Everyone is aware of the dramatic political changes that have taken place in Burma during the past year, and many are filled with hope that Burma will now become a free and democratic society where all the refugees, migrants and activists can return to live normal, productive lives. But even though there seems to be a real (but not irreversible) move towards democracy at the top, life on the streets, in the towns and villages all over Burma, has not changed much. Ethnic minorities are still fighting the army, political prisoners are still behind bars, farmers remain indebted and oppressed, the courts continue to enforce the rule of corrupt local governments, the youth are still unemployed and uneducated, and the poor everywhere are living day to day without medical care or schools. The 3 million plus Burmese migrant workers in Thailand are not showing signs of going home. Conditions are just not there yet, and will not be for some years to come, even assuming that the current momentum for political change does not fade.
Nevertheless, many foreign corporations, governments, and NGOs have turned their attention to working with the population inside Burma. There is no doubt that much of this aid and investment will be helpful, but border organizations like ours are watching our funding dry up, while we still have thousands to care for. Minmahaw’s Higher Education Program again saw over 500 applicants this year for our 24-seat GED class, plus students are already lining up for our other activities as well. While there are groups interested in copying our successful programs inside Burma, the environment there will not yet allow them the freedom to do what we do here in Thailand. We are still the standard for Burmese post high school academic programs. This is the situation we face as we begin our 2012-13 school year.
The GED (General Educational Development) course is Minmahaw’s flagship program. GED students live together in their own dorms, share household duties and classes, and speak English 24 hours a day. After a year of intensive training, we sent 20 of our current 24 students to Bangkok last week to take the GED exam, to try for the US high school equivalency certificate that will allow them access to scholarships and university education in Thailand and abroad.
Currently we have graduates in English language programs at Asia Pacific University, Rangsit University, Bangkok University, and Mahidol University, as well as schools in Hong Kong and the Philippines. These are the most promising Burmese students in the migrant community, in both academic ability and character. Eleven of our current GED students have already been awarded scholarships. The rest will stay on here to help with Minmahaw’s growing management needs, or use their new skills to join with border NGOs, look for private sector jobs in Thailand, or return to Burma to try their luck, with an international standard of education that most of their compatriots will never have.
From the many GED applicants for the coming year, 24 have again been selected, after passing a battery of tests and interviews, all with high hopes and determination to get the education that will give them the necessary intellectual tools to return home and rebuild their country.
Most of those who do not get selected for GED will apply for the 40+ seats in MEF’s Post Ten program. Like GED, the Post Ten students live together for a year in supervised dorms and participate in chores, building a solid team spirit among students of different ethnic backgrounds. Our Post Ten program saw 42 students graduate in March. Of these, 7 have been accepted into next year’s GED program. Others will go on to specialized programs available in border schools and
camps, pursue local employment, or return home.
All of our Post Ten teachers and management staff are unpaid volunteers who share our idealistic vision and give generously of their time and skills to Minmahaw. It is remarkable to see the change that a year of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, taught with an emphasis on critical thinking and student-centered learning, has made on these courageous kids, some of whom had never been far from their village or town before. They all have a well-earned confidence and self-respect that will serve them in whatever path they travel from here.
One of the unique subjects at Post Ten is the Business Through Agriculture (BTA) course, set up by our teacher Tom. Along with their regular studies, students participate in running a small mushroom farm which we constructed on a nearby lot. They learn not only the practice of small scale agriculture, but also the business skills of planning, marketing, and bookkeeping for a small commercial enterprise. An added benefit is having delicious mushrooms for our school lunches.
Exams for seats in the incoming Post Ten class will be given next week, and we are again expecting a record turnout. Programs like ours are few, and as word gets out we see more applicants, not only from the refugee camps and border schools, but from students inside Burma, some even with university degrees, who realize that they have learned little of value in the deteriorated education system in Burma. As usual, we will do our best to give them what their government does not.
