Learning on the Run

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — At 23, Hurk Mung thought he still had a lot to learn and believed that the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth was the ideal place to do that. But the school happened to be here in Chiang Mai; Hurk Mung had to leave his village in Eastern Shan State and arrange to have forged travel papers just so he could have the education he craved for.

“I also went to school in Burma,” he says, “but the education was not good. They taught us only Burmese and the history they taught us was a lie.”

Burma’s education system has been in shambles since the 1980s, and perhaps even earlier. Various miscellaneous fees often make a mockery of the country’s supposedly free primary education, and essentially hinder most families from sending their young to school. Universities are also ordered closed, sometimes for several months, whenever there is any hint of political unrest. In the late 1990s, universities remained shut for more than a year.

But if a good education is hard to come by for the ordinary Burmese, it is usually an elusive dream for members of the country’s ethnic minorities. Hurk Mung, in fact, can be considered lucky that he got any education at all, despite being a Shan. Still, it is ironic that even in another country, he was also constantly on the run while going to school, just as he and other Shan youths had been while trying to get what passed for education in Burma.

Today, five years later, Hurk Mung still has to keep to the shadows in Thailand, where he remains an illegal migrant. But that hasn’t stopped him from teaching migrant Shan youths survival skills and human rights. He reasons, “We also suffered when we were young. So if we don’t help them, who will do it for them?”

The classes that he and other Shan conduct, however, are done on the sly. Indeed, even the “institution” that had lured him into Thailand in the first place — the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth — is not really a formal one. Founded in 2001 by Charm Tong of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), it was meant mainly to empower Shan who had somehow landed in Northern Thailand. But the school has never had a permanent place, although it tries to keep to a certain area for at least nine months a year.

Many of its former students are now its teachers. Other alumni, among them Hurk Mung, have opted to teach Shan youths who cannot go to the school.

The children of the Shan migrants cannot attend local Thai schools because they are undocumented. Then again, even if they were allowed to go to these, they would be unable to afford the school fees and the transportation fare. This is why the migrant organisation Shan Youth Power tells teachers like Hurk Mung where the students are and makes the arrangements for the classes, in which English, Thai, and math, are the main subjects.

At one Shan camp, the classes were held either inside shanties or in the yard. A small whiteboard for one class had been brought by the instructors. The students were of varying ages, from eight to 17. In all, there were 10 students. According to the teacher, a class would usually not have more than 20 students. Children in advanced levels are also given special instruction and tutoring.

Always, though, the teachers and students are on edge – and for good reason. A week after this writer conducted interviews for this piece, the Thai Royal Police stormed the spartan headquarters of the Shan Youth Power. A teacher of the Shan children was among those arrested and thrown in jail for not having proper papers. As of this writing, he and those arrested with him are awaiting deportation to Burma, where they face possible persecution and re-education. – Joel B. Escovilla

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