Volunteer-run schools help children fleeing fighting in northern Myanmar

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/15 18:53:39

A Myanmese student sits on a desk in a run-down classroom in a Kokang school in 2015. Photo: IC


A Myanmese family live in a tent on the China-Myanmar border in 2015. Photo: IC

Guohua (Kokang-China) Primary School's number 5, 6 and 7 branches that have been set up to accommodate children who have fled fighting in their native Myanmar began their new semester Monday.

More than 2,000 children from the Kokang region of Myanmar's Shan state have crossed the border into Southwest China's Yunnan Province because of violent clashes between the national government and ethnic insurgents since 2015, according to Zhang Guo, a volunteer in Lincang, Yunnan, who explained that more children are arriving as the violence recently spiked.

"We began the semester two weeks later than other schools because we do not want people to think we are an official school," a volunteer teacher at Guohua Primary School who requested anonymity told the Global Times on Monday.

Shared schools

Guo Shaowei, 46, from Fengqing county, Yunnan, was killed on Saturday night by a shell while working at a Kokang school, China Central Television reported Sunday.

Many schools in Kokang have invited Chinese teachers like Guo to teach their students, according to the anonymous teacher.

Many people living along the China-Myanmar border are linked by kinship and many on the Myanmese side speak Chinese, news portal ifeng.com reported.

"The Myanmar government's Burmese language education in northern Myanmar is weak, and the children there want to learn Chinese, so Chinese teachers go to Myanmar while Myanmese children also come to China for education," He Lin, a professor at Yunnan University, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

According to the government of the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Prefecture, which is adjacent to Lincang, there were 4,630 foreign students studying in the prefecture in 2014, most of who came from Myanmar. 

These students enjoy the same welfare policies that apply to locals, including fee-free education and financial subsidies, the Yunnan-based Chuncheng Night Daily newspaper reported.

"Children just cross the bridge over the small border river to go to school in China every day," a Dehong resident told the Global Times.

Time to learn

In early 2015, about 60,000 Kokang residents facing local violence fled to Lincang, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

"There are around 2,000 children, who left school in Myanmar because of the conflict, in the 20 or 30 Kokang camps around Lincang, and fresh clashes that started on March 6 could bring 5,000 more children across the border," the anonymous teacher said.

Since September 2015, Chinese volunteers have begun to organize educational facilities for the children, which they call the Guohua Primary School.

The schools are located near the camps for the displaced Kokang residents in Lincang's Gengma and Zhenkang counties. Some have 40 or 50 students, and some up to 200, according to Zhang Guo, who is also a member of the Huaxia Huzhu Society, a Lincang volunteer group.

The classes are held in temporary bamboo shelters. "We build the schools in unfrequented mountains near the camps so that Myanmese armed troops do not interrupt us," Zhang said.

The schools' 14 teachers cover subjects including Chinese, math, moral lessons, art and natural sciences. They use the same textbooks as those used in China's State-sanctioned primary schools, according to Zhang.

"Thanks to the support of kind people, we can offer textbooks, schoolbags and even shoes, and we do not charge them," Zhang stressed.

Zhang pointed out that most Kokang residents are poorly educated, with many leaving school and marrying in their teens.

"Therefore, being in the camps for one or two years might be their most important period of education," Zhang said, adding that "There are three brothers aged 9, 12 and 15 joining the same class in grade one, because they had never been to school."

Easing nerves

"We have built 10 schools, but three of them have been knocked down by the wind or local authorities," Zhang said.

Guohua No.1 Primary School at the Jianshan village camp was demolished by 10 unidentified people on December 1, 2016.

The county government closed the school as school organizers have not achieved permission from them, so the school is technically illegal, an anonymous official from the Gengma education department told the Global Times.

"Sympathy cannot replace the law and regulations," the official said, adding that Chinese involvement with the children could cause trouble between the two countries.

But things are changing.

"Recently the Gengma government is studying the situation. We are counting the number of children in the camps who dropped out of school. They can probably enter official schools if the education department enlarges the schools," the anonymous volunteer teacher said.

The government could provide some Burmese language courses to children from Myanmar so that they can join mainstream Myanmese society upon their return, which may ease the Myanmese government's nerves, He Lin said.

Newspaper headline: Camp classes


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