All the Burmese border schools close for the summer holidays in April and May, so Minmahaw has decided to offer once again its popular summer program, 2 months of an introduction to the kind of instruction students can expect in Post Ten and GED. This year, under the direction of our dynamic volunteer head teacher Brian, we are offering art, music, and physical education, in addition to the staples of English, science, social studies and math. Over 60 students, from a broad range of ethnicities, language skills, and backgrounds, are currently enrolled.
For the past 2 years, Minmahaw has offered short vocational training courses to prepare graduates for the limited range of white-collar jobs available for Burmese in Thailand. We had to cancel our computer and media training programs this year for lack of funds, but we still managed to offer a teacher training course and a bookkeeping course. With about 20 students each, these 2-month summer courses provide the basic skills of a professional program in areas where there is significant local demand for workers. NGOs and small businesses generally need more accounting help than is
available, so chances for employment are good. Teacher training graduates typically go on to teach English and other subjects in the local Burmese migrant schools, but this year some Thai primary schools asked to hire our graduates as entry- level English teachers for their younger students. If this program is successful, we will be able to provide beginning careers in teaching for many graduates. This work experience will be invaluable in giving them the skills they will need to help restore the Burmese education system at its roots.
Last year we opened a small kindergarten, which we call Minthuwon, in a 300-person migrant worker village deep in the agricultural area south of Mae Sot. These workers had no way to take care of their small children while they toiled in the fields. For a US $3,000 investment, we built a small schoolroom, dug a well, trained local teachers, and bought school supplies. Now 30 kids (up to age 12) are attending class every day, learning Burmese, Thai, English, and math, and parents are able to spend their
workday in the fields. Our entire GED class went there last month to install a donated water purifier, so now the whole village gets safe drinking water too. These kinds of projects are a great inspiration to us all, and we hope to do more of them in the future.
The Burma Independent News Agency (BINA) was our first social enterprise project in Mae Sot, back in 1998. With funding from international NGOs, we published the monthly, democracy-oriented political newspaper MOJO, to enthusiastic response from the Burmese diaspora, and the paper continues to this day. BINA also engages in video projects, and has a small commercial copying and book binding service. We want BINA to again print its popular bi-weekly migrant worker magazine, “Evening Star”, which will include commercial advertising, once start-up money becomes available.
In order to develop independent and local sources of funding for our ongoing education programs, Minmahaw is setting up the Mae Sot Language Academy, a small commercial enterprise to teach English to Thai school kids. Everything is now in place for an opening next month,
with marketing help from our Thai friends. If successful, this program will allow us to rent a large house, provide a Burmese student coordinator with a paycheck, and bring income to the Post Ten and other education projects. It will also build good relations with the Thai community and enhance Minmahaw’s public image.
Minmahaw’s legal situation in Thailand has always been precarious. Unable to hold public events, hire workers, or even open a bank account, we have been vulnerable to police harassment and other abuses, which limit our ability to engage in social welfare activities for the migrants. Our Thai Foundation project will file for “legal charitable organization” status for Minmahaw with the Thai government. We have already gotten commitment from five wonderful Thai citizens to be our Board of Directors, and our lawyer is in the process of requesting approval. Thanks to generous donors from the US and elsewhere, we have raised the money necessary for fees. If all goes well, we
expect to have our first official public Board meeting later this year in Mae Sot. You are all invited, of course!
Minmahaw’s success over the past 5 years has been driven by the daunting educational needs of our target population, the underserved migrant worker community. Our activities and reputation have grown rapidly, and our graduates form a close and devoted group who are a resource for present and future projects. Our amazing donors and volunteer teachers are the life blood that keeps Minmahaw going.
The future is full of challenges. Just as the world’s attention moves from the border areas to inside Burma, economic developments in the West are making charitable support for border groups harder to get. In response, we are moving ahead with our Thai legal status project, creating local businesses, and expanding our fund generating activities. When the time is right, we even plan to move some of our activities inside Burma. With your sustaining participation and support, we will continue to help and encourage this new generation of Burmese youth to rescue and rebuild their beautiful country.
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