In the shadow of the junta

10th December 2010 at 00:00
As the world celebrated the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month, teachers - some of them Britons - on the ThaiBurmese border prepared for a fresh influx of refugees to their schools

The classrooms may be made out of bamboo, but they are not what makes Stephen Gomersall's school so different from those he left behind in the UK. It is the pupils.

"Some of them haven't seen their parents in five years, some have seen their families killed," Mr Gomersall says. "But they are like a family. They study together, eat together, the older children help the younger ones with their homework, and they are always laughing."

Mr Gomersall has been teaching at Hsa Thoo Lei for the past two-and-a-half years. The school is on the Thai side of the border between Thailand and Burma. Set up in 1999, it provides an education for some of the thousands of children who have fled the violence in Burma.

There has been a stream of refugees crossing into Thailand since the military crackdown began in 1988, a flow that shows no sign of abating. While the rest of the world celebrated the release of pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi last month, teachers at Hsa Thoo Lei braced themselves for more unrest.

An estimated 30,000 people crossed the border into the Mae Sot region, where the school is located, in the week after the elections that preceded Suu Kyi's release.

"We had to close for two days because it was too dangerous for the kids to travel on the bus," says Mr Gomersall, originally from Pontefract in West Yorkshire. Shelling intended for Burmese villages missed its targets and damaged cafes and buildings near the school.

But pupils and teachers were keen to get back to their studies as soon as possible. Many live in a nearby refugee camp next to a rubbish dump while others make their homes in the few hundred wooden huts that have sprung up around the school, which is a haven from overcrowding and the threat of arrest.

Hsa Thoo Lei was founded by Naw Paw Ray, who worked as a teacher for eight years in Burma. She crossed the border to Mae Sot in 1991 after the military burned down her village. At first, she worked at a petrol station, "but when I saw the children outside with no school, I wanted to help," she says. "Around the area, many children get involved with drugs. They drink alcohol and just play cards. I thought that if I look after the new generation, their lives will be saved."

She started the school with 25 pupils and herself as the only teacher. It has since grown to 800 pupils from nursery to Grade 12 (Year 11). About 200 of these students have been orphaned or separated from their families and now live with her in the boarding house.

When the school was first built, Paw Ray and her five children shared a room with the pupils who boarded. Each morning they would have breakfast, clear away the beds and set out tables to start the school day. A new school building and dormitory was built in 2005, with a grant from a Canadian charity, and Paw Ray now has a separate room.

Mr Gomersall is one of five Western teachers out of a total of 40. The majority are displaced migrants themselves and live on about pound;31 to pound;81 a month. Life as a migrant in Thailand is very difficult, says Paw Ray. None of the countries surrounding Burma, including Thailand, have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, despite having large refugee populations. The result is an estimated two million Burmese working in Thailand without any legal rights.

Burmese teachers who work at the 61 schools for refugee children in the Mae Sot region face arrest if they leave the school compound. If their school cannot afford to pay for their release, they face deportation back to Burma.

The only way to avoid such penalties is to bribe the police. Paw Ray has to factor regular bribes into her already miniscule budget. She has been working closely with the police and local government bodies over the past decade to seek official recognition for her pupils and teachers.

In 2000, she set up the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee (BMWEC) to provide support for refugee schools in fundraising, campaigning and sustainability. Forty-five schools out of the 61 in Mae Sot are now managed by the BMWEC and some are gradually gaining rights and recognition through negotiations and work with the local government.

Pupils at these schools follow the Thai curriculum, which is similar to that in the UK. Maths, English and science sit alongside native Burmese languages. Hsa Thoo Lei is one of the biggest schools in the area, and now also offers a post-16 vocational programme. Other schools offer primary or secondary education and bamboo classrooms with roofs made out of banana leaves are the norm.

At Hsa Thoo Lei, Mr Gomersall teaches politics and English to Grades 11 and 12 (Years 10 and 11). Politics can be a sensitive subject, especially when his pupils come from a range of different ethnic groups, and some of his lessons on democracy have also proved controversial.

"For my Grade 11 class, we looked at the recent protests in Bangkok," he says. "They did a poster presentation and I put the posters on the wall, but a teacher came in and took them down so that any Thai visitors wouldn't see."

Suu Kyi may be seen in the West as the leader of the Burmese democracy movement, but half of Mr Gomersall's class had never heard of her. "Some of them left Burma 15 years ago," he says. "They were brought up in a refugee camp and are losing their connection with Burma."

To help pupils come to terms with their experiences, Hsa Thoo Lei also provides music, art, drama and creative lessons. Many of the children have been traumatised after witnessing violence and being displaced. Some have also been victims of abuse and child-trafficking.

As the BMWEC has grown in size and influence, it has been able to provide teacher-training workshops, supported by development agencies. And as part of a system set up by the Thai Children's Trust, three schools in Mae Sot are now twinned with schools in Scotland and host UK teachers on placements.

With no government funding, local schools are always concerned about where their next donation is going to come from. And in Mae Sot, that has implications not just for pupils' education but for their health and sanitation too. Schools rely on donations to buy food and many children are at risk of malnutrition.

For a few months this year, Hsa Thoo Lei received only half the money it needed to cover its running costs. As a result, it had to provide two meals a day instead of three. "We didn't have enough money for soap or sanitary pads for the older girls," says Mr Gomersall.

The BMWEC has encouraged schools to set up their own farms in an effort to be more self-sufficient. Not only does it mean that there is more food available for the school, but pupils also learn how to grow fruit and vegetables - and, in some cases, how to farm fish - and will have the skills to provide for their communities when they leave school.

But many of the pupils at Hsa Thoo Lei have been inspired to train as teachers. "I grew up in a village in Burma where the situation was tense and often violent," says Poe Dah, 20. "Now I want to teach in a migrant school here and gain more experience for two or three years so I can go back to Burma and teach in my village. Many young children there still don't go to school and that is a shame."

Paw Ray has come a long way in providing an education system for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot. But she admits the situation is sometimes overwhelming. "Our students are really hungry - for education and for food," she says.

Paw Ray and the other Hsa Thoo Lei teachers may be living hand-to-mouth and fighting daily battles to provide for their pupils. But with the BMWEC, they are part of a wider movement to secure funding and recognition, so that their pupils can hope for the future.

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