Khine says. "I spent 18 months in a prison and another 18 in a forced labour camp, building roads, before my parents helped get me an early release.

"In the labour camp, I saw many miserable things. Our food was dirty. We had no proper hospital and only one hypodermic needle at the camp 'clinic' which was for 150 prisoners."

On his release in 2004, Khine was not allowed back to university, though he became involved in the democracy movement again. He was spotted by a police patrol one night putting up anti-government posters and fled 20 miles to a friend's house. The friend returned to Khine's home town to ascertain the situation, only to discover that all of Khine's student associates in the movement had been arrested and the police were looking for him.

Khine fled across the border to Thailand but, with no legal papers, he was in permanent danger of being returned to Burma. It was then that he applied for asylum in the UK and, after being granted refugee status, decided to apply to Newbattle.

Khine follows in the footsteps of another Burmese student, 37-year-old Nay Doon, who gained entrance to Glasgow University from Newbattle earlier this year. Nay spent 10 years in a Burmese jail for his democratic beliefs.

"It was Nay who encouraged me to come to Newbattle, because I was really interested in the social sciences and I can study subjects like sociology, ecology, political science and psychology as well as maths, computing and English literature," says Khine.

As Scotland's only residential college for adult education, Newbattle is well placed to further the education of political refugees in Scotland. "Newbattle believes in the transformative power of education," says Ann Southwood, college principal. "We are, as our mission statement says, Scotland's life-changing college and it is only right that Burmese refugee students are welcome.

"It's a two-way process. If we are opening doors for students like Nay and Khine, they are opening doors for us. There is a real exchange of culture. Working with BEST, we'd like to build a relationship with Burmese students and to support refugees who want to resume full-time education."

In October, the college also welcomed Thein Lwin, director of the Teacher Training Centre for Burmese Teachers in Thailand, who was imprisoned for two years under Burma's military regime. "Dr Lwin's visit was informative and helpful for our students' education and for college links," says Ms Southwood. "We are in the very early days but we do want to build educational and cultural links with the Burmese refugee community in Thailand, including Dr Lwin's centre and the Refugee and Migrant Workers' Learning Centre on the ThaiBurma border.

"In the long term, we hope to develop a distance-learning resource here and serve as an accreditation centre for Burmese learners in Thailand," she says.

Khine is working to gain entrance to Edinburgh University next year, where he hopes to study social science and, ideally, pursue his studies at postgraduate level.

BEST of Burmese

The Burma Educational Scholarship Trust Scotland was set up in 2003 to address the needs of Burmese refugee students whose hopes of higher education have been disrupted due to the political instability inside Burma.

"We want to promote educational opportunities for Burmese students who have had to come out of Burma," says Murray Forgie, BEST director, who became involved with the exiled Burmese community in Thailand while doing VSO on the ThaiBurma border.

BEST has helped 40 students world-wide to return to further and higher education, including four in the UK.

"As a voluntary organisation, we have to raise our own money to fund around 10 students a year," says Mr Forgie, who is the international officer for the City of Edinburgh Council's children and families department.

"We approached Newbattle with the idea of taking suitable students and they welcomed the idea. We try to identify candidates in the Burmese refugee community and Nay and Khine are our first successes. Both are keen students with drive and ability who want to progress their studies, help others and give something back to the community.

"The more students we help, the better known we become and the more people seem willing to help us."

